Wineries

Some claim that CT vineyards brought in unlabeled bottled wine from out of state and slapped a Connecticut label on it. (Staff illustration / July 2, 2013)

Connecticut wine makers are getting antsy, and the cause is a state investigation into their industry that's been dragging on and on without any resolution.

The trigger for this long-running probe was allegations that some state wineries have been faking it — using grapes from other states or countries to make stuff they were labeling as homegrown Connecticut wine.

There were even claims that some vineyards here were bringing in unlabeled bottled wine from out of state and simply slapping a Connecticut label on it and passing it off as their own locally grown product.

Several veteran state winery owners say the state Department of Consumer Protection needs to either take action against violators or clear the air of the rumors and allegations by announcing they found no wrongdoing. Summer and fall are prime time for people to visit this state's increasingly popular 34 wineries.

"It's frustrating," Hilary Hopkins Criollo says of the lack of results from the seemingly endless investigation. Her family owns Hopkins Vineyard in Warren, one of the oldest in the state.

"I think there's been enough time. It's been over a year now," Criollo says. "The only answer we get is they are still investigating and they can't comment."

The head of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association, Jamie Jones, is also wondering what's going on with the probe. Jones is one of the owners of Jones Family Winery in Shelton, and he takes pride in the fact that his winery produces most of the grapes used in its wines.

"They're obviously not being forthcoming," says Jones. He says the last time he asked state officials about the investigation, "They kind of winked and said they can't confirm or deny anything."

"I know the wheels turn slowly sometimes, and I know they're trying to do their due diligence," he adds. At the same time, Jones says, he and other winery owners would really like to see some resolution one way or another.

Even if the probe found nothing, says Jones, that should be announced: "It would be nice, so they could validate there were no violations... So that, if people were wondering, they would have some reassurance."

"It's not that the agency has dropped it," says department spokeswoman Claudette Carveth. "The investigation is not complete and we can't comment on it... That's the position at this point."

Connecticut's Department of Agriculture has the responsibility to promote the state's wine industry and has been doing everything it can to encourage more grape growing and more local wine production, officials there say. All of which means these agriculture dudes are also watching and waiting for the outcome of the investigation.

"We recognize that our sister agency has many responsibilities and we hope they can get to this as soon as they can," says George Krivda, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.

The Advocate broke the news of the current winery investigation last November. But this isn't the first time Connecticut wineries have been the target of these kinds of allegations.

Connecticut law originally set a standard that 51 percent of the fruit used in a Connecticut wine had to actually be grown in this state.

In 2003 and 2004, the then-owner of the Haight-Brown Vineyard in Litchfield (the state's oldest) was discovered by The New York Times to be using grape concentrate from Chile to produce 90-95 percent of his wines.

State officials investigated and reported that too many of the wineries back then were having trouble meeting that 51 percent-Connecticut-grapes threshold. So the legislature voted in 2004 to cut the requirement to just 25 percent Connecticut grown fruit for anything labeled as Connecticut wine.

State law also allows a new winery a generous seven years to reach that 25 percent Connecticut-grown mark.

But some winery owners were ticked off about a loophole in the law which allowed wineries that changed ownership (even if it was simply a pseudo-transfer from one family member to another) to restart that seven-year clock. This year's General Assembly responded by approving a bill to plug that gap, so that the seventh year after a winery was founded would be an absolute deadline for hitting the 25 percent of locally grown fruit for locally produced wine.

Using grapes from somewhere else to produce and bottle wine here isn't unusual or unique to Connecticut, explains Jones.

"That happens in every state, in every wine industry," he says. "There's always stuff like that going on. It's kind of the reality of the industry on a worldwide scale."

Jones says virtually all Connecticut vineyards use grapes from California or New York's Finger Lakes or some other big grape-producing region. "Our winery uses predominantly Connecticut fruit," he adds, "but we have a couple of wines made from California fruit" that are clearly labeled that way.

Connecticut's climate makes it a rugged place to produce wine grapes, and the wine produced here sometimes doesn't meet the tastes of wine drinkers who want big, full-bodied beverages.

The trouble is when a vineyard claims wine made from out-of-state fruit is from grapes grown here. "It's a problem when it's not being labeled for what it is," Jones says. It can be tempting for a Connecticut vineyard owner to say, "Oh, we made it here and the grapes grew here," according to Jones, because lots of the folks who visit our state wineries "don't want something that isn't grown here."

So Jones and the rest of Connecticut's wine makers continue to wait for some answers to the questions raised about their industry. Heading into this year's wine tourism season, it sounds like they're getting impatient.

As Criollo says, "It's been an awfully long time."

 

ghladky@hartfordadvocate.com

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