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12.23.2009  
 

Washington Wine Industry Sets Priorities

Grapegrowers and family wineries ask legislature to consider their agenda

 
by Peter Mitham
 
 
Capitol Building
 
Washington Capitol Building.

Cashmere, Wash.—Groups representing the Washington state wine industry are asking lawmakers to take steps in 2010 that support rather than hinder the economic viability of the state’s wineries and grapegrowers.

Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers was one of almost 40 agriculture and food organizations that gathered in Ellensburg on Dec. 16 to establish a statement of common interests in advance of the state’s 2010 legislature session, which begins in January.

The seven-point platform recognizes that legislators will have plenty on their plates this winter, including some tough budget decisions, and agriculture groups want to ensure they’re part of the solution to the budget difficulties.

“Agriculture needs to position itself as an economic driver and part of the reason that this state will enjoy economic recovery,” WAWGG executive director Vicky Scharlau told Wines & Vines. “Washington state is in—I suppose you could call it a fiscal crisis—so the issues that we wanted to raise we’re going to hold off on until 2011.”

That’s not to say issues of importance to grapegrowers won’t be on the agenda this session. The statement of priorities issuing from the Ellensburg meeting highlights the need to:

  • Promote agriculture’s role in the economic recovery by not increasing taxes, fees, or regulations, which would hinder the ability of Washington’s farmers and ranchers to remain sustainable;
  • Ensure an adequate supply of water for agriculture by eliminating impediments to efficient water usage; continuing to develop new supplies and removing legal uncertainties related to current and future water use;
  • End excessive state regulations that result in higher labor costs, reform the workers’ comp system to make it more effective, and enhance programs for seasonal and full-time workers in order to promote a legal and stable workforce;
  • Foster sound environmental outcomes by recognizing the benefits derived from retaining agricultural operations on the landscape and encouraging producers voluntarily to employ additional stewardship measures;
  • Ensure that the transportation system provides an efficient farm-to-market product distribution network;
  • Require state agencies to complete an Agricultural Impact Statement in advance of any action, so that impacts to farmland are properly identified, and avoided or minimized;
  • Promote and support agricultural research, extension, and commodity specific programs funded through the state universities and Department of Agriculture.

Water rights, research and extension budgets as well as the perennial hot topics of taxes and regulations are all of interest to grapegrowers and wineries. Scharlau said the relative health of agriculture, which accounts for 13% of Washington’s economic activity, makes it an important sector for legislators to respect as an important contributor of tax revenues. Reducing its competitiveness could potentially make agriculture—and the wine industry in particular—less valuable to state coffers.

“We can help with the recovery,” Scharlau said. “(Be) sensitive to what we bring to the table.”

Creating a better environment through better legislation will be a focus of the Family Wineries of Washington State, which has three goals for the upcoming legislative session.

“There’s three things we want to do, the biggest thing being the Craft Winery Development Act,” said Paul Beveridge, association president, in a recent interview. The act, as envisioned, would establish a framework under which small wineries could operate, distinct from the rules governing larger wineries and distributors. A potential threshold could be an annual production of 10,000 cases.

“We would exempt tiny wineries from all the economic regulations and allow them to operate in the free market. All the public safety requirements would still apply,” Beveridge said. The operating rules would be voluntary, so that wineries could choose which rules fit them best. A winery would not be treated as a craft winery simply because it produces less than the threshold that distinguishes small producers from large. A 30-day credit rule would also apply, limiting the potential for unfettered credit.

Beveridge said the FWWS is also seeking two smaller bills, including a “paperwork reduction act” that Beveridge expects will pass, as well as a “payment parity act” that will allow small wineries to accept checks (a corollary to the success distributors enjoyed in the 2009 session with permission for electronic fund transfers).

FWWS is also pursuing its hopes for refillable “growlers.” Wineries may legally refill these containers, but retailers require special legislation to replenish them. The association is working with the liquor board to secure permissions for the practice before moving forward with legislation, which Beveridge hopes could come forward in 2011.

Editor's Note: Although Wines & Vines will be on holiday starting Dec. 24, we have prepared some treats for our readers to enjoy during the break, so please do check in for a few tasty updates. We'll check back into the office on Jan. 4.
 

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