California Firm Settles Suit Over 'Lambrusco'

Times Staff Writer

The Italians have a word for it-- it being a sweetish, frizzante red wine from Modena in the Po Valley: Lambrusco .

On the other hand, California wine maker Joseph S. Bianchi has his own way of referring to the sweetish, fizzy red wine that his Bianchi Vineyard produces in the Fresno County hamlet of Kerman: California-Style Lambrusco .

But effective Sept. 1, Bianchi's California-grown grapes will have to give way to European grapes to qualify for the Lambrusco label, Bianchi acknowledged Wednesday. That will result from settlement of a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by giant Villa Banfi U.S.A. That company imported and sold 11 million cases of Riunite brand Lambrusco last year and challenged the use of "Lambrusco" on the labels of tiny Bianchi Vineyard, which in a good year sells 330,000 cases of half a dozen wines, including "California-Style Lambrusco."

Lambrusco , Villa Banfi contended, refers only to wine made from Lambrusco varieties of grapes. Bianchi countered that so many Lambrusco varieties exist--he estimated 90, all grown in Europe--that the term has become generic for any sweet, fizzy--even frizzante --red wine.

That may be true in Kerman, Calif., Villa Banfi argued, but in Italy the term may be used only when wines meet legal requirements pertaining to such things as grape variety and vineyard location. Bianchi acknowledged that U.S. law, enforced by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, requires that varietal wines contain at least 75% of any grapes named on the label.

Nonetheless, had he "the money, the time and the volition," Bianchi said, he would have challenged that contention in court. But, considering legal costs, "I decided that discretion is the better part of valor."

Bianchi--who is president of a limited partnership that also owns a swap meet, a drive-in movie and a community newspaper--said his solution will be to import Lambrusco grapes or juice from Italy or Spain. "And we've got (California) grapes coming out our ears," he said with a sigh.

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