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Calistoga AVA battle heats up in Washington
The battle over the use of the word “Calistoga” on wine bottles has brewed for several years. This week, a delegation of Napa vintners made a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., to argue that Calistoga Cellars should not be able to use the word on wines with grapes sourced from elsewhere. In 2007, local vintners protested the opening of Calistoga Cellars’ tasting room on Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga File photo

What’s in a name?

In the Napa Valley, widely considered one of the top wine-growing regions in the world, everything.

“No product that I can think of is more importantly tied to the location that it comes from than wine grapes,” said Eric Sklar, St. Helena city councilman and principal at Alpha Omega Winery.

So, after nearly a year of relative quiet, Sklar and other Upvalley vintners are renewing efforts to block wineries from using the word “Calistoga” on wines labels unless they grow at least 85 percent of their grapes in the northern-most town in the Napa Valley. Sklar was part of a lobbying delegation that visited federal lawmakers and officials last week.

A single 20,000-case winery is on the opposite side of the five-year-long political battle over the right to use the Calistoga name.

St. Helena-based Calistoga Cellars, after more than a decade in business, could be forced to drop Calistoga from its label if federal officials approve the Calistoga American Viticultural Area. Though 100 percent of Calistoga Cellars’ grapes come from Napa County, only 25 to 30 percent come from its 11-acre Calistoga vineyard, according to winery partner Roger Louer. The wine is bottled outside of Napa County.

Growing concerns

The controversy began in 2003 when Chateau Montelena winemaker Bo Barrett applied to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as TTB, asking to designate Calistoga as a distinct AVA. The designation would affect two wineries, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estates, neither of which source 85 percent of their grapes from Calistoga.

After Calistoga Cellars objected to the AVA application, TTB came back in 2007 with a proposal that would pronounce Calistoga a distinct AVA without forcing Calistoga Cellars to change its name. Calistoga Estates, which was founded after the AVA petition was filed, was not included in the grandfathering proposal.

The Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association of more than 300 local wineries, led the charge against the proposal. They claimed that grandfathering in Calistoga Cellars would undermine the AVA designation and mislead consumers.

“You simply cannot make a Calistoga wine really anywhere else in the world except for Calistoga,” said Rex Stults, Napa Valley Vintners industry relations director. The vintners association has been involved in similar battles, including successful efforts to block the use of Napa Valley places names — such as Napa Ridge — on labels for wines grown and produced elsewhere.

Calistoga Cellars representatives counter that having to change their brand name now would present a significant financial hardship.

“We’ve been in business for over 10 years using the Calistoga name and we always used Napa Valley grapes,” Louer said. “No distributor would get behind your brand if they know your name’s going to go out of business,” he said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, head of the Congressional Wine Caucus, gathered about 60 signatures from fellow congressmen in a letter sent last year to then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to back the Napa Valley Vintners. Among the signatories was Rahm Emanuel, now chief of staff to President Barack Obama.

Calistoga Cellars launched a vigorous campaign in favor of the proposal, hiring a Washington lobbying firm to promote its cause. Calistoga Cellars also created a Web site, www.standupforthelittleguy.com, asking visitors to contact TTB on its behalf.

Then, nothing.

Nearly a year has passed since the public comment period ended on TTB’s proposal. No decision has been made. Calistoga Cellars’ Web site is inactive.

Back in Washington.

Last week, vintners renewed the fight against TTB’s proposal. With the new administration in Wahington, D.C., they say now is the perfect time to be done with the Calistoga name dispute once and for all.

“The past administration just didn’t seem to have much interest in making up their mind on this one, so I think there’s a new opportunity with the new folks in town,” Sklar said.

“We were and are hopeful that the new administration and new people at the top at the Treasury might look upon consumer protection more favorably,” Stults said.

Stults, Sklar, Barrett, his wife Heidi Peterson Barrett, and Calistoga Chamber of Commerce CEO Rex Albright flew to Washington last week where they met with Thompson and several other members of Congress. They also met with representatives from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and a journalist from the Washington Post. Feinstein’s office pledged to continue advocating on the Vintners’ behalf, Stults said, and a Washington Post article about Calistoga is in the works.

Thompson said in an e-mail he is “working very closely with the new administration to educate them about the importance of this issue and the need to resolve it in a way that does not weaken labeling rules.”

Thompson and Congressional Wine Caucus Co-Chairman George Radanovich, R-Modesto, wrote to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last month, expressing “serious concerns that these proposed rules, were they to be implemented, could significantly and detrimentally alter the American Viticultural Area system and could do lasting harm to the growing American wine industry.”

Louer said he is considering a re-launch of www.standupforthelittleguy.com in order to fight back.

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