Wineries Decry Rule-making Slowdown

Those awaiting AVA approval hope new year will clear way for decisions

by Peter Mitham
wine vineyard depreciation tax bill
U.S. president Donald Trump prepares to symbolically cut the government "red tape" Dec. 14 in Washington D.C. Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House

Dallas, Ore.—A moratorium on new rule-making isn’t uncommon when the White House welcomes a new resident. But nearly a year after Donald Trump took his seat in the Oval Office, rule-making remains limited as a result of one of the first executive orders the president signed.

On Jan. 30, 2017, Trump pledged to cut two regulations for every rule made. In mid-December, he was touting the fact he had successfully cut 22 regulations for every one implemented, stalling more than 1,500 rule-making procedures in the process.

Several proposals at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) have been caught, including 18 related to the establishment or amendment of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The oldest petition stuck in process was accepted as perfected in May 2015, more than 945 days ago.

The average approval time for AVAs established in the past five years is 316 days, or a third as long. The last AVA established prior to the rule-making, Appalachian High Country, sped through in just 177 days.

“We were hoping to get our AVA approved by the end of summer 2017, then we were hoping it would be anytime, soon, before the end of the year. It’s not going to be the case,” Florent Merlier, winemaker at Van Duzer Vineyards in Dallas, Ore., told Wines & Vines.

Merlier and petition author Jeff Havlin have been working for more than six years to establish the Van Duzer Corridor AVA, a pending subappellation of the Willamette Valley. Havlin’s petition required a rewrite but eventually passed muster in 2015, was accepted, but now sits awaiting the call for public comment.

“What is interesting is seeing the position of Mr. Trump, who is pro-business….(By) not willing to add new regulation, (he) is actually slowing down the wine industry right now,” Merlier said.

The limits on rule-making compound delays from an ongoing shortage of staff at the TTB.

AVA program manager Karen Thornton and her predecessor Nancy Sutton “have always been tremendously helpful, positive and doing the best they can with the staff they have and the limitations they have,” said soil scientist Alan Busacca of Vinitas Consultants LLC in Bingen Wash.

Busacca had a petition for a proposed Royal Slope AVA accepted in April and is writing another with hopes of submitting it by the end of the year.

“I don’t think it’s actually been a freeze on doing the work,” he said.

Kevin Pogue, a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, filed a petition for the proposed White Bluffs AVA in Franklin County, Wash., in November and, in January 2017, one for a Candy Mountain AVA in Benton County. Both are ready for public comment, once rule-making resumes.

“I detected no slowing of the process with regard to getting the petition ‘perfected’—being declared eligible for rule-making,” he told Wines & Vines.

Nevertheless, Busacca expects his petition for the Royal Slope to be at least another year in process, even if rule-making began in earnest today.

And that’s frustrating, not only for him, but the wine industry as a whole.

“The idea that there’s just been a year when all this work that supposedly needed to get done has been stalled is just absurd,” he said. “If you imagine that doing something like creating American viticultural areas is something that benefits small business and large business—it helps job growth, it helps keep our wine industry strong—then you’d say that just having a stall on moving that forward for a year or more is counter to all of the lip service that we get about making America great again.”

Tom Danowski, president and CEO of the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Winegrowers Association, agreed, saying much more than AVA petitions are at stake.

“Delays are as frustrating for the wineries as they are for the overworked administrators at the TTB,” he said. “It affects rule-making on a number of key issues as well as label approvals and AVA petitions.”

However, the chances are good for a breakthrough in the new year; the Petaluma Gap AVA was approved and becomes official Jan. 8, 2018, the first AVA established since Appalachian High Country in October 2016.

The approval came as a surprise for Merlier, as petitions are usually processed in the order accepted, and Petaluma Gap leapfrogged over seven other petitions to gain approval.

However, after wineries and vineyards in the Van Duzer Corridor came together to urge lawmakers to let rule-making proceed in their case, Merlier is hopeful. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon advocated on their behalf, and sources at the TTB have sent word that change is in the offing.

“Supposedly things should start moving in the next 30 days, or at least that’s what we get from an inside tip,” Merlier said. “We hope that things are going to finally move forward, and then the wine industry is also going to be able to move forward.”

Tom Hogue, congressional and media affairs liaison with the TTB, confirmed the progress but he couldn’t give a timeline for when individual petitions would receive approval.

“We’ve seen rule-making on AVAs going forward, and based on that I have every hope of more AVA rule-making,” he told Wines & Vines. “We want to get them there.”


Posted on 12.22.2017 - 10:06:26 PST
In the interest of fair play, it is true that our petition has been held up during the Trump administration for 11 months but the Obama administration sat on it for 18 months. Jeff Havlin