Robert Mondavi Winery Sits in the To Kalon Vineyard. Its Owner Says There's No Such Place

Is To Kalon a vineyard or a brand? Constellation is fighting neighbors who want to put it on the register of historic places

Robert Mondavi Winery Sits in the To Kalon Vineyard. Its Owner Says There's No Such Place
Graeme, left, and Alex MacDonald among their old Cabernet Sauvignon vines; their family has sold grapes to Robert Mondavi Winery for decades. (Paige Green)
Feb 13, 2020

In John Steinbeck's East of Eden, the narrator describes the land around California's Salinas Valley by noting that the first duty of 18th century Spanish explorers was to give everything they saw a name. "The names of places refer more to things which happened there, and these to me are the most fascinating of all names because each name suggests a story that has been forgotten," Steinbeck wrote.

The story of To Kalon begins in 1868, when Hamilton Walker Crabb, an Ohio native who had moved west in pursuit of gold, landed in Napa Valley and purchased 240 acres in Oakville. After farming a variety of crops, Crabb eventually turned his focus to wine grapes, and named his land Hermosa Vineyards. He bought two adjacent parcels, in 1879 and 1891. In 1886, Crabb renamed his winery and the vineyard To Kalon, Greek for "the place of highest beauty."

Today, To Kalon is perhaps the most famous vineyard in the United States, carrying with it a fabled chronicle of its legacy and ownership. Constellation Brands owns the lion's share of what is considered To Kalon land through its subsidiary, Robert Mondavi Winery. But it also owns trademarks established by Mondavi of "To Kalon," registered in 1988, and "To Kalon Vineyard," registered in 1994. Those trademarks have created a tangled web of problems that come down to one question: Is To Kalon a place or a brand?

The question is coming to a head as Constellation has begun more aggressively asserting its trademark rights. Last year, a nearby winery filed a lawsuit challenging Constellation's trademark. The case was dismissed. Constellation has also launched a new wine brand named To Kalon Vineyard Company.

And in a little-noticed move, last March the company filed a petition to have To Kalon Creek, which runs through the property, removed from the U.S Board on Geographic Names (BGN) list of registered places. Their reasoning? The creek name could threaten their To Kalon trademark.

The person most responsible for naming the creek is Graeme MacDonald. MacDonald grew up on his family's vineyard at the edge of the Robert Mondavi property. MacDonald's great-grandparents purchased the land in 1954. At the time it was planted to cherries but had once been part of To Kalon Vineyard. On the advice of Robert Mondavi, the family tore up the trees and planted vines. Following a handshake deal, they have sold grapes to Robert Mondavi Winery since its founding in 1966.

MacDonald now lives in a tiny cottage on the property. He and his brother Alex farm 15 acres of some of the oldest Cabernet vines in Napa Valley, keeping a small amount for their own 400-case brand, MacDonald.

Graeme has also become the resident To Kalon historian. In 2004 he started researching the land while attending the University of California at Davis. Fascinated by his findings, MacDonald continued his pursuit after graduation, studying the history that surrounds his house. In 2017, he successfully persuaded the BGN to officially name the creek near his home To Kalon Creek. He backed the naming with countless records, references, maps and photographs from the late 1800s that noted the creek's name.

In addition to petitioning to have To Kalon Creek removed from the BGN list, Constellation has also challenged MacDonald's efforts to have To Kalon Vineyard added to the National Register of Historic Places. A vote on that proposal was postponed because of the other legal battle, the lawsuit against Constellation by The Vineyard House, a winery owned by Jeremy Nickel, son of the late Far Niente proprietor Gil Nickel.

The Vineyard House's suit claimed that Robert Mondavi fraudulently obtained a trademark of To Kalon and has marketed it deceptively. A federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit, but Nickel filed for an injunction to prevent Constellation from selling its To Kalon Vineyard Company Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Highest Beauty 2016. The injunction request was denied last month. Constellation has filed a trademark infringement complaint against The Vineyard House after the winery released a wine with To Kalon on the label.

What's in a name?

