San Francisco Chronicle – “Calistoga appellation gets the OK "

Dec 3, 2009
In The News

Washington, D.C., Dec 3, 2009 -

After holding their breath for six years, Napa Valley winemakers can now put the name "Calistoga" on wines made from grapes grown in that historic town, federal regulators have ruled.

The decision (read it here in PDF) ends a long slog through regulatory red tape, and completes a crucial piece of the valley's intricate system for labeling its wines — one that stands to make bottles from the area even more valuable.

"We're all fired up," said James "Bo" Barrett, proprietor of the Chateau Montelena winery, who began petitioning the Treasury Dept. in 2003. "I didn't realize it was going to be a federal project, but it turned out to be one."

The decision by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates U.S. wine and wine labels, will allow any wine made from grapes grown in the Calistoga appellation, surrounding the town in northern Napa County, to include the name on the label starting early next year. A state law backed by Napa vintners requires that the words "Napa Valley" also appear on labels.

"Today's a good day for us," said Terry Hall, spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade group that represents many of the valley's top wineries.

The vintners' group said that the approval came about in large part because of efforts by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, to press the bureau to take action.

The petition to add Calistoga to labels, officially launched in 2005, hit a major snag in November 2007, when the bureau announced it was considering changing the rules for the approval process for place names, or appellations.

Not surprisingly, some wineries name themselves after their locale. Even if they make wine from grapes grown elsewhere, that name can wind up on the bottle. The government had typically ruled that when an appellation was approved, wineries needed to stop using the place name or start using grapes from the area. That was the stance backed by most vintners, who believed that names should protect a sense of place.

The Calistoga fight wasn't the first time this concept had been tested. The Napa Valley Vintners waged a lengthy court battle against Bronco Wine Co., maker of Two-Buck Chuck, over the use of "Napa" on wines grown elsewhere. The group ultimately won when the U.S. Supreme Court refused in 2006 to hear the case. In both cases, the vintners argued that putting place names on grapes grown elsewhere was misleading to consumers.

But a winery named Calistoga Cellars protested that approach, arguing that it would scuttle its business. Regulators hinted that they might side with them — and stop giving appellations priorities over brand names. The scuffle all but halted the federal wine-naming process while the bureau reconsidered its rules.

The process got another delay when the Obama administration took office and put on hold all Bush-era regulatory decisions. After months of lobbying by Thompson, regulators turned their attention back to Calistoga. Because consumers often seek out bottles from precise subappellations like Stags Leap District or Howell Mountain, the decision could make Calistoga wines more valuable over time.

As for Calistoga Cellars and other wineries using the name, they have three years to start using grapes from within the area or to change their name.

Calistoga Cellars co-owner Robert Young had no comment on the 48-page ruling except to call it "disappointing." He said his attorneys would review it. But he said he didn't find the three-year phaseout to be sufficient: "It probably is not because you kill the brand."

Barrett said those using Calistoga grapes are eager to get the name on the label. A new label for Montelena's 2008 Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon "went to the art department today." It will go on bottles next spring.

He said he hopes that the owners of the affected wineries decide to buy local grapes and keep the name.

"This was never about getting those guys," Barrett said. "We welcome them to the fold. It's a big tent."