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Oregon wineries left waiting as disaster relief bill stalls in Congress

Wineries hit hard by wildfires and winter storms are promised $3 million from a $19 billion disaster relief bill — a bill that most people expected would be passed and signed into law on Friday.

Posted: May 24, 2019 3:15 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. — It has been a rough year for Oregon's oft-prosperous wineries. First came the 2018 wildfire season and allegations of elusive "smoke taint" that left the Rogue Valley's vineyards in the lurch. Then, over the winter, a succession of storms that hit western Oregon hardest.

Now months of waiting and advocating have culminated in delayed gratification, at best.

Credit: Pam Danielle

Credit: Jen Young

Thanks in large part to Senators Wyden and Merkley, a bipartisan $19 billion disaster relief package that has been taking shape in Congress also includes some $3 million for Oregon wineries economically impacted over the last year. The package addresses areas all across the U.S. that were economically ruined by a year of devastating fires, floods, and storms.

“Oregon’s farmers and growers feel the brunt of the catastrophic wildfires and severe storms that hit our state. I’m glad that our winegrowers and hazelnut producers will get the relief they need and that wildfire prevention funds will be replenished to help stop such destruction in the first place,” said Senator Wyden.

Most of that $3 million is earmarked for the Rogue Valley. Last year, a California winemaker canceled his contract for some 2,000 tons worth of grapes just days before harvest, citing "smoke taint" from Southern Oregon's wildfires. Those grapes were worth an estimated $4 million.

On Friday, Oregon's Senators and winemakers alike expected that the disaster relief bill, which easily passed the Senate on Thursday, would also pass the House of Representatives on Friday. However, a Texas lawmaker stopped the bill over misgivings that it fails to address migrants at the Mexican border.

"It is a bill that includes nothing to address the international emergency and humanitarian crisis we face at our southern border," said Representative Chip Roy, R-Texas.

President Trump has most recently said that he would sign the bill into law, despite initially arguing for similar border funding. Morever, the House is virtually guaranteed to pass the bill once the Democratic majority returns on June 3. However, many lawmakers are away from the Capitol for the Memorial Day holiday.

"This is a rotten thing to do. This is going to pass," said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Still, wineries are equally confident that the bill will come through eventually. According to Willamette Valley Vineyards, this will be the first time that Oregon winegrowers have ever received federal disaster aid funds.

“I’m happy for all the winegrowers that were literally left hanging last fall. Many of them didn’t have crop insurance or the opportunity to find their grapes a home due to the short cancellation notice by California wine producer Copper Cane," said Jim Bernau, Founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards. "We are going to work with them to make sure they get their applications in for full and partial losses.”

Beyond working with lawmakers to lobby for relief funds, wineries banded together last year to salvage what they could of the rejected grapes left on the vine. Willamette Valley Vineyards and King Estate both bought as many Rogue Valley grapes as possible, paying the rate promised by Copper Cane, and making a series of benefit wines — Oregon Solidarity.

“Both Senators Wyden and Merkley joined us in Solidarity by sending representatives to rescue what grapes we could in the Rogue Valley,” said Christine Clair, Winery Director at Willamette Valley Vineyards. “They learned firsthand about the hardships the growers faced with the contract cancellations relating to the Klondike Fire. We have continued to advocate for federal disaster aid and are thankful our Oregon congressional delegation was successful in securing this disaster aid.”

The Oregon Solidarity Rosé of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are already available in stores, with the Oregon Solidarity Pinot Noir set to be released August 1. The net proceeds from bottles sold are donated to the Rogue Valley Vintners left struggling in the wake of 2018 fires.

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