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To Kalon Vineyards Harvest

Harvesting at historic To Kalon Vineyards in Oakville in 2006.

A small winery with a supposed stake in a long-contested historic vineyard property is seeking to free up the name of Napa’s most famous piece of earth: To Kalon.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Oakville winery The Vineyard House called for the cancellation of a trademark on the To Kalon name currently held by drinks giant Constellation Brands. In turn, the handful of grapegrowers who currently own portions of the original To Kalon property would then be free to use the name.

The lawsuit, filed March 18, also alleges Constellation’s sole claim to “To Kalon” for naming and marketing its wines was achieved by means of fraud with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, when Robert Mondavi Winery secured the trademark in 1988. The winery sold to Constellation in 2004.

In the wake of cease and desist letters from Constellation regarding The Vineyard House’s use of the To Kalon name, the latter’s lawsuit is seeking to bring those means to light, while claiming fair use rights to the name and ending Constellation’s trademark on it. Constellation has denied the Vineyard House’s allegations.

The lawsuit centers on the historicity of the original To Kalon property, as planted and owned by early Napa grapegrower Hamilton Walker Crabb in the late 19th century. In its complaint, The Vineyard House contends “all those who own land that was a part of the original estate … should be given rights to enjoy use of the name.”

Today, fruit from the To Kalon property is some of the most sought-after in the valley, and the resulting wines are widely coveted.

After Crabb, the estate passed between various owners who also used the To Kalon name through the years. According to the lawsuit, the original 526-acre property established by Crabb is today split between a number of owners including Constellation, Beckstoffer Vineyards and UC Davis.

Apart from the wines of Constellation, those made with fruit from the portion owned by Beckstoffer Vineyards can also use the To Kalon name, following a similar legal tussle between grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, who owns 89 acres of To Kalon, and Constellation. That dispute was settled out of court.

According to the lawsuit, of the 526 original acres owned by Crabb, Constellation owns about 188 today. However, according to the lawsuit, the company refers to all 450 acres of its property as To Kalon, although this includes additional acres that were not part of Crabb’s To Kalon estate.

The complaint asserts that by dubbing its wines sourced from the larger property as “To Kalon,” Constellation flouts the vineyard designation rules set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Per TTB rules, to take the name of a specific vineyard, 95 percent of a given wine must be made with fruit from that vineyard.

The lawsuit also sets specific sights on discrediting Constellation’s trademark on the To Kalon name, pointing to the efforts of Robert Mondavi Winery to allegedly misrepresent the name’s importance and its use to identify a specific area, as opposed to a brand.

Specifically, the complaint calls out Robert Mondavi Winery’s claims in its trademark application that the To Kalon name had been discontinued in the early 20th century. In addition to noting the continued use of the To Kalon name throughout the 20th century, the lawsuit also contends Robert Mondavi’s awareness of the name’s significance and marketability.

The suit claims Mondavi intentionally withheld the name’s importance from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, making the trademark fraudulent, which would be grounds for it to be cancelled today.

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Wine Reporter / Copy Editor

Henry Lutz covers the local wine industry. He has been a reporter and copy editor for the Register since 2016.