Can you trademark terroir? In the case of Napa's most famous vineyard, a federal court has ruled yes. U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers has ruled in favor of Constellation Brands in a suit filed by Jeremy Nickel, owner of The Vineyard House, dismissing his claim that he is entitled to use the To Kalon Vineyard name on his wines based on the location of his Oakville winery and vineyards.
Following a virtual trial, Gonzalez Rogers issued a ruling Jan. 26 that Nickel did not paint a clear picture of whether his land was once used by Hamilton Walker Crabb for grapegrowing and was considered part of the original To Kalon Vineyard. She found that evidence was weak that Nickel's land, once called "the Baldridge Property," had been planted with vines during Crabb's lifetime.
Reviewing probate records from just after Crabb's death, the judge wrote, "The evidence overwhelmingly confirms that [Crabb] did not [plant a vineyard on the Baldridge property], at least not with any commercial value."
Nickel's suit also claimed that Constellation's subsidiary, Robert Mondavi Corporation, fraudulently obtained To Kalon trademarks and that Constellation has marketed them deceptively. Again in favor of Constellation, Gonzalez Rogers granted the company a permanent injunction preventing The Vineyard House from using To Kalon.
While local historians have disputed whether Nickel's land was part of historic To Kalon, there are other parcels owned by small winery owners that are a part of the historic tract. The trademark keeps them from using the vineyard name without permission. Nickel's second claim might have impacted them.
Nickel's lawyers asserted that Mondavi lied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office when obtaining those trademarks, "To Kalon," registered in 1988, and "To Kalon Vineyard," registered in 1994. According to court documents, Mondavi claimed the To Kalon brand had been discontinued and that the name "has no present meaning or significance in the relevant trade or industry."
Once Mondavi had the trademark, he began advertising To Kalon in connection with Crabb's achievements and touting that his wine was made from Crabb's vineyard.
Gonzalez Rogers found that local vintners knew of To Kalon's reputation even before Mondavi bought it. But she found that his work marketing his wine made from the parcel is what built the land's reputation in the minds of consumers. "That [Robert Mondavi Winery], and now Constellation, use the term as both a brand and a reference to all of their alluvial fields in [Oakville] does not weaken the mark. Rather, it is the combined effect that has strengthened the mark," she added.
Alexandra Wagner, vice president of communications for Constellation, provided the following statement: "As we've maintained throughout this process, Constellation Brands has owned the exclusive rights to the To Kalon and To Kalon Vineyard trademarks for many years, and we continue to operate in accordance with the rules and regulations associated with those rights. We are pleased with the court's ruling to that effect and to have this matter resolved."
Nickel could not be reached for comment.
As Gonzalez Rogers wrote, "The roots of this action are embedded in the fundamental question of what ‘To Kalon’ represents or signifies now and for the last hundred and thirty years. Like much in nature, ‘To Kalon’ has transformed with time."
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