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.”