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The Great CT Wine Swindle?

Connecticut is a tough place to grow wine grapes, and state officials are now investigating allegations that a few of our wineries are cheating.

The suspicion is that some of Connecticut's 34 licensed wineries are skirting a state law that requires at least one-quarter of their wine be made using Connecticut-grown grapes. And that possibility has aroused considerable anger and frustration among other wine growers, who are worried a scandal could taint their efforts to create a real Connecticut wine culture.

A similar controversy in 2004 led to changes in state law that was supposed to make it far easier for wineries to meet their legal requirements. That year, the legislature dropped the required percentage of Connecticut grapes in Connecticut wine from 51 percent down to 25 percent.

But it appears that even that drastic lowering of the standard may not have been enough for at least a few wineries in this state.

Several long-time Connecticut wine experts say state Department of Consumer Protection inspectors have been visiting wineries to check on wine production records and grape percentages. According to one knowledgeable state source, there have been reports of California wine being relabeled as Connecticut-grown.

Although the agency refuses to comment on whether an investigation is underway, one knowledgeable state official privately confirms the probe is ongoing.

"I am aware of it," Jamie Jones, president of the Connecticut Vineyard and Winery Association and an owner of the Jones Family Winery in Shelton, says of the state investigation. Jones insists he doesn't know which or how many wineries are being targeted. "We have not been examined," he adds.

Hillary Hopkins Criollo, one of the owners of Hopkins Vineyard in Warren, has also heard about state inspectors reviewing winery records, but says her winery hasn't been visited either.

Jones says he doesn't believe there is anything wrong with wineries bringing in grapes from California or New York's Finger Lakes or even from Chile or other foreign growers to supplement their Connecticut grape production. In fact, most of this state's wineries do exactly that, to one degree or another.

"It's hard to grow grapes here," says Jones, whose family has been operating a winery since 2006. He says it's quite possible that some people jumped into the wine-growing business in Connecticut then found out how difficult it is to grow enough fruit to make their winery dreams a reality.

The next discovery for some, Jones says, may have been that "They found out it was a lot easier to make a few phone calls and get some grapes delivered."

That sort of shortcut really ticks off many other growers who try their damnedest to meet the state standards. "Laws are made, you expect laws to be followed," Jones says.

John Suchy, division director of the consumer protection agency's Liquor Control Commission, says he can't talk about any investigations. "We neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation right now," he says.

Suchy does say that such investigations of a winery's production can be triggered by either a complaint or something that turns up during a routine inspection. But audits of a winery's records are not done on a regular basis in Connecticut.

The last time a controversy like this cropped up was in 2003 and 2004. The owner of the Haight Winery in Litchfield (the state's oldest) was discovered to be using grape concentrate from Chile to make 90 to 95 percent of his wine.

After reports in the New York Times and both federal and state probes, state officials concluded that way too many Connecticut wineries were having trouble meeting the standard of having 51 percent of their wine come from Connecticut grapes.

So the General Assembly agreed in 2004 to ease that standard and require only 25 percent of a winery's wine be made using in-state fruit.

The whole thrust of Connecticut's farm-winery program and laws is to encourage people to plant grapes and open new vineyards and wineries. State officials like wineries. Lawmakers like wineries. All sorts of folks dream of opening up their own wineries. And the growing popularity of Connecticut's Wine Trail shows the public likes having wineries in this state.

The difficulty of growing grapes in Connecticut's unforgiving climate was recognized early on and state law gives growers seven years from the time they get their winery permit to reach that 25 percent mark.

Unfortunately, even that seemingly generous deadline may be a problem for some, and it's now become a trigger for controversy.

According to Suchy, if a change of ownership occurs, a winery's 25 percent-Connecticut-grapes clock is restarted and the new owners get another seven years to meet the standard.

That little loophole has royally pissed off some Connecticut wine industry veterans. Or, as Suchy delicately puts it, "This has been a subject of discussion within the farm-winery industry as to whether that should be looked at again."

Suchy says the only Connecticut winery that has changed hands in the past few years is Haight Vineyard, which was begun in 1975 and sold in 2007 to Amy Senew. She changed the name to Haight-Brown Vineyard. A new owner meant a new permit and another seven years to achieve that 25 percent mark.

Natasha Gouey-Guy, general manager at Haight-Brown, said in an interview last week that she didn't know exactly what percentage of the vineyard's wines are now being made using Connecticut grapes but would try to supply that information to the Advocate.

"Obviously it varies from year to year," she said, adding that she wasn't aware of any state investigation into the state's wine industry.

Hopkins Criollo says she'd like to see the standard of requiring Connecticut grapes to make up 51 percent of a winery's overall production reinstated.

Jones isn't sure that's the answer, but he acknowledges that increasing the standard would encourage more wineries to raise more grapes. He also thinks there should be some way of identifying and rewarding Connecticut wine makers that focus on locally-grown products.

"I would like those wineries that do use lots of Connecticut fruit to be recognized," says Jones.

One long-time Connecticut wine maker, who agreed to talk about the situation only if not identified, says a number of winery owners "are very frustrated" about growers who aren't playing by the rules.

This veteran of the industry is convinced most Connecticut wineries are working hard to meet the state's standards and produce good wine. "There are a few people who want to ride on everyone else's coattails," he says. "We don't want those few to ruin it for the rest."

 [Listen to Greg Hladky talk about this story with NPR.]

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