Calling it a "huge economic advantage," Southern Oregon winemakers will bottle their 2007 vintage under rules passed Friday by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission allowing them a much broader hand in blending varietal wines.

Calling it a "huge economic advantage," Southern Oregon winemakers will bottle their 2007 vintage under rules passed Friday by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission allowing them a much broader hand in blending varietal wines.

A 30-year-old rule, now tossed out, attempted to keep up the state's reputation for purity by restricting the mixing of more than 10 percent of wines other than what's on the label. Neighboring Washington and California, however, were free to follow the more lax federal rule of 25 percent, thus competing against Oregon with more rich and complex flavors, according to Southern Oregon winemakers.

"I feel absolutely fabulous about (the OLCC decision). It's one of the most significant improvements in Oregon's wine industry in three or four decades — especially for Southern Oregon," said John Weisinger, who for two and a half years spearheaded the change as chairman of the Labeling Review Committee of the Oregon Winegrowers Association.

Until now, mixing 25 percent of other grapes was allowed in Oregon only for seven Bordeaux varietals — cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, semillon and sauvignon blanc.

The new rule permits wineries to add up to 25 percent other grapes to syrah, tempranillo, zinfandel and eight less common varieties — petite syrah, carmenere, grenache, marsanne, mourvedre, roussanne, sangiovese and tannat.

"We lobbied very hard for these changes, which allow the flexibility to innovate and flourish and to make exactly what we want to make by blending," said Michael Donovan, president of the Southern Oregon Winemakers Association. "We'll be able to make much better wine and absolutely compete better against Washington, California and the rest of the world."

The loosening of rules was opposed by about half a dozen winemakers in the Willamette Valley, who felt it would "tarnish the image" of their well-respected pinot noir. Donovan said Southern Oregon wineries successfully argued the changes wouldn't affect the older, more established upstate wineries.

Many Willamette Valley winemakers didn't understand how important the rule change was to Southern and Eastern Oregon, where the warm-weather varietals — cabernet, syrah and tempranillo — are grown, said Weisinger.

"They didn't understand the impact of what we were asking for," Weisinger said. "One asked, 'We don't mind you guys blending but why don't you just call it by a generic name?' A Southern Oregon grower said, 'Imagine putting your pinot noir on the shelf with a generic name — how would you like that?'

"It was a learning process and we were determined to make the change."

The liberalized rule will allow regional wineries a free hand this year at making competitive blends with more complexity and balance — and increased or decreased tannins, said Mark Wisnovsky, president of Valley View Vineyard near Ruch, citing as an analogy an artist limited to five colors, then allowed three more colors.

"You get a more complex, interesting picture than if you're stuck with five colors," Wisnovsky said.

The restrictive rules were passed 30 years ago when Oregon had only 30 wineries (it has more than 400 now), all centered in the Willamette Valley — and none of them growing the warm-weather varietals, which are the mainstay of Southern Oregon winemaking, Weisinger said.

"The old rules were created to address the needs of the Willamette Valley," said Weisinger, "and when you're required to stick with the 90 percent rule, you can't make high quality wines and bring out their flavors. Now we can."

The rule change will be a boost to the 2007 season, which has been dampened down by recent rains but, said Donovan, should be successfully completed with sunny weather this week.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.