News and Notes from the World of Wine

Tokalon to Court?

California wine icon Robert Mondavi and Andrew Beckstoffer, one of Napa's biggest grapegrowers and the largest vineyard owner in Rutherford, are involved in a messy battle of dueling lawsuits that's reminiscent of an episode from the TV series Falcon Crest.

The brouhaha began on November 5, when Mondavi's lawyers filed a lawsuit against a vintner named Fred Schrader (formerly of Colgin-Schrader Cellars) for mislabeling, as Mondavi sees it, a wine made from grapes that Schrader bought from Beckstoffer. Those grapes were from 89 acres that Beckstoffer owns within the 659-acre Tokalon Vineyard, one of Napa's oldest and most historic vineyards.

The Mondavi complaint is that Schrader, at Beckstoffer's urging, labeled his 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon "Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard." About 300 cases of the $75 wine were released in October. Mondavi owns 550 acres of the vineyard and has several copyrights on the word "Tokalon" (which Mondavi spells as two words, "To Kalon"). The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Northern California, charges Schrader with trademark infringement, and demands that Schrader stop using "To Kalon" and "surrender immediately for destruction" all products, labels and other materials bearing the To Kalon name.

"Our attorneys say [Schrader] can't use 'To Kalon' on his front label because it's trademarked," explains Mondavi spokesperson Sandra Timpson. Schrader says he had no idea the Mondavis would object to his label. Beckstoffer, whom Mondavi is not suing ("We can't sue Andy because Andy doesn't have a wine," Timpson says), was shocked to learn of Mondavi's action. He has agreed to help Schrader pay his legal bills.

Beckstoffer says his part-ownership of Tokalon gives him the "right to the fair use" of the name. The original Tokalon, planted in 1868, consisted, according to records, of 359 acres. Part of Beckstoffer's rebuttal is that the Mondavis, in a "misrepresentation," have planted or incorporate at least 190 new acres into the historic old Tokalon, and that Beckstoffer's 89 acres are contained in the original part.

The spat took a new twist on Dec. 16, when Beckstoffer and Schrader jointly filed a counter-suit against Robert Mondavi Winery. The duo charge Mondavi with "fraudulently" using the term "To-Kalon" because "Mondavi...has acquired approximately 300 acres of additional land...that was never part of the historic To-Kalon Vineyard." Their lawsuit seeks cancellation of Mondavi's trademark.

Beckstoffer says he and Schrader "will go to court and try to get this thing over with as quietly and quickly as we can." Nevertheless, trademark laws, according to a noted wine industry lawyer, are tough to beat or overturn in court.

—Steve Heimoff




Burgundy's Top Vintner Teams Up With Napa Grower

In a move reminiscent of Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild's historic Opus One partnership, another famous French winemaker has arrived in Napa Valley. This time, it's Aubert de Villaine, a co-owner of Burgundy's renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He has teamed up with his American cousin by marriage, Larry Hyde, who grows grapes on 150 acres in the Napa portion of Carneros for such well-known winemakers as Paul Hobbs, David Ramey, Mia Klein, Joseph Phelps, Michael Havens and Patz and Hall.

"For years, Aubert asked me why I don't make my own wine," Hyde said during a recent tasting of the duo's two new wines—a 2000 Chardonnay and a 2000 Merlot-Cabernet blend—bottled under their HdV label. "It was a point of pride for him."

Hyde's first cousin, Pamela Fairbanks, has been married to de Villaine for 30 years, which is also how long the Napa grower has been farming grapes. "Aubert couldn't imagine that we wouldn't make our own wine," Hyde recalled. "Finally he said to me, 'I'll help you do it.' "

However, the project has not been without its challenges. "Aubert is fussier than anyone else I grow grapes for," Hyde said appreciatively.

The two men spent several years deciding what varietals they would make. Because de Villaine makes what may be the most famous and priciest Pinot Noir in the world, they decided to steer clear of that grape. "We didn't want to lead off with Pinot Noir and invite the obvious comparison," Hyde said.

HdV Chardonnay (94 points, $45) is lush yet bright and refreshing, and makes a fine debut for the label. The Merlot- Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points, $65) is 65 percent Merlot. It, too, is brimming with ripe flavors and finesse—a testament to the fact that fine Merlot and Cabernet can be grown in the cooler Carneros district just north of San Francisco Bay. A third wine, a 2001 Syrah still in barrels, also shows great potential.

While de Villaine is overseeing winemaking, in the last year he has hired a 28-year-old Burgundian named Stephane Vivier to run daily operations. Vivier replaced the project's original on-site winemaker, Jean-Laurent Vacheron, who was also from Burgundy. Vivier has lived in California since 1999 and worked as assistant winemaker at Hartford Court, a winery in the Russian River Valley known for its Pinot Noirs.

Making wine in Napa Valley offers de Villaine the opportunity to work with consistently ripe grapes, year after year—something most Frenchmen can only dream of. For Hyde, the benefits are also great. "I've known Aubert for many years," he said. "But this is like having a new teacher with new ideas."

—Jeff Morgan

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