Napa Valley Vintners Respond
Never let it be said that Napa Valley Vintners association is not staffed with smart, well intentioned highly competent folks. The comment below by NVV Terry Hall demonstrates this fact. Hall offered this comment in a previous post on this blog concerning the controversy surrounding the pending application for a "Calistoga" American Viticultural Area (AVA) and the impact this new appellation might have on Calistoga Cellars, a winery that, if NVV gets its way, would be forced to either change its name or business plan—two very expensive options for which they would not be compensated.
I wanted to post Terry Hall’s response out here, in the light of day, because the Association deserves an opportunity to respond to what was a strongly worded condemnation by me. My response to Terry’s well presented reply follows below.
Tom, ouch, Ann Coulter?? You apparently have strong feelings about
the topic of Calistoga Cellars, but the NVV’s premise is not to single
out one brand, but for there to be truthful wine labeling for consumers
and fair play for wineries to all play by the same rules. The notion of
grandfathering brands came to an end more than twenty years ago. And,
while you portray a big guy vs little guy or underdog scenario, this
logic is flawed. The Napa Valley Vintners is a trade association
representing more than 300 wineries in the Napa Valley, about 2/3rds of
which are as small, or smaller, than Calistoga Cellars. More than 90%
of all Napa Valley wineries are family-owned businesses. Additionally,
these rules proposed by the TTB are opposed by nearly every winery
trade association in the U.S., the California State Farm Bureau, the
California Dept of Food and Agriculture, wine retailers both on- and
off-premise from across the country, along with Congressman Mike
Thompson (D-St Helena), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San
Francisco), and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA).
Rules regarding truth in wine labeling in the U.S. go back to the
Federal Alcohol Act of 1937. Additionally, the wine industry has been
on notice since 1986 when new rules were established regarding
grandfathering of brands after the establishment of the AVA system. The
NVV believes that all brands, Calistoga Cellars included, must follow
the same guidelines for brand identity that have been outlined in the
TTB’s Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) for the past 12 years and which
were open to comment for three years prior to that. In the BAM, it
states that a brand is essentially on notice if a brand takes the name
of a place of geographic significance and if the geographic place
becomes an AVA that brand must then abide by the rules of the AVA. The
BAM defines “geographic significance” as being two or more reference to
the place as a significant grape growing region in wine reference
books. One cannot pick up a book on Napa Valley written over the past
150 years without a reference to Calistoga.
The TTB may be at fault for not ensuring that Calistoga Cellars was
fully aware of its guidelines, but Calistoga Cellars was also at fault
for either not doing its homework or taking a calculated risk they
should not have. The TTB Administrator John Manfreda was questioned
before the House Ways and Means Committee on Oversight on May 20 where
he came under fire for not following his bureau’s own guidelines when
approving Calistoga Cellars. Soon after the hearing, the TTB simply
“unplugged” the rulebook from the website as if it no longer existed.
Rules that everyone else in the industry had followed for 15 years
were, oops, no longer viewable. Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but I
offer that the stink you smell is coming from someplace else.
Furthermore, if the name Calistoga was insignificant to the
Calistoga Cellars folks, then why did they not call the brand by a
family or fanciful name? They obviously felt there was cache in the
name. Though you write, “Of all the common place names in the Napa
Valley appellation Calistoga has the least prestige,” I would offer
names like Chateau Montelena and Araujo among others as proof of names
synonymous for quality from Calistoga.
For clarification you should know that the TTB has the right to
revoke their name in just such a situation as this, and you should be
aware that the NVV has offered to help Calistoga Cellars negotiate a
phase-in period with the TTB so they could come under compliance.
Growers in the AVA have offered to satisfy grape supplies as well.
Everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the City, and so on, has
offered to help Calistoga Cellars comply with the AVA as it was
The fight for consumer truth in labeling is paramount as we take our
industry’s responsibilities seriously. America is poised to be the
largest wine consuming economy in the world, consumers deserve to know
where their wines are from in an honest and forthright way.
And though it is easy to toss out the number and say they have ten
years invested in the brand and now the NVV takes notice, that’s just a
broad oversimplification and you know better than that. One gets a
business name, a few years later the winery releases its first wine,
the AVA petition process was underway at the same time and was
petitioned in 2004, all of this was in tandem and Calistoga Cellars
knew it was coming all along, they had options, they gambled. This
isn’t exactly “ripping the name away from them.”
But for the record, the rulemaking is not Napa-centric, it threatens
the integrity of the American wine industry and its effects will be
far-reaching, not the least of which will be in international trade and
in ongoing wine place protection worldwide. The U.S. wine industry is
very young in comparison to our European counterparts, but we are
trying to do the right thing and respect place of origin. Does Pommerol
as a sub-appellation of Bordeaux seem silly? The whole process is
evolution, so the goal is to play fair and build upon our successes for
the sustainability and credibility of our industry. Are the existing
rules perfect, no, but we have been moving forward for more than twenty
years, avoiding grandfathering mis-descriptive brand names and giving
greater credibility to the American wine industry.
That was a great reply and I appreciate the fact that you took the time.
Can we expect every single brand in the NV that is associated with a place name to come under the same scrutiny by Napa Valley Vintners, whether they use the Rutherford, Oakville, Mt. Veeder, Atlas Peak, Stag’s Leap, Carneros, St. Helena or Howell Mountain place names? I hope so.
I’d also like to hear why the "District" solution, as applied in Stags Leap and Spring Mountain can’t be applied in this case.
And I must reiterate a couple things. Accusing Calistoga Cellars of "Purposefully" trying to deceive the public is as wrong as gets. Let me suggest that if the owners of Calistoga Cellars wanted to take advantage of a well known appellation for the sake of deceiving consumers into thinking their wines were more prestigeous than they might be, they could have chosen a better place name to do the trick. But to answer your question as to why the owners didn’t call their winery something more "fanciful" and instead opted to use the "Calistoga" name in their brand, well, maybe it was because their property was LOCATED IN Calistoga.
And of course, what about Howell Mountain Vineyards, which makes a chardonnay from southern Napa? What about Rutherford Hill’s Pope Valley Sangiovese? What about the Spring Mountain and Howell Mountain Cabs produced by Atlas Peak Winery. Is NVV prepared to condemn these wineries as they’ve condemned Calistoga Cellars for puposefully misleading the consumer? Are they prepared to do it the same public way? I hope so. Consistency is everything.
Finally, I remain unconvinced that Calistoga Cellars did anything wrong. They should not be punished for following the rules or for the TTB making what might have been the wrong decision, discretionary as it was. It strikes me that NVV is trying to punish CC too late in the process. If this issue was so important, where was NVV when CC was petitioning the TTB? And let’s not pretend that by stealing CC’s brand equity, there will be no harm done or that it won’t cost CC anything. Ask any winery that has been around for a decade what it would cost to change their name and turn their business plan around.
I’m hoping that NVV will show the same sagacity it has shown in so many other matters. I hoping it will withdraw its opposition to the grandfathering proposition, work with CC and other wineries to adopt a statement concerning place names, and move on to making sure the issue of sub appellations is properly addressed by the TTB.
Finally, I would like to officially retract the "Ann Coulter" remark. It was out of line. However, I reserve the right to keep it in my pocket for future use in case the Napa Valley Vintners are ever found to have feasted on small children or slayed puppy dogs for entertainment purposes.