"This debate should be about preservation, not exclusion," MacDonald told Wine Spectator. While winemaking is his day job, MacDonald has made history his passion. In March 2019, he completed a report on To Kalon for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), which was added to the Library of Congress.

Constellation has not always opposed his efforts. Less than five years ago, the company solicited MacDonald to present the history of To Kalon Vineyard during their bi-annual To Kalon Certification program and at other events for employees, journalists and industry professionals.

Learn more about Constellation's To Kalon Vineyard Company project. Senior Editor James Molesworth visited the vineyard and met with winemaker Andy Erickson to talk about what makes the vineyard special.

In 2016, when MacDonald approached Constellation about having the creek named, he says he was recognized, approved and celebrated by executives at both Constellation and Mondavi for his work. The company drafted a letter of support, and MacDonald continued his research.

He was abruptly interrupted in August 2019, when he discovered that while he was applying for naming another creek on the property, Constellation was concurrently working to overturn the naming of To Kalon Creek. "I felt like I was adding value to the To Kalon story, and then the rug got pulled out," said MacDonald.

Constellation vehemently declares that To Kalon is a brand, not a place, and believes that the actions caused by their neighbors (both MacDonald and Nickel) are weakening their prized brand and usage of To Kalon on various wine labels. From their perspective, the company and Robert Mondavi Winery have spent decades building the To Kalon brand.

"Constellation is committed to conducting all its business with the utmost integrity, including partner relations, as we have for over 70 years," Alex Wagner, senior director of communications for Constellation, told Wine Spectator.

However, MacDonald and many other locals fear that the story of this legendary vineyard may one day be forgotten or diminished because of these trademarks. As MacDonald prepared to defend his work, he recalled the words the late Margrit Mondavi inscribed to him in his copy of her memoir: "For Graeme—Please enjoy the story of my life and keep the To Kalon story alive."

The story of a place

The value of the name To Kalon has never been fixed. It has been valuable at times and nearly forgotten at others. During its heyday, under Crabb, the To Kalon property was approximately 500 acres. In the 100 years that followed, several would lay claim to the land to varying degrees. Those claims are not simple.

Crabb planted his first vineyards in 1868 and quickly became one of the most prominent grapegrowers in California. By 1880, Crabb was the third-largest producer of wine in Napa County.

Crabb sold off the 1891 parcel in 1893. After his death, the remaining estate was sold. E.W. Churchill took possession of that land through a public auction but died a few years after Crabb. Following Prohibition, pieces of land changed hands. It wasn't until San Francisco businessman Martin Stelling purchased 337 acres of To Kalon land in 1943 that the land was revived as a vineyard. Stelling pulled out old vines and planted new varieties. Stelling sold 90 acres of it to the owners of Beaulieu Vineyard, who dubbed it Beaulieu No. 4.

A year later, Stelling gained another 1,700 acres of land, including the 1891 parcel and a large property south of Oakville Grade, which became known as the "Stelling Extension." But he died in a car crash in 1950, and his widow sold off the property in pieces.

Robert Mondavi Winery
When Robert Mondavi founded his namesake winery, he located it next to To Kalon. The company would later trademark the name. (Courtesy Robert Mondavi Winery/Chris Leschinsky)

In 1962, Rosa Mondavi and her sons, Robert and Peter, bought 429 acres of To Kalon land and Stelling Extension land for their winery, Charles Krug. When Robert Mondavi struck out on his own, a contentious trial over compensation for Robert's years at Krug divided the family, and the prized land. When the case was settled in 1977, Robert added Krug's 429 acres to the existing 246 acres he had purchased separately for his winery.

Today, Robert Mondavi Winery owns approximately 328 acres that never belonged to Crabb, but were part of the Stelling extension. Even so, Mondavi always spoke of it as part of To Kalon. Tim Mondavi once explained it by citing how vineyard boundaries evolve in Bordeaux: When one château buys its neighbor, that property becomes part of the estate.

