By Greg Hladky
1:36 PM EST, December 5, 2013
Connecticut’s increasingly popular wine industry appears to stand alone among U.S. wine-growing states, and not necessarily in a good way.
Our law allows as much as 75 percent of the grapes used in a “Connecticut” wine to come from outside this state — a threshold far beyond limits set by the federal government and some of the nation’s biggest wine-producing states.
There’s also a long-running state probe of allegations that some Connecticut-licensed wineries are ignoring even the low-ball 25-percent local-grape standard of our state law.
A few vineyard owners here believe our state needs to go back to the days when consumers drinking wine with a Connecticut label could be confident it was made mostly from grapes grown in Connecticut soil.
“I would like to see that,” says Hilary Hopkins Criollo, of Hopkins Vineyard in New Preston. She argues the failure to insure that “Connecticut” wine comes from Connecticut is hurting the industry’s attempt to grow here. Other winery owners disagree, calling the current state standard “adequate.”
Jamie Jones, president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association and an owner of Jones Family Winery in Shelton, is worried that cheating by some state vineyards could hurt the reputation of Connecticut’s other wineries. He says there are even rumors that a few unscrupulous vineyards are bringing in “shiners,” an industry term for wine grown and bottled somewhere else that’s simply been labeled as “Connecticut” wine.
“It’s always a concern,” he says. “You don’t want the industry to get a black eye.”
Officials at Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection won’t comment on the status of their winery investigation, which has been dragging on for more than a year. “The investigation is not complete and we can’t comment on it,” is the standard response from agency spokesperson Claudette Carveth.
Connecticut’s current grape-content requirement is at odds with the federal standard for wines being sold across state lines.
Under the federal rule, any Connecticut winemaker who wants to sell his or her wares in other states as “Connecticut” wine would need to certify that at least three-quarters of the grapes used came from local vineyards in Connecticut.
Tom Hogue, a spokesman for the federal agency responsible for proper wine labeling, says the fed’s requirement doesn’t apply if the wine isn’t being sold in interstate commerce, and doesn’t cross any state lines.
“If it’s not going outside of Connecticut, you do not need label approval from us,” says Hogue. He works for the wine unit of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, commonly known in the wine trade as the TTB.
“States may make stricter standards if they want to,” Hogue adds.
California — the nation’s biggest wine-growing state — demands that any wine with “California” on its label be made only with California grapes.
Jones says other states (including wine-biggies like New York, Oregon and Washington) have similarly stringent standards. A few (like Massachusetts) apparently don’t require their state wine-makers to meet any particular percentage of local grapes.
Connecticut is a rough place to grow wine grapes. In lots of areas, the soil isn’t right, and there isn’t all that much good agricultural land available anyway. Our winters are harsh and our growing seasons shorter than in milder climates like California, Oregon, Washington and even New York.
Wineries on Long Island’s North Shore, for instance, have the benefit of the moderating waters of both the Atlantic and Long Island Sound.
Despite the difficulties, ambitious (or wine-crazy) Connecticut oenophiles have opened up 34 wineries in this state. There are now two federally recognized “viticultural areas” or appellations: the “Western Connecticut Highlands,” which includes Litchfield, Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford Counties; and “Southeastern New England,” which covers portions of eastern and southeastern Connecticut as well as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
We have a “Connecticut Wine Trail” that’s grown increasingly popular with local residents and tourists alike. Most wineries in this state make their money by selling their products at their own tasting rooms.
That ability to sell directly to consumers is the big draw, says Jones. “When you have to go through a liquor store, you lose part of your margin.”
Connecticut originally had a requirement that at least 51 percent of a vineyard’s wine had to be made with Connecticut grapes.
That changed in 2004 after investigations revealed some wineries here were unable or unwilling to comply with the law.
It turned out that the oldest winery in the state (then called “Haight Vineyard” and now the Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield) was using wine “concentrate” from Chile to produce as much as 95 percent of its wine.
To make things easier, state lawmakers agreed to lower Connecticut’s standard so that a wine with just 25 percent locally grown grapes could still carry that Connecticut label. To make things even easier for winemaker wannabes, a new vineyard has seven years to comply with that 25-percent local grape requirement.
Setting the bar that low isn’t exactly what folks in the national wine industry expect.
“You're kidding!” was the comment from Gladys Horiuchi of the West Coast-based Wine Institute when she was told about Connecticut’s 25 percent state-grape rule.
Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Institute, says he wasn’t aware of any other state that set such an easy standard for a state-produced wine. “We only know of state laws and regulations that go higher [than the federal 75 percent threshold] rather than lower,” he adds.
The whole U.S. system of labeling wine can be rather baffling.
“I’m a winery owner and I get confused about it,” says Jones, “so you can imagine how confusing it can be for consumers.”
For example, lots of Connecticut-made wines have on their labels “estate bottled” or “estate grown.” Under federal rules, you can’t put that there unless 100 percent of the grapes used comes from vineyards owned or “controlled” by that winery.
If you’re using the name of a particular viticultural area (like Western Connecticut Highlands), those grapes had to have been grown within that particular area.
Lots of wineries in this state produce wines that they don’t label as “Connecticut” or “estate,” using more generic terms such as “American Table Wine” or “Premium American White Wine.” Others do mention on their labels that a wine was made from grapes from California or other locations.
Established Connecticut winemakers like Jones and Hopkins Criollo say most wineries like theirs already far exceed that old 51-percent-Connecticut-grape standard, often using 100 percent grapes grown on their own land.
Hopkins Criollo says her winery has only a single wine that isn’t primarily made from their own grapes, and that is clearly labeled as a non-Connecticut product.
She also acknowledges her call to return to at least the old 51 percent standard isn’t popular with many Connecticut winemakers. “Some of the new wineries, and there are a lot of them, use that 25 percent (locally grown grape threshold) as their business plan,” she says.
Jim Jerram, founder of Jerram Winery in New Hartford, isn’t one of the newcomers but he also doesn’t think increasing the state standard is a good idea. “I’m absolutely against going back to 51 percent,” Jerram says, explaining that meeting percentage of local grapes would be “a struggle” for many of Connecticut’s smaller wineries. “I think 25 percent is adequate,” he says.
But Hopkins Criollo believes Connecticut’s failure to require more locally grown wine is eventually going to hurt its reputation with wine consumers.
“I’ve given up worrying about what other [Connecticut winemakers] are doing,” says Jones. “I’m more concerned about what we’re doing, trying to raise the bar here at our winery.”
Jones continues to wonder why the state investigation is taking so long. He doesn’t think cheating by Connecticut winemakers “is an epidemic of a problem.”
The solution, Jones argues, is simple:
“We need to get more grapes grown here.”