Though wineries in California's Santa Rita Hills have been benefiting from the Sideways phenomenon, one winery remained unhappy about the area's increased public exposure. Viña Santa Rita, a large Chilean producer, has objected to the name of the Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area since it was proposed in 1998, arguing that it infringes upon its label trademark and causes consumer confusion.
After seven years, the Santa Rita Hills wineries and Viña Santa Rita have reached a compromise, which the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved on Dec. 7. The Santa Rita Hills AVA will now be known by the Sta. Rita Hills abbreviation, effective Jan. 6, 2006.
There would seem to have been little chance of a mix-up in the first place. The Santa Rita Hills, located in northwestern Santa Barbara County, are the predominant geographical feature of the AVA named for them. The hills run through the middle of the appellation, which is made up largely of small wineries and is best known for producing Pinot Noir. Additionally, the AVA name appears on the bottle labels in smaller type than the name of the winery and the wine.
Viña Santa Rita, on the other hand, is a publicly traded Chilean winery that has produced and sold wines under the Viña Santa Rita label for 130 years. Its portfolio ranges from value-price varietals such as Carmenère, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc to the limited-production, high-end Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon.
But after the TTB posted a notice of proposed rulemaking to establish the Santa Rita Hills AVA in 1998, it received comments from Viña Santa Rita opposing the name. After final approval was granted in 2001, Viña Santa Rita filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury (of which the TTB is a part) in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Although the winery lost the case, it indicated that it would sue anyone who used the Santa Rita Hills name outside the United States.
Pioneering Santa Rita Hills winemaker Richard Sanford, who led the movement to establish the AVA, decided to take matters into his own hands when he and his wife, Thekla, were at the London Wine Trade Fair. "I marched over to the Viña Santa Rita booth and announced myself," Sanford recalled. "They were stunned. Here was the 'enemy' standing in front of them." Sanford, who is known for his interest in Eastern philosophies and his commitment to resolving conflicts peacefully, suggested the two parties talk about the problem and find a solution.
"A few months later," said Sanford, "I was on a plane to Santiago and met with the Viña Santa Rita owners and management. They were adamant about us not using their name. I came back and discussed their concerns with our group and, a month later, they came to visit us in Santa Barbara County. The ultimate solution was that we would use a common abbreviation for 'Santa,' which is 'Sta.' " The abbreviation has historical precedent in California and was used in the days of Mexican land grants.
An alliance of 11 Santa Rita Hills wineries signed and submitted a petition requesting the name change, saying that it was in everyone's best interest. "We ultimately went to the [TTB] together and explained that while we could ship legally anyplace in the U.S., we would probably be slapped with a lawsuit if we shipped internationally," Sanford said. "We asked if they felt that a name change would be appropriate and they said they thought it sounded reasonable."
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