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Thursday, May. 21, 2009

Washington wineries want to go where nobody likes their name

Legislators from Washington state and across the country have asked a U.S. trade representative to work with the European Community to allow U.S. wines whose labels contain terms such as "chateau" and "clos" to again be sold within the European countries.

A 2006 agreement that allowed the sale of U.S. wines using "traditional terms" was terminated last September, and as of March those wines were no longer allowed into European Community markets for sale, according to a letter sent Wednesday to Ambassador Ronald Kirk from Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and several other members of Congress.

Wines that have registered trademarks or those using the particular terms continuously before May 2002 weren't included in the agreement, said Keith Love, vice president for communications & corporate affairs at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Those wines already in the European Community also could be sold, he added.

But it's possible that the exception for wines with trademarks -- such as Chateau Ste. Michelle's in Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden -- could be repealed later this year, he said.

Exports make up less than 10 percent of Ste. Michelle's sales, Love said, "but we have in place a robust plan to increase exports. The EC ruling will have a very negative impact on that plan if it cannot be reversed."

The state's wine community has been working with legislators since earlier this spring, according to Hastings' office, including a meeting between members of the Washington Wine Commission and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

"As a whole, exports are a relatively small but growing portion of our total production and distribution," said Ryan Pennington, senior communications manager for the commission. "There are small wineries who are actively and aggressively seeking export opportunities," along with larger companies such as Ste. Michelle.

In the short term, the commission would like to see the agreement put back in place, he said, adding that a permanent solution for the use of the terms would be ideal.

"We see it as more keeping open a pipeline for potential growth for those small wineries," Pennington said.

Many wineries across the country are affected by the European Community's action, said the letter to Kirk.

"If the European Community's recent action overturning decades-long acceptance of these terms is allowed to stand, these wineries will be required to withdraw brands that have been sold for many years in the European markets," the letter said. "The loss of these markets will financially harm local businesses in the communities we represent."