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U.S. Supreme Court Will Not Hear Case About Napa Name Brands

Parts of Bronco v. Jolly are still being considered by a lower court

Daniel Sogg
Posted: March 21, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court will not at this time hear Bronco v. Jolly, the highly publicized case addressing the use of "Napa" in the brand names of wines made with little or no Napa grapes. Word of the ruling, which was released on Saturday, was more or less expected because a lower court has yet to adjudicate other aspects of the case.

The lawsuit, which started in 2000, pits Ceres, Calif.-based producer Bronco Wine Co. against California state authorities and the Napa Valley Vintners, a marketing organization with 263 wineries as members. Bronco owns more than two dozen brands, including Napa Ridge, Napa Creek and Rutherford Vintners, which are made primarily--if not exclusively--from grapes from California's vast Central Valley, where Bronco CEO Fred Franzia owns about 40,000 acres of vines.

Federal labeling regulations require that 75 percent of the grapes in a geographic brand name come from the referenced region. But a grandfather clause exempts brands begun prior to July 7, 1986.

In September 2000, California Governor Gray Davis signed a law ending the grandfather clause. Bronco brought suit challenging on four constitutional grounds: that a state law cannot preempt the federal grandfather clause, that the law violates the Commerce Clause, that it curtails First Amendment rights of free speech and that it violates due process by killing Bronco's brands without compensation.

Bronco won the first round in December 2002, when California's Third District Court of Appeals overturned the law on the grounds of federal preemption (but didn't rule on the other three issues). In August 2004, the Supreme Court of California reversed that decision and ruled against Bronco, which appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal observers familiar with the appellate process expected the U.S. Supreme Court to refuse the case--at least for now--while some of its issues are still under consideration by a lower court. The next step in the process will happen on April 20, when the Third District Court of Appeals in Sacramento addresses Bronco's three remaining constitutional challenges.

"I wouldn't say we're shocked [by today's ruling]," said Bronco attorney Peter Brody, of the Washington, D.C., firm Ropes & Gray. "It's pretty much a long shot to get the Supreme Court to hear a case under any circumstances, and with other aspects of the case still to be resolved, it's not a surprise."

Attorney Richard Mendelson, representing the Napa Valley Vintners, doesn't know when the case will finally be resolved. "Obviously we're pleased by the Supreme Court decision," he said. "It brings us another step closer to this bill ultimately taking effect. But we still have a long way to go."

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