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Winegrape Lobbyists Go to D.C.

Idaho's Ron Bitner heads low-key Winegrape Growers of America

by Jane Firstenfeld
Wine Farm Workers
One of WGA's key issues is preserving the ability of growers across the country to engage skilled, legal farm labor.
Caldwell, Idaho -- In a wine world filled with acronyms, it's hard not to assume we're all conversant with, for instance, WAWGG, WI, TTB, V&E and COLA, to mention a few of the most familiar. So when a press release arrived announcing new board members for the WGA, I wondered, "Who is that?" Although this organization has been around since 1978, the Winegrape Growers of America is so low key that as of Friday, April 24, the website led to a placeholder, and official information about this national lobbying organization could be found only through the California Association of Winegrape Growers. The WGA website can now be accessed directly.

Since our audience consists of winegrape growers and winemakers across North America, Wines & Vines decided to find out what WGA has been up to for the last 31 years. Idaho grower and vintner Ron Bitner, elected chairman of the organization at its annual joint meeting with WineAmerica in Washington D.C. in late March, explained that WGA is a "broad-based coalition of growers across the country. We're a national lobbying group," like the 800-member WineAmerica, ( of which he's also a board member.

Karen Ross, executive director of CAWG, serves in the same capacity for WGA, Bitner explained. "Karen provides us with a 30-40 page packet of background information," prior to the annual meeting, where, with Wine America, they have a wine policy conference. During their stay in the District of Columbia, the members break up and visit their congressional delegations on Capitol Hill to discuss key issues. "Some would rather not see us," he admitted. "But most people are real receptive."

This year, the members spent half a day with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency. "We like to stay on top of the chemical issues," said Bitner, a PhD in entomology and IPM (integrated pest management) specialist. He noted, "What I've found is that all farmers are alike, around the country," and added that many are moving toward sustainable or organic practices.

Members also visited with Tom Vilsack, the new Secretary of Agriculture, and with John Manfreda, director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). With Manfreda, the growers pressed their concerns about natural flavors for table wines. The ready availability of inexpensive bulk wine, flowing into large corporate wines to be blended and labeled "American" is a concern for WGA members. WGA's position is that, to bear the "American" label, wines should contain no more than 15% imported grapes. Current TTB regulations allow up to 25%.

"We want the grapes to come from here," said Bitner, who owns just 16 acres of vinifera at his Bitner Vineyards in Idaho's Snake River AVA, and manages an additional 100-acre vineyard property. He noted that even with a relatively small production, he sometimes has surplus grapes that he'd like to sell to fellow American vintners, especially in states like Texas, with its perennial shortage of state-grown fruit. "Manfreda is reviewing the American appellation," Bitner reported. "We want to see truth in labeling."

Mary and Ron Bitner at Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell, which was named Idaho Winery of the Year in 2008.
Among other key issues this year were new federal regulations on ground water use and climate change. From his perch in Southern Idaho's rugged high mountain desert, with its steep vineyards, Bitner and his neighboring growers are especially concerned with the precarious shortage of migrant farm labor. "We're getting more recognition," for the region, he remarked, "But our limiting factor is labor. We depend almost entirely on a migratory work force, and these people need to be documented." This issue, he noted, "is a real political hot potato."

He credited former Idaho Senator Larry Craig (whose well-known misstep in a Minnesota airport restroom ended his legislative career last year) with having helped the state's industry find its foothold. Craig, he said, is now working as a lobbyist in Washington, and is still in touch with California's powerhouse Senator Dianne Feinstein and various agriculture groups.

Bitner said WGA membership is small (a staffer at CAWG estimated it at around two dozen active members); it's mostly an organization of organizations such as the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission, which has about 42 growers. The annual dues are $200. Although last year WGA was chaired by California grower Bruce Fry of Lodi, this year's board spans the continent. Vice chairman is Don Tones, who owns Clearview Farms in New York, and Brenton Roy from Yakima Valley in Washington state.
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