Michelle Faustini is proud to put her last name on her Napa Valley wines. She’s been doing so for more than a decade.
Now she’s learned that a wine industry giant, Huneeus Vintners, owners of the Napa brand Faust, wants to take her name away from her.
The two brands have operated in Napa Valley for years without conflict, making it news to Faustini that the larger company suddenly disapproved of her brand. That news came not from Huneeus, Faustini said this week, but by way of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Set to renew her trademark on Faustini Wines, which expires next week, Faustini learned from the office that attorneys for Huneeus recently filed a petition to cancel her trademark and block the renewal, deeming the use of her family name as “a variation on (Faust’s) mark … merely adding two syllables at the end.”
The brands are too similar and will undoubtedly lead to consumer confusion, the petition claims, though it did not point to any instances where such confusion had occurred.
Representatives for Huneeus Vintners did not respond to requests for comment by Thursday. The company is owned by the Huneeus family, whose portfolio includes Quintessa estate in Rutherford and several brands in addition to Faust.
Founding Faust in 1998 and producing only Cabernet Sauvignon under the brand, Huneeus sourced their venture’s name from the German legend of Dr. Faust, a hapless intellectual who trades his soul for endless pleasure. Beyond wine, the centuries-old story has been retold through plays, movies, books and operas.
But when it comes to her brand, Faustini said, “There’s no confusion between my family name … versus that of a famous German opera.”
Huneeus Vintners’ argument for its sole claim to “Faust” in the world of Napa Valley wine lies in its use of the name as early as 2005, according to its petition with the trademark office. Citing applications from Faustini Wines, the petition notes Faustini did not begin using their name in the market until 2007.
The petition also notes Huneeus’ registration for Faust had since gained incontestable status and it had also acquired common law rights for the brand. “The mark is widely known and recognized by the public as identifying (Huneeus Vintners’) wines,” the petition reads.
Faustini countered, “It’s kind of a classic example of an enormous wine brand trying to back us into a corner ... It’s just shameful that now here we have been kind of coexisting for over a decade, that they’ve now waited until the 11th hour when I’m ready to renew to try to prevent me from doing so.”
Faustini pointed out that while Faust is known only as a Cabernet producer, her brand also turns out Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and other varietals. And while Faustini makes only around 4,000 cases of her wine each year, Quintessa alone is currently permitted to allow Huneeus Vintners to produce up to 180,000 gallons a year at the winery, potentially yielding tens of thousands of cases.
Faust also appears to have recently secured a new home for itself at a prestigious Upvalley property, the former St. Clement Vineyards plot north of St. Helena. Huneeus Vintners bought the property in 2016 and has since painted the site’s house a stark black, seemingly matching the label of one of its newest Cabernet releases.
“We’re not even on the same playground together,” Faustini said.
The trademark dispute has not yet reached the point of legal action on either side, but Faustini said she has no plans of giving up her brand. “We will still absolutely continue to register our trademark,” she said.