Colorado's fast-growing wine industry revels in the image of romantic Western Slope vineyards and tasting rooms perched on mesas. But a nasty dispute has many Colorado vintners treating one of the state's largest wineries like a jug of Ripple at a society soiree.

Rick Turley, owner of the Palisade-based Colorado Cellars, claims he's been cast out of wine-tasting festivals, snubbed in brochures and excluded from the board of Colorado's official wine-marketing board. For their part, Colorado's other winemakers say Turley has no loyalty to Colorado grapes and has committed the ultimate sin: trucking in tankers of white zinfandel from archrival California.

Now the tempest in a tasting room has wound up in federal court. Colorado Cellars filed suit earlier this year, charging that an excise tax levied on wines sold in the state is unconstitutional. Turley insists he has been systematically discriminated against by the marketing board that the tax supports. "I pay the largest taxes of any Colorado winery, yet I have no say in what they do," he says.

The tax of five cents per liter goes to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, a marketing group that promotes Colorado wines and funds agricultural research on grape-growing in the state. Colorado now supports fourteen wineries and harvests more than 400 tons of wine grapes every year, a tiny amount compared to California but a huge jump from the eleven tons of wine grapes harvested just ten years ago.

Turley says he has tried to get on the wine board for years but has been rejected by Governor Roy Romer for political reasons. "The wine board is made up of the governor's appointees," says Turley, who is a Republican. "The others on the board are primarily Democrats."

Much of the controversy stems from the 1993 Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade. The festival, held every September, is the biggest event of the year for the wine industry, bringing hundreds of people to Palisade for wine tastings and winery tours. Turley says the development board, which runs the festival, barred him from attending because he had taken out a liquor-manufacturing license instead of the standard "limited winery" license. That standard license requires Colorado wineries to use at least 50 percent Colorado grapes in their products. The board was angry that Turley was selling California white zinfandel under the Colorado Cellars label.

"We make white zinfandel with grapes from outside the state because those grapes won't grow in Colorado," says Turley. "Everything else we make is from Colorado grapes."

But Douglas Phillips, chairman of the wine development board and co-owner of Plum Creek Cellars, another Palisade winery, insists Turley has created his own problems. "We don't think the Colorado wine industry is encouraged by tanker-loads of white zinfandel coming in from California," Phillips says. "There's no other winery that does that besides Colorado Cellars. Some of this is sour grapes because Turley didn't get appointed to the board."

There are several Republicans serving on the board, and Phillips says Turley's political affiliation has nothing to do with his failure to win a seat. "Turley has written a lot of nasty letters to the governor," he says. "When you're in the business of positively promoting an industry, the last thing you want is a naysayer with almost nothing positive to say about the industry. It's tough to deal with somebody like that."

Colorado Cellars is back in the wine festival now, but hard feelings have lingered like a bitter cabernet. Turley says the dispute has hurt his business. While Colorado Cellars is growing by 5 percent a year, he says, "the wineries that have representation on the board are seeing 50 percent per year growth in sales."

Turley is a full-time winemaker and insists he needs to sell white zinfandel to make a living. "We sell 3,000 cases of white zinfandel a year," he says. "It's our number-one seller. To feed my family, I have to make money selling wine. If the consumer wants white zinfandel, we'll make it. We label it as made with grapes from outside Colorado. I'm sure Doug Phillips would love it if I couldn't sell white zinfandel. Phillips is a workers' compensation lawyer--he doesn't need to make a profit."

(Phillips says having a second income is what allows him to work in the wine industry. "At almost every winery in the state, the people who operate them have two jobs," he adds.)

In his lawsuit, Turley is challenging the excise tax as unconstitutional, claiming it violates his First Amendment rights by forcing him to "assemble" with Colorado's other wineries. The suit asks to have the tax overturned and demands unspecified damages.

"It's a matter of principle," says Turley's lawyer, John Williams. "Turley doesn't want to be compelled to help advertise the products of his competitors. If Colorado Cellars is successful, this will strike down the wine board in Colorado.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers