Finding ways to let the vino flow

At roundtable discussion with Sen. Maria Cantwell on hand, Clarkston vintners discuss how to remove regulatory barriers to selling their product

By:  Elaine Williams
Source: The Lewiston Tribune

Basalt Cellars had to sell its wine to an Idaho distributor so it could be purchased by Lindsay Creek Vineyards and served at a recent celebration of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley's designation as a federal American Viticultural Area.

The partners at Basalt Cellars in Clarkston would have preferred to stick a few cases in their vehicles for the short drive across the river to the Lewiston Orchards and pour the wine themselves.

But had they done so, Basalt Cellars partner Rick Wasem said they would have violated an Idaho rule surrounding how out-of-state wine is sold.

Wasem spoke Tuesday during a roundtable discussion about the AVA designation in Clarkston that included U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, wine entrepreneurs and economic development experts. The designation allows Basalt Cellars and other wineries in the AVA to promote the specific characteristics of grapes raised in the region.

The industry employs about 15 in the AVA, not counting winery owners. That number is expected to grow as more of the thousands of suitable acres in the new AVA shift to grape production.

Cantwell mostly listened during the conversation, which lasted more than an hour and ended with participants toasting with Basalt Cellars wine.

The senator pledged to do everything she could to remove regulatory barriers and make sure the infrastructure is in place to help the region's wine industry thrive.

Even though Idahoans and Washingtonians cooperated to obtain the designation, Wasem said rules that govern distribution remain a challenge and make it tough for wineries to get their products into the hands of willing buyers.

Any wine Basalt Cellars or any other out-of-state winery sells in Idaho has to go through a distributor, he said, and cannot be sold directly from the winery to end users like restaurants.

Part of why Wasem shared the issue with Cantwell is because he believes federal law doesn't agree with Idaho's rules. Idaho wineries can sell directly to customers in the state. Federal law generally requires states to have similar rules for in-state and out-of-state wineries.

"We need to get Idaho to comply," he said.

Washington makes it complicated for out-of-state wineries in a different way, said Coco Umiker, an owner of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston.

Washington businesses can buy directly from wineries with a special endorsement, which is free and not complicated to obtain, Umiker said.

But once they have it, those businesses have to record the dates of purchases, the amounts and the wineries the products came from, then submit the information monthly. That's onerous for small business owners, Umiker said.

"Their lives are crazier than mine," she said. "It's a deal breaker."

What would be helpful, Umiker said, is if the rules in all states were more similar so she wouldn't have to go through a different process each time Clearwater Canyon Cellars wants to sell in a new state.

Wasem agreed. Some of Basalt Cellars' customers are cruise boat passengers who are among a growing number of tourists who arrive through the Port of Clarkston.

They don't necessarily want to haul a case or even a bottle back on a plane and frequently ask if they can ship the wine home.

The answer varies, Wasem said. Some states allow wine to be shipped. Basalt Cellars uses Vinoshipper, a third-party business that serves many smaller wineries. But there are roughly 25 states where the winery can't be shipped.

"That's the biggest barrier to small wineries," Umiker said.