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Oklahoma wineries work to overcome obstacles

Oklahoma wineries work to overcome obstacles

By: By RON JENKINS Associated Press Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Voters popped the cork for Oklahoma winemakers seven years ago with a law that allowed them to sell directly to liquor stores and restaurants. In time, the number of vineyards grew from four to 40 and vintages with names like “Route 66 White” appeared.
But the good times stopped when a federal judge invalidated that law and the Oklahoma Legislature did not step in to help.
Now Oklahoma winemakers wonder if they can survive.
“We’re back to where we were, where you have to get your product distributed by a wholesaler,” says Gary Butler, president of the Oklahoma Wine Makers Association.
Judge Stephen Friot invalidated the wine law in 2006 because it discriminated against out-of-state wineries, who are not allowed to sell directly to liquor stores or restaurants in Oklahoma. He delayed enforcement of the ruling until July of this year to give the Legislature time to fix it.
But during the 2007 legislative session, lawmakers, under intense lobbying from liquor wholesalers, declined to enact any of several proposals to retain Oklahoma winemakers’ markets or open up new ones. One idea was to permit wineries to ship to customers’ homes.
Oklahoma wineries, mostly mom-and-pop operations, have been trying to catch up with neighboring Arkansas, Missouri and Texas, which have long winemaking traditions. Before the court decision, winemaking appeared to have great potential in Oklahoma, even though it is a conservative state that did not repeal Prohibition until 1959.
The arguments of winery enthusiasts were strong: homegrown economic development, a boost for tourism, another important crop in an agriculture state.
Some winemakers even dreamed of a Napa Valley in middle America. Oklahoma has a long growing season, too, they reasoned.
“This is a good grape-growing state,” said Don Neal, who operates StapleRidge Winery at Stroud, between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, with his wife, Annetta, a former first-grade teacher.
California, where many Oklahomans fled during the Dust Bowl, is by far the biggest wine producing state, followed by Washington, Oregon and New York.
Although the momentum of the industry in Oklahoma may be slowing, there is new hope.
A group is circulating an initiative petition to get a statewide vote on allowing wine and full-strength beer to be sold in grocery stores.
Also, some lawmakers are talking about another try at passing legislation to help state winemakers, who may now number 50, Butler said.
Butler has been calling liquor stores to nudge them to get his wines from wholesalers.
“I’m still waiting for orders to come in. It’s not working yet,” he said.
Wine can still be marketed in Oklahoma at special events like state and county fairs; otherwise, wineries depend on purchases by visitors to their places of business.
While Butler was in Vinita tending to the grape farm, his wife, Marsha, was at the Oklahoma City State Fair hawking their Summerside brand wines, which include “Route 66 White.”
The mood was upbeat there as customers sipped samples costing $1 to $5 at four wine-tasting booths in a huge fair building.
A block away, manager Sarah Robertson promoted a special “Beat Texas” wine as a country singer wailed on the other side of the wine-tasting tent for Grape Ranch, a winery located near Okemah. Its logo has steer horns with grapes in the middle, but the horns point downward on the “Beat Texas” labels, a nod to the states’ intense college football rivalry.
Things turned sour when wine tasters at the fair asked vendors about shipping some bottles to their homes, instead of having to tote them through the midway.
Sorry, can’t do that, it’s against the law. Not available in liquor stores, either, they were told.
“That’s terrible,” said Harry Kragle, 88.
Kragle recently moved to Oklahoma from Corning, N.Y., and was surprised the state had so many wineries. “You don’t think of Oklahoma when you think of wine,” he said.
Neal, who has made connections with some wholesalers, remains optimistic about his business, but says new wineries “have virtually no way to enter the market.”
Butler agreed: “There are some very nice boutique wines out there that will never make it to the wholesale market.”
Another winemaker, Mike Greenfield, called the rule change unfair.
He and his brother dug into their savings and used 60 acres of the 80-acre family farm to establish the Greenfield Vineyard and Winery near Chandler. “We invested everything we had.”
State Sen. Harry Coates got a bill to help wineries out of the Senate this year, but it died in the House. “The problem is the powerful lobbying efforts of the big wholesalers,” Coates said. “They don’t want anybody selling anything unless it goes through them.”
A spokesman for the wholesalers said they did not intend to harm Oklahoma winemakers but needed to protect their markets.
Wineries have cultivated friends in the retail liquor industry over the years, but now the Oklahoma Retail Liquor Association is lining up to fight the petition to permit wine to be sold in grocery stores.
The obstacles have not dimmed everyone’s enthusiasm. At one wine table at the Oklahoma City fair, Frank Ruggs and his mother, Deborah Ruggs, lingered longer than most, trying sample after sample and discussing each wine at length with the server.
It was research. Ruggs is planning to open “Whirlwind Winery” at Fay. He is in the metal building business and says he spends money on his winery project until he runs out, works some more, then spends some more.
“It’s just something I’ve been always wanted to do. Hopefully, we can pull it off,” he said.
Published in The Messenger on 10.10.07

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