food for thought

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Visitors to wine country in many parts of the world are flooded with great options for food and wine. Some world class restaurants are run by wineries; testament to the fact that fine dining and fine wine belong together, enhance each other, and create a total package for anyone who enjoys culinary adventuring.

In other countries, folks would look aghast at any culture that put restrictions on the pairing and serving of food and wine. And yet, here in the U.S. our tangled liquor laws often do just that. A recent case in point: the efforts of Oregon’s King Estate to (gasp!) open a winery restaurant serving fresh, organic, locally grown and raised products.

A recent article in the Springfield (Oregon) Register-Guard put a spotlight on the whole tangled mess. To summarize: King Estate, the largest winery in Oregon, also a nursery for generating grape vines, and a producer of organic foods, opened a full-service restaurant five years ago. Pairing local products with their own excellent wines, they offered a special experience in a part of Oregon a bit off the beaten tourist track. Along the way, they supported local farmers and provided some local employment.

Enter the bureaucrats. More than two years ago, county officials demanded that King Estate and several other wineries hosting special events such as weddings, obtain a special permit. Of course, that turned out to be easier said than done.

King Estate’s owners, the article reports, spent “tens of thousands of dollars” and more than a year generating all the paperwork required for the permit. Who knows how much business was lost during the process. But in December it seemed as if the long road through bureaucratic hell had been successfully navigated. The permit was granted.

The hallelujahs were short-lived, however. Some do-gooder group called Goal One Coalition has appealed the decision. Their argument? State law, permit or no permit, allows wineries to operate only a “limited service restaurant” and King Estate has been running a full-service restaurant.

You might wonder what is the difference? The geniuses who crafted the law define a limited service restaurant as one serving “individually portioned prepackaged foods prepared from an approved source by a commercial processor and nonperishable beverages.” King Estate owner Ed King puts the whole can o’ worms in what I believe is the proper perspective.

As the Register-Guard reports, King believes that food and wine go together. It’s more pleasurable, more responsible, more of a tourist attraction, and simply good business. “Legally,” he is quoted as saying, “I guess we can serve a frozen burrito from Los Angeles, but if we want to serve a meal from local produce apparently that’s not OK.”

It’s tough enough to run any business profitably these days. And yes, certain regulations are necessary, especially in an agricultural area. But can anyone outside of the holier-than-thou troublemakers who are running the Goal One Coalition see a problem here?


Jeff G said...

Hi Paul. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like there's always some holier-then-thou group that's got to rain on everyone's parade. I don't live in Oregon so I'm not familiar with the laws, and i could be totally wrong here. But, doesn't seem like a double standard that it's completely ok for Breweries to have brew pubs (restaurants that server their own beer), but the minute a winery want's to get in on that action, suddenly it's a problem? Personally I wish there were more places like what King Estate is trying to do. Because clearly most restaurants (with a few exceptions) can't seem to serve anything by the glass except cheap mass produced plonk that they can charge you for a glass what you'd pay for a whole bottle. It's enough to make a wine drinker want to just stay home and eat. At least we know there's good wine at home.

Jeff V. said...

It is equally puzzling considering that Lane County (where this group is based) is known for their progressive environmental stance (see: Eugene, OR) and that King Estate is one of (if not the) largest company with a strong environmental code in their county. King Estate is 100% certified Organic, they are graduates of the Carbon Neutral Challenge (offered by the Oregon Environmental Council), and they are a very loyal employer locally, in a rural area.

Any word from this group, yet? There must be a deeper story here.

Todd said...

Here in Oregon we made a decision to protect farmland by taxing it at a lower rate than, e.g., residential or commercial property. There were some allowances made for what could be done on farmland to enable farmers to process and sell their production. For example you pretty much can build a winery and/or tasting room if you have a parcel with enough acreage in grapes (although some counties might make it more complicated than others).

This isn't just King Estate, this is a statewide issue and King Estate was a visible casualty of the ambiguity with which we've been wrestling for a while but has become even more of an issue with the growth of the wine industry and value-added activities.

When you start hosting weekly weddings and opening restaurants on this lightly taxed, rural land things understandably get complicated. Competing facilities in a town down the street are paying significantly higher property taxes on their land and fund the scalable infrastructure and utilities that support such activities. And traffic gets backed up on narrow roads that see only a few dozen cars per day in the off-season.

So now Oregonians are wrestling with how to achieve a middle ground (something with which this state always seems to have difficulty). While the benefits of offering dining or weddings surrounded by beautiful vineyards are obvious, we need to figure out a way to do this that is fair. Fair to competing businesses that aren't afforded property tax breaks. Fair to neighbors who thought they were buying land that was rural. And fair to the hundreds of wineries and vineyards in the state (honestly, we don't need three hundred wedding facilities! But... how do you limit it?)

Some counties seemed to be racing to the bottom and allowing almost any activity, while others were very restrictive in what they viewed as an allowable activity on farmland. This only complicated matters. To make things even messier, the pumpkin patches and berry farms are also in the mix.

Where do you draw the line? Hay rides, but no Ferris wheels? Logo wear but no lodging? Snacks, but no meals?

This problem probably would be better resolved in Salem through legislation rather than the courts, but it is so complicated that industry (and the public) have had a hard time reaching any consensus on what to do. We need to figure something out, and we will, eventually.

I'm of two minds on this one. I'd be interested in ideas on how we can balance the concerns of those who seek to preserve the rural flavor of Oregon's farmlands while also providing the businesses that are those farms - and their customers - what they want. I've had some great meals at wineries in Napa Valley and Tuscany. But I really don't want to see stop lights in the middle of rural Marion or Yamhill county.

Anonymous said...

I can understand a state law that prohibits a business that sells alcoholic beverages from also operating its own package store or restaurant. The reason being that that particular business could by policy only offer its own alcoholic beverages on the menu.

That said. If it is ok for wineries to sell wine from their own winery, I see no problem if they offer their own wines with food that they prepare on their own premises.

The particular law here in question, at least to me, should be revoked or amended. The only objection I would have for King Estates is if they opened a National Chain of restaurants the offered only their wines. Primarily they are a winery that is the point of their business. A winery is not a package/wine shop and is it not per se a restaurant although it can offer to sell its wines and also provide a food venu.

You go to Disneyworld for the amusement park not for the food and drinks!!

Anonymous said...

What is truly ironic is that Goal One states on their website "The Goal One Coalition mission is to engage Oregon citizens in the project of rising to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change."

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Todd, for the protracted explanation. I looked up the organization responsible for challenging King's new permit, Goal One Coalition and their agenda appears fairly innocuous. I appreciate your explanation of the problem.

PaulG said...

Thank you all for the thoughtful posts. I hope that King Estate will contact me with an update once this matter is resolved.

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