For a brief time, the acreage along the Napa River surrounding Opus One was also included on internal Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard maps, but was later removed. Today, eight owners claim a portion of the vineyard, according to its historic boundaries: Mondavi, Opus One, MacDonald/Horton, Detert, Andy Beckstoffer, U.C. Davis, Wilsey/Traina and the Napa Valley Grape Growers. (Jeremy Nickel's land once belonged to Crabb, but his property is non-contiguous and, according to MacDonald's research, there is no evidence that it was planted to wine grapes until 1980.)

But according to Constellation's claim, only Robert Mondavi Winery should have the right to use the To Kalon name.

A battle decades long

Nobody knows better about the trademark battle than Andy Beckstoffer. One of Napa's most successful vineyard owners, Beckstoffer purchased a portion of To Kalon Vineyard from his ex-employer, Beaulieu, in 1993. In 2000, he began selling the fruit as To Kalon to vintners, including Fred Schrader, who has since made some of the most prized and expensive Cabernets from Napa Valley using Beckstoffer's grapes. Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars in 2002 for putting To Kalon on its labels. (Further convoluting To Kalon's status, Constellation bought Schrader in 2017).

Beckstoffer countersued, arguing that Mondavi was misleading consumers by including grapes from vineyards that were not part of the original To Kalon Vineyard in wines with the name on their label—grapes from the Stelling extension. The parties eventually settled the case, granting Beckstoffer rights to use To Kalon on wines from his portion of the vineyards.

Beckstoffer has penned a letter of support—one of many—to the BGN to keep the To Kalon Creek name. In it, he cites that alluvial fans and creeks are important to help define specific areas within an appellation and that naming To Kalon Creek conveys historical and cultural value.

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Beckstoffer says that he hopes to procure funding for a program to create a register of historic vineyards in Napa Valley based on historic maps to prevent further vineyard trademarks. "This is bigger than the business," said Beckstoffer. "MacDonald has done the detailed research, and it's important that he prevails, and add strength to its name."

If To Kalon is a brand (protected by trademark laws), having a creek named To Kalon is a problem. Constellation asserts that there is no place called To Kalon. Yet history suggests otherwise.

In MacDonald's argument to the BGN board, he states that there are dozens if not hundreds of references to To Kalon as a place in historical records, including legal records following Crabb's death, listing To Kalon Vineyard under "real estate."

MacDonald further points to the Robert Mondavi Winery website, which references the To Kalon Vineyard multiple times, including the winery's location at 7801 St. Helena Highway at the edge of the To Kalon Vineyard. The website also has a quote that reads, "When Robert Mondavi chose the To Kalon Vineyard in west Oakville as the home for his new winery in 1966, he remarked that 'It was a vineyard with a distinguished history and a magical nature. Ideal soils, sunlight and rain—to my eye, the vineyard was a treasure.'"

Constellation has stated that under law, they have the legal right to call any wine made any place in the world To Kalon, regardless of whether it is sourced, either wholly or in part, from Mondavi's vineyards.

Can you trademark terroir?

In 2009, Calistoga became Napa Valley's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) after a six-year battle between two wineries and AVA petitioners. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) initially wanted the petitioners to change the name of the AVA so they didn't have to take away the names of two existing brands, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estates.

Andy Beckstoffer
Andy Beckstoffer helped oversee part of To Kalon for Beaulieu Vineyard, then bought it when he struck out on his own. (Photo by Colin Price)

Carol Kingery Ritter, who counsels clients on the formation of AVAs through the TTB as a managing partner for Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty law firm, says that when wine businesses name their brands based on a geographic feature, they run a risk that it could become part of an AVA name.

"The intersection of trademarks and AVAs is something we've debated a lot," she says, questioning how to separate the brand and trademark issues from the AVA issues. "The two agencies [TTB and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office] rarely coordinate, and work independently from each other," notes Ritter. That creates a potential for disputes and taking of brand rights, which have value. But she believes that the TTB shies away from taking a position on removing brand rights from a wine company.

Both wineries were ultimately blocked from using Calistoga as a brand name, and Calistoga's AVA status was awarded. Part of the reasoning behind the decision was that neither winery used grapes from the Calistoga area and there was a worry that the brands would dilute Calistoga's reputation and confuse customers.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, trademarks should not be approved if the name is used primarily as a geographically descriptive origin of the goods. A wine trademark is anything that classifies the maker of the wine, such as the winery name, or the label design.

