Mass-market producer Bronco Wine Co. has submitted a petition for appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in a final effort to overturn a California labeling law. If the law stands, Bronco could no longer use "Napa" in the brand names of wines made from few or no Napa grapes.
The High Court generally decides whether to hear a case within weeks of receiving a petition. Going by the numbers, Bronco faces grim odds: the justices hear about one percent of the 8,000 cases submitted for appeal each year.
The case addresses three brands owned by Bronco: Napa Ridge, Napa Creek and Rutherford Vintners, which have been made mostly with grapes from the California Central Valley, where Bronco CEO Fred Franzia owns about 40,000 acres of vineyards.
Under normal circumstances, federal regulations require that at least 75 percent of the grapes in a wine with a geographic brand name come from the referenced region. But a grandfather clause exempts brands, such as Bronco's, established prior to July 7, 1986.
In September 2000, California passed a law closing that loophole. Bronco challenged the law on four separate constitutional grounds: that a state law cannot preempt federal regulations; that the law curtails Bronco's First Amendment right to free speech; that it violates the Commerce Clause against unreasonable restrictions on interstate business; and that it also violates due process by taking Bronco's brand value without compensation.
Bronco won the first skirmish in what has been a five-year battle, when, in December 2002, California's Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento struck down the law on the grounds of federal preemption. The court did not rule on the other three challenges.
That was the Ceres, Calif.-based company's only victory to date. The Supreme Court of California reversed the decision with a unanimous, 7-0 decision in August 2004. It also remanded the three remaining constitutional challenges back to the Third District Court of Appeal.
Bronco petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the preemption issue in January 2005, but that request was denied without comment two months later. Then in May, the Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled against Bronco on all three remaining challenges. The Supreme Court of California subsequently denied a petition for appeal, leaving the highest court in the land as the only option left.
Attorneys for Bronco filed the request for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, called a petition for a writ of certiorari, on Nov. 22. Lawyers for the Napa Valley Vintners, a marketing organization representing 270 wineries, have until Dec. 23 to submit an opposition brief, to which Bronco will then respond. The Napa Valley Vintners support California's law, arguing that brands like Bronco's devalue the Napa Valley appellation.
Only two of the original four constitutional challenges are included in Bronco's 42-page petition: the federal preemption issue and the First Amendment challenge.
"Cert petitions are very short, and we had a lot of material to cover," explained Bronco's counsel of record, Peter Brody, of Washington, D.C.-based Ropes & Gray LLP. "Trying to do everything can dilute it. We felt [these two issues] were, to use the legal expression, the most cert-worthy."
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