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Another War in Stags Leap

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by Monty Preiser

The StagAlmost as if they had seen our recent story explaining the differences, and touching upon the history, of the Stags Leap AVA, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Stags’ Leap Winery, the present day owners of the two above wineries are crossing swords once again. As you may recall, some years ago Stag’s Leap’s Warren Winiarski and Stags’ Leap’s Carl Doumani litigated over which one could use the Stags Leap name. The Court ultimately fashioned a poor compromise allowing both to do so with the confusing apostrophical distinction. Now, the wineries’ twenty-first century owners, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (Stag’s Leap) and Treasury Wine Estates (Stags’ Leap) are again battling over a name in an Oakland Federal District Court.

The name on the label of the wine in question, produced by Treasury and challenged by Ste. Michelle, is “The Stag,” and while cogent arguments exist on both sides as to whether, as Ste. Michelle claims, Treasury is improperly using the valued name rooted in the Stags Leap AVA , some matters cannot reasonably be disputed:

  1. The grapes are not for the most part grown in the Stags Leap AVA;
  2. The wines are made from a number of Treasury facilities (the only one in the Stags Leap AVA is Stags’ Leap); and
  3. The drawing of the stag on the label is a pen and ink image, just as are the other stags on the labels of the two wineries.

That said, what is Ste. Michelle contending (in the suit parent company Ste. Michelle is identified as “Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars LLC” – a good move should the case come before the jury because it reinforces the AVA brand at every step)? It alleges Treasury Wine Estates’ Americas are improperly exploiting the prestige of the Stags Leap District through its name and logo (note the clever move of making the defendant a humanless corporation – Ste. Michelle can choose what nomenclatures to assign since they instituted the suit).

Ste. Michelle goes on to complain that Treasury is misleading consumers by passing off “The Stag” as a true Stags Leap wine when, in reality, it is made with cheaper, low quality fruit which is grown elsewhere than the Napa Valley, much less in the iconic Stags Leap AVA. Ste. Michelle says this is devaluing the worth of the Stags Leap AVA (an allegation that is going to be hard to prove, I predict, even if every fact averred by Ste. Michelle is found to be accurate).

Specifically, Ste. Michelle points out that The Stag’s label says it is a Cabernet Sauvignon (meaning it contains at least 75% Cab grapes) from the North Coast. Interestingly, that alone does NOT preclude the grapes from being from Stags Leap. One could, if one wanted, use all Stags Leap grapes and call the wine North Coast because the North Coast AVA includes six counties – Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Solano, and Marin.

Granted, however, that it would be most unusual (almost unheard of, actually) from a marketing standpoint to find a winery giving up the coveted Napa name if it was using enough Napa grapes to qualify for the name, but it could be done. This reality allows us to confidently conclude that Ste. Michelle is accurate in its allegation that most of the fruit is from outside Stags Leap and Napa.

Query? What if “The Stag” has 50% Stags Leap fruit, and then some fruit from two or three other counties within the North Coast? Can one make a reasoned argument that Treasury would be misleading anyone then? I don’t know the answer, nor do I yet know the grapes’ places of origin, nor many other facts. Only after we learn them can we make an informed decision, just as a jury or judge will have to do.

If you want to follow the players in this interesting case of first impression, it may get a little tricky for a while. According to the Complaint, the first label the TTB (the country’s regulatory agency for wines) approved stated that “The Stag” was vinted and bottled by Stags’ Leap Winery. A later label had Stags’ Leap Winery as the vintner, yet listed the winemaker as Christophe Paubert, Stags’ Leap Winery’s manager and winemaker for a number of years. So who knows what actual names, after the Court sorts it all out, will end up in what is called the “Style” of the case (the style is simply the caption – like Smith vs. Jones)?

On a personal level, after litigating hundreds of lawsuits over the years in over a dozen states and in both Federal and State Courts, I can tell you that the allegations set out in the pleadings are rarely entirely accurate. They tend to be exaggerated by the claimant and given underwhelming, if any, credence by the defenders. It is unlikely that this case will be any different, so I would caution everyone, as alluded above, to refrain from forming a final opinion until all the facts are formally placed into evidence.

Column by Monty Preiser, publisher of Preiser Keys to Napa & Sonoma

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