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A Wine Named Sue

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TIMES WINE WRITER

If you’re thinking about starting a winery, it would seem that the least worrisome thing would be picking the name for your product.

At least, that’s what Lou Preston thought. A jovial grape grower in the north end of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, Preston has always liked cute names on the wines of his Preston Vineyards and Winery. Some years ago, he made a blend of Petite Sirah and Syrah that he called Syrah Sirah.

Recently he made a delightful red wine blended from Rhone grapes. He called the wine Faux Castel--a take-off on the famous Rhone winery Beaucastel. The label was identical to all other Preston labels; there was no effort to redesign the label to look like the one used at Beaucastel.

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Still, the potential for conflict was obvious, especially since the Perrin family, owners of Beaucastel, own vineyard land in California--in the Paso Robles area of San Luis Obispo Country--and have planted vines, intending to make an American version of their Rhone wine.

Not being particularly litigious, Preston wrote the Perrins, seeking to resolve any conflict before it reached the legal stage.

Kevin Hamel, the winemaker at Preston, says the winery sent copies of the labels to the Perrins. “They’ve been friends of ours for a number of years, and we wanted to make sure they knew what our intentions were,” says Hamel.

“The Perrins admitted that it was very entertaining, but they said they preferred we not use the name again,” said Hamel. “We respectfully said, ‘OK, fair enough, we will change it.’ ” So with the current 1992 vintage of the wine, the only word on the label is Faux ; the Castel is gone.

Hamel says that in addition to false, faux means imaginary. The wine is neither. It is a superb blend of 23% Carignane, 23% Grenache, 16% Mourvedre, 37% Syrah and 1% Zinfandel. At $9 it’s a delightful wine, loaded with berry-ish fruit and just enough tannin to parry with rich foods.

This name game ended quietly. No legal salvos were fired. Other arguments have been settled far more bloodily.

* In one of the most egregious examples, the E & J Gallo Winery of Modesto, the world’s largest, sued the Italian trade group that represents Chianti growers--claiming the phrase “ gallo nero “ the Italians had used since 1922 infringed on a name the U. S. winery had made famous, even though the Gallo Nero had been in business 11 years longer than Gallo. After years of legal battles, the Italian group found legal costs excessive and capitulated. It agreed not to use its own language ( gallo nero means black rooster in Italian) on its labels. In a final bit of irony, Gallo continues to make a wine called Chianti.

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* But the Gallo Nero people shouldn’t take that dispute personally. The Gallo brothers, Ernest and his late brother Julio, sued their younger brother, Joseph, to prevent him from marketing cheese under the Gallo name. The older brothers prevailed. Today the name on Joe Gallo’s cheeses says it comes from Joseph Farms.

* In one of the most celebrated name-conflict cases, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, owned by Warren Winiarski, and Stags’ Leap Winery, owned by Carl Doumani (note the different placement of the apostrophes in the winery names), waged a costly legal battle, each claiming first use of the name. Eventually a settlement permitted both men the use of the name.

* Some years ago the small Napa Valley-based Quail Ridge, claiming first use, prevailed on Quail Run of Washington state to change its name. The name is now Covey Run.

* Lou Preston of Dry Creek’s Preston Vineyards and Winery and S. W. (Bill) Preston of Preston Wine Cellars started their wineries a month apart in 1976. Each claims first use of the Preston name and wants the other to change. The only result has been a lot of paperwork.

* Tiny Pommeraie Winery in Sonoma County had been in business a decade when suddenly it was sued by the giant Champagne house Pommery and Greno. The suit claimed consumers might confuse a tiny, two-person winery that makes only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon with a French Champagne maker. Pommeraie, unable to defend itself in court because of excessive legal bills and knowing it couldn’t market wine under a new name, closed its doors.

* Mitch Cosentino, owner of small Napa Valley producer Cosentino Winery, is known for creative names on his wines, such as “The Poet” and “The Novelist.” In 1988, he made a top-of-the-line red wine that he called Cos, after the first part of his last name. The Bordeaux wine property Chateau Cos d’Estournel sued, arguing that consumers often call their wine “Cos” for short. Cosentino eventually was forced to change the name of the wine to M. Cos.

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* The owners of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, the first growth chateau of Bordeaux, demanded that Barefoot Cellars of Sonoma County refrain from using the phrase “the Chateau La Feet of wine” on its label. Mike Houlihan, wondering how consumers could confuse an $80 Bordeaux with his $5 table wine, avoided litigation by agreeing to change the phrase to “The Chateau La Foot. . . .”

* Fetzer Vineyards of Mendocino County, like many other wineries, used the phrase “barrel select” on some of its upscale products. Unlike the others, Fetzer sought and obtained a U. S. trademark on the phrase. Then some genius in the firm that owns Fetzer--Brown Foreman of Louisville--sent out letters to other wineries that use the term, threatening legal action if they didn’t cease and desist (the way lawyers like to talk). One winery owner bristled and said she’d change the phrase to “barrels elect” and dared Fetzer to sue. But it never came to that. After a few months, cooler heads prevailed and Fetzer backed off its demands.

* When Fred Fisher of Sonoma County’s Fisher Vineyards decided to call his best wine “Coach Insignia,” he raised the eyebrows of Joseph Phelps, whose winery’s famed “Insignia” wine was the first great California proprietary red wine. Phelps, fearing a problem, called Fisher. The two men met and Phelps learned that Fisher intended to release only super-premium wine under the Coach Insignia name. No legal action ever was taken.

Obviously, some wines were just made to go with appellate torts.

Wine of the Week

1993 Christophe Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50)-- Complex herbal notes, melon-y fruit and a light but well-defined taste that doesn’t rely on oak for its flavor. Along with the great 1993 Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc, this excellent wine is one of the best value Sauvignon Blancs on the market. You’ll probably find it priced lower than $5.

The Christophe brand is owned by Grands Vins Jean Claude Boisset, the largest negociant in Burgundy. Project director Ginny Mills of Sonoma County recently switched over to Napa Valley wine for its varietal line. The wine was purchased from other top producers and blended to accent fruit. The price reflects the fact that the program has no winery, no tasting room, and doesn’t advertise. “Christophe’s entire public relations program is in each bottle,” said Mills.

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