Judge tosses Napa Valley vineyard trademark suit over 'To Kalon' name

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A federal judge in San Francisco on Thursday threw out a trademark suit brought an Oakville vintner against beverage giant Constellation Brands, the latest high-profile case in an long-running dispute over use of the famed To Kalon vineyard name.

U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers granted Constellation’s motion to dismiss the case but allowed plaintiff The Vineyard House the weekend to amend its complaint. Wine Industry Insight first reported the decision.

In an emailed statement for the Business Journal, a Constellation spokesperson wrote, “These allegations are without merit. Constellation Brands is committed to operating with the highest degree of ethics and integrity and in full accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have for more than 70 years.”

The Vineyard House did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

The Vineyard House founder Jeremy Nickel, the son of Far Niente Winery founder Gil Nickel, filed the suit in March, alleging Constellation engaged in unfair business practices and seeking cancellation of trademarks, among other complaints.

The dispute over who has the right to use the To Kalon name, one of Napa Valley’s most storied vineyards, goes back to the 19th century, to the founding of the To Kalon estate by Napa winemaking pioneer H.W. Crabb. The Historic American Landscapes Survey earlier this year added the vineyard to its registry, noting that variations on the name used over time have been To-Kalon, ToKalon and To Kalon.

"The To-Kalon Vineyard has played a pivotal role in the establishment of Napa Valley as a world renowned grape-growing region," that report said. It notes that Crabb's planting of cabernet sauvignon wine grapes in 1884 led to the first commercial production of that varietal wine in Napa Valley. Today, Napa Valley cab labels often command among the highest prices for U.S. wines.

The Vineyard House claims that because its vineyards are part of the original Crabb estate it has the right to use the To Kalon name while Constellation, which owns the nearby Robert Mondavi winery and several To Kalon trademarks, does not.

“Through this action, [The Vineyard House] seeks to prevent Constellation from continuing to deceptively use its TO KALON trademark in a manner that is confusing to consumers and deceives them into purchasing wine that may or may not originate from the original To Kalon estate,” the plaintiff’s lawyers wrote in the original complaint.

“Such marking is deceptive and geographically misdescriptive of the origin of the goods,” Nickel's lawyers added.

Constellation bought into the To Kalon legacy with the 2001 acquisition of Robert Mondavi Corporation, whose founder started his winery in that vineyard in 1966. His revival of the historic name in the late 1970s led to trademark disputes with prominent North Coast grower Andy Beckstoffer, whose holdings include other parts of the vineyard, according to the historic survey report.

Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio covers technology, banking, law, accounting, and the cannabis industry. Reach him at chase.d@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.

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