Twenty years ago, Orville Magoon, owner of Guenoc Winery, pushed for the creation of the Guenoc Valley American Viticultural Area, which is encompassed entirely by his estate. Today, he remains the only vintner or grower in the appellation, which spans California's Lake and Napa counties. So the irony was not lost on him when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ruled recently that some of Guenoc's wine labels confused consumers and violated federal labeling rules, due to the geographic reference in the brand name.
The federal agency was concerned about Guenoc wines that carry the broad California appellation, believing that consumers might think the brand's wines come solely from Guenoc Valley.
Guenoc, in response to the ATF ruling, is changing the language on its California appellation labels and has suspended operations for five days this week, according to Magoon. The suspension ends Jan. 4.
"I'm not unhappy that we have the [Guenoc] appellation, but I wish I understood the regulations better," Magoon said. "It is ironic in a way. Hindsight is always easy."
The issue brings to mind the recent controversy among Napa County vintners over brands that use the word "Napa" in their names but that don't use Napa grapes. However, in that case vintners argued that Napa's reputation was being harmed by producers not committed to the appellation, while in the Guenoc case, the sole estate affected owns all the land in the appellation, which does not have the broad consumer recognition that Napa does.
As an AVA name, Guenoc Valley is considered by the ATF to have geographic significance. By law, 85 percent of the grapes used in a wine must come from the appellation listed on the bottle.
The problem is that the ATF also considers the Guenoc brand to contain a geographic reference, and federal regulations require that 75 percent of the grapes in wines with geographic brand-names must come from the named region.
The agency's rule includes a grandfather clause for brands created before 1986. Magoon built his winery in 1980; his first California appellation wine came from that same vintage, and the Guenoc appellation was approved in 1981. Nonetheless, the ATF ruled that Guenoc's labels were not specific enough about the region from which the grapes came.
The ATF began looking into the issue several years ago. Agency spokesperson Marti McKee noted that appellation conflicts typically arise when wineries seek approval for new labels. The ATF investigation also turned up some minor advertising and tax record-keeping violations, she added.
"I thought we were grandfathered in and all that," Magoon said. "It's a fine point, but it is in the regulations. There is a set of rules, and I recognize that."
The label on the Guenoc 2000 California Sauvignon Blanc carries an example of the new language: "Made primarily from grapes grown in the Central and Coastal counties of California."
In the Napa name controversy, vintners convinced the California legislature in 2000 to pass a new law that countermanded the federal grandfather clause and prohibited the use of any brand name containing Napa or its subappellations unless 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine are grown in Napa County.
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