welcome calistoga

Friday, December 04, 2009

I’ve ragged on the TTB at length (see pp. 27-28 in “Washington Wines & Wineries: the Essential Guide”) but I’m happy to give credit where credit is due. Yesterday they got one right.

One of the most drawn out battles for federal AVA designation has finally been resolved, as the TTB has approved the Calistoga region as the Napa valley’s 15th sub-AVA. The dispute over the original application, filed over five years ago, ultimately led to the feds pulling the plug on all new AVA approvals for a time, which sideswiped and delayed (among others) our own Lake Chelan AVA.

There is little doubt that Calistoga deserves its own designation, as it’s one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the state. The problem, of course, was political and financial. Two businesses (Calistoga Cellars and Chateau Calistoga) had been established whose wines used the name Calistoga – without sourcing the fruit there. They wanted to retain the right to use the name – to be grandfathered in.

Their opposition held things up for everyone else. Under the TTB guidelines, a brand name that included Calistoga could be used on a label only if the wine in the bottle met the appellation of origin requirements for that viticultural area, or the brand name were used on COLAs (certificates of label approval) issued prior to July 7, 1986. Theirs did not.

Seeking a compromise, the TTB issued a statement indicating that the original petition “included sufficient evidence of the viticultural distinctiveness of the Calistoga area and that there was a substantial basis for the establishment of the Calistoga viticultural area.” The TTB also noted that “consistent with previous practice, we had considered alternative names as a means of resolving conflicts between existing labels and the ‘Calistoga’ viticultural area name. For example, the ‘Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley’ viticultural area and the ‘Diamond Mountain District’ viticultural area were established after resolving such conflicts, resulting in viticultural area names that were modifications of those originally proposed by the petitioners. The petition to establish the ‘Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley’ viticultural area originally proposed the name ‘Oak Knoll District’. The petition to establish the ‘Diamond Mountain District’ viticultural area originally proposed the name ‘Diamond Mountain’ for the viticultural area. In these and similar cases, TTB or its predecessor agency found that name evidence supported the use of the modified names, that the modified names were associated with the proposed viticultural area boundaries, and that their use reduced potential consumer confusion with long-standing existing labels. In the cases of Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley and Diamond Mountain District, the petitioners also agreed to the modifications of the viticultural area names.”

Nonetheless, after a lengthy period of public commentary, excerpted at length in the official TTB release –


– the proposed compromise didn’t fly. Many wineries and growers argued that any grandfathered exceptions to the new AVA would dilute the value of the Calistoga brand, and set a bad precedent. The TTB ultimately decided in their favor, saying:

“The fact remains that, when labels containing the ‘Calistoga Cellars’ brand name or the ‘Calistoga Estate’ brand name were approved, no specific determination had been made by TTB that the name ‘Calistoga’ was viticulturally significant. After carefully considering the evidence submitted in support of the petition and the comments received, TTB continues to believe that the evidence submitted supports the establishment of the Calistoga viticultural area, with the boundaries as the petition describes and as set forth in the proposed regulatory text. We find that there is sufficient evidence that the proposed viticultural area boundaries are associated with both a name and a set of geographical features (climate, soils, elevation, and physical features) that are common to the designated region and that distinguish it from other areas. In the present case, we conclude that it is preferable as a matter of consumer protection for ‘Calistoga’ to have only one meaning and association for viticultural area purposes. Accordingly, in this final rule we are not adopting a grandfather provision.”

Gregutt again: The TTB did grant the losing petitioners a three year transition period to use up old labels, design new ones, and get new label approvals. Fair enough. But the problems of two businesses should not (and ultimately did not) derail the much larger and more impactful effort to define meaningful sub-AVAs. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

The AVA system in the US is a far cry from anything that remotely resembles the European appellation systems, but it is better than nothing. It may seem unfair to the businesses that must comply with these new regs, but as a business owner myself, I can tell you that a lot of “unfair” things go on, generally outside of your control, that you must suck it up and deal with. The AVA system is what is important here, and in the world of global trade, with agreements that reach across continents and oceans regarding the protection of trademarked regional names, the greater good is to ensure that American AVAs really stand for something. No exceptions.

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