Winegrape Lobbyists Go to D.C.
Idaho's Ron Bitner heads low-key Winegrape Growers of America
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, (wineamerica.org) 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."
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.