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Courtwatch: Is "The Stag" Devaluing the Prestige of the Stags Leap District?

by Kerana Todorov
August 30, 2016

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An iconic Napa Valley winery is locking horns with Treasury Wine Estates over the name and logo of a new brand the conglomerate launched recently.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars LLC alleges Treasury Wine Estates’ subsidiaries are exploiting the prestige of the Stags Leap District through its name and logo, according to the complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Northern California.

By naming the brand “The Stag,” Treasury Wine Estates Americas Co. is misleading consumers by passing off its new brand, “The Stag” “as the real thing,” devaluing the prestige of Stags Leap District, according to the lawsuit filed by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its owner, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., Washington State’s biggest producer.

Stag’s Leap shocked the wine world in 1976 when its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon bested France’s finest Bordeaux at a blind tasting in France, now known as the Judgment of Paris.

“The Stag”, the court filing alleges, is a “knock-off” wine made with “cheaper, lower-quality” fruit than grapes from the Napa Valley. The new cabernet sauvignon are made with grapes from the North Coast appellation, according to the complaint, which alleges a number of violations, including false designation of origin, unfair competition and false advertising.

“‘The Stag’ misleadingly co-opts the very heart of the Stags Leap name, its winemaker, and its imagery. It even shamelessly adopts the apocryphal legend of the area in an obvious attempt to create an impression in the minds of the consumers that they share a common source,” according to the plaintiffs.

“Rather, the product is a spurious knock-off sourced from cheaper, lower-quality grapes from a different appellation,” according to the court filing.

Treasury Wine Estates could have picked from “an infinite number of possible names and logos for this new product, and, indeed market and sell a variety of wines under different brand names,” according to the complaint. “This begs the question why, here, Defendants would use ‘The Stag’ name and a pen-and-ink drawing of a stag but for the connection with the Stags Leap and Napa appellations of their famous wineries.”

According to the lawsuit, Treasury Wine Estates is not only using the “The Stag” name. It is also using it for cabernet sauvignon, “the very same red wine grape varietal internationally renowned” from the Stags Leap District and Napa Valley appellation and the varietal associated with Stag’s Leap.

The defendants use of the “stag” name creates “a false and misleading connection” to the Stags Leap District, the Napa Valley appellation and to the plaintiffs’ Stag’s Leap trademarks and wine, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, the labels for the new brand allegedly “exacerbate the false and misleading connection” to the Stags Leap District and/or the Napa Valley appellations and, in turn, the defendants and their wines.

Treasury Wine Estates owns Stags’ Leap Winery, a 5-minute drive form Stag’s Leap Cellars, east of Yountville in the heart of the Napa Valley.

The first label the TTB approved in July stated the wine was from “Stags’ Leap Winery” and “’vinted and bottled by Stags’ Leap Winery’, according to the complaint.

Another label approved Aug. 11 removed Stags’ Leap Winery as the vintner. Instead it listed the winemaker as Christophe Paubert, Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker and manager for at least seven years, according to the filing.

After the plaintiffs complained to Treasury Wine Estates over its first label, the defendants produced a third label which still included language that tells the story of the leaping stag, a tale associated with the Stags Leap District, according to the complaint. The Napa Valley sub-appellation Is named after the stag that eluded hunters by leaping across the area’s peaks.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and its owner are asking for a jury trial. A case management conference is set for Nov. 29 in federal court in Oakland, Calif.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates want the court to order Treasury Wine Estates to recall all the “The Stag” wines, stop using the “Stag” name, reimburse customers who have purchased the bottles that are subject to the current litigation and pay for “corrective advertising,” according to the complaint. The plaintiffs also want the court to order Treasure Wine Estates to provide them a “full and complete accounting of all amounts” owed to them because of Treasury Wine Estates’ alleged illegal actions along with damages and attorneys’ fees, according to he lawsuit.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Stags’ Leap Winery, under different ownerships, have been involved in legal disputes over the years over trademark and trade name rights. Under a settlement reached in 1985, the owners of Stag’s Leap wine Cellars, then owned by famed vintner Warren Winiarski, and Stags’ Leap Winery agreed not to use the “Stag’s Leap” trademark.

Warren Winiarski sold Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to a joint venture of St. Michelle Wines Estates, the biggest wine producer in Washington State, and Marchese Piero Antinori in 2007, reportedly for $185 million.

Editor's Note, Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, was interviewed by Richard Mendelson during the North Bay Business Journal's Impact Napa on Aug. 5, 2016. See the video.

Editor's Note: 8/31/16 - After this piece posted, we received the following statement from Treasury Wine Estates:  

Treasury Wine Estates is “fully complying with state and federal laws in relation to the development, marketing and sale of this bread in the US” and hopes the “matter will be resolved.”
The Stag, and “imagery of this creature, has been associated with the historic St Huberts winemaker in Australia since 1862,” according to the statement from Australia. In June, the company introduced new wines in Australia under the “refreshed” brand: The Stag Chardonnay and The Stag Shiraz.

Wines produced in the United States under The Stag brand are from different wineries, according to the company, which is also being referred as “TWE.”

The Stag wine “has been produced across a number of TWE’s facilities – not just specifically Stags’ Leap,” Barry Sheridan, vice president of marketing, Americas for Treasury Wine Estates, said in separate statement.

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