To many, Constellation's claim that To Kalon can be sourced from anywhere weakens the trademark and drastically alters the significance of To Kalon. Carlo Mondavi, grandson of Robert and son of Tim, points to Inglenook as an example. It was one of the historic estates of Napa.

After its sale to Heublein in 1969, the corporation dramatically increased production, sourcing grapes from all over and turning Inglenook into jug wine. (Constellation acquired Inglenook in 1994 from Heublein. In 2011, Francis Ford Coppola acquired the brand, reuniting it with the estate, which he had bought in 2011. He has since repositioned it as a premium producer.) "It would be a shame if To Kalon suddenly was made from vineyards all over California," said Carlo.

Carlo Mondavi wrote a letter of support for keeping the To Kalon Creek name, and he says he has nothing to win in supporting this, but a lot to lose, because Constellation essentially owns his family name. "My initial reaction is that we have to protect our geographical areas," he said, citing the Burgundy model. "If I have a vineyard there, you can detail the village, for example, Chambolle-Musigny, and then further focus on the vineyard area." If the land changes hands with time it is always Musigny, or To Kalon in this case. "Nothing will ever change how special To Kalon is, but what makes it so special are the people that have been taking care of it."

Constellation claims that competitors such as Nickel and MacDonald are trying to benefit from the use of To Kalon, by siphoning off the goodwill Constellation has created in the brand. To MacDonald, this is comical, because Robert Mondavi Winery purchases nearly 75 percent of MacDonald's grapes each year to include in Mondavi's To Kalon Vineyard wines.

Late last year, MacDonald sat down with Constellation's legal team at Robert Mondavi Winery prior to a quarterly California Advisory Committee Meeting on Geographic Names (CACGN), where he hoped to make the case to preserve his research. MacDonald told Wine Spectator that during the meeting Constellation's team offered him the rights to apply To Kalon to his label in exchange for supporting the removal of the To Kalon Creek name at the upcoming CACGN meeting.

MacDonald says that, in a moment of clarity, his answer seemed very simple. "Our integrity is not for sale," he told the lawyers.

Future History?

In 1979, Tim Mondavi wrote to Napa wine historian William Heintz about the possibility of making To Kalon its own AVA. This was well before Oakville itself was established as its own AVA. They ended up abandoning the plan because they found out that Mondavi's land south of the Oakville Grade Road, the Stelling extension, had not been part of To Kalon pre-Prohibition. It had been part of Far Niente.

Today several residents argue that a To Kalon AVA could be the answer. "Constellation potentially has a lot to benefit from MacDonald's work, and promoting the site," said Carlo Mondavi. "If they could convert the trademark into an AVA for what the real To Kalon is."

History and the naming of To Kalon Creek add to the possibility. "When you're forming a petition for AVA status, step one is name recognition," said Ritter, citing that the first place people look is the USGS maps and the USGS list of geographic names. MacDonald's naming of the creek has since lead to its inclusion on the USGS geographic names list. "If we have a To Kalon Creek on the geographic names list, petitioners could use that as one piece of evidence in a body of name evidence support," said Ritter.

Graeme and Alex MacDonald
The MacDonald family has been on this land for generations. (Photo by Paige Green)

Whether To Kalon becomes a recognized appellation or remains a brand sets a precedent for American wine. "If To Kalon doesn't have integrity, it casts aspersions on the whole valley and how we present ourselves," said Beckstoffer, pointing out that Napa Valley made a significant shift at the beginning of the 2000s to focus on single-site expressions. "I'll say again what I said in 2004: To Kalon is a vineyard, not a marketing concept, and it's important that we establish it as a place."

Rulings on To Kalon's inclusion into the register of historic places and the potential overturning of the creek naming are expected this year.

For MacDonald, he wonders if armoring a famous place's name with trademarks set a dangerous precedent. MacDonald fears that To Kalon and other famous areas may be rendered inauthentic in the minds of consumers. "I grew up there and I feel obliged to defend the place," he said. "History is in our favor in telling this story."

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