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Duckhorn Duck Commander Controversy

THURSDAY - JANUARY 09, 2014 - NAPA, CA - Duckhorn Vineyards has filed a trademark suit against Trinchero Family Estates, which is producing Duck Commander Wines. J.L. Sousa/Register

A new line of wines trading on the fame of the “Duck Dynasty” reality television show has become embroiled in a trademark dispute pitting the brand against Duckhorn Vineyards — and two Napa Valley winemakers against each other.

Trinchero Family Estates, the St. Helena firm producing the Duck Commander wine label, is in the crosshairs of a lawsuit filed by its cross-town counterpart, Duckhorn Vineyards, a maker of high-priced wines for three decades. The suit also lists Duck Commander Inc., the family-owned maker of duck calls, as a defendant.

In documents filed in November with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Duckhorn seeks a jury trial in hopes of blocking the Duck Commander name and duck icon from the upstart brand’s labels, as well as requiring Trinchero to pay compensatory damages.

“We are very disappointed that Trinchero Family Estates and Duck Commander were unwilling to engage in reasonable and constructive dialogue, and as a result, we had no choice but to stand up and protect our brand,” Duckhorn said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Trinchero declined to comment Wednesday.

Sold mainly through Walmart stores, the Duck Commander wines bear muscular stencil-like fonts over duck-pattern labels resembling camouflage clothing, a nod to the duck-call devices made famous by the A&E show “Duck Dynasty” starring their makers, the Robertson family of rural Louisiana.

Priced at $10 a bottle and sold in versions called Triple Threat Red Blend, Wood Duck Chardonnay and Miss Priss Pink Moscato, the Duck Commander wines appear to be a world apart from Duckhorn’s cabernets and merlots, whose tony, waterfowl-labeled bottles range from $50 to $100.

But even that level of resemblance appears intolerable for Duckhorn, which also names its other brands on bird themes: Paraduxx, Decoy and Migration, among others.

After learning of the Duck Commander launch in early October, Duckhorn sought a meeting with Trinchero directors over the product name, and a month later made several proposals that “would allow Defendants to produce, sell, and make a substantial profit from selling their wines,” attorney Henry C. Bunsow of the San Francisco law firm Bunsow, De Mory, Smith & Allison asserted in court documents.

Trinchero promised to discuss the matter with the Robertson family, but then made no more communications with Duckhorn, Bunsow said — even when the Robertsons came to Napa County on Nov. 19 for a rollout party to introduce their wine brand.

Despite the wide price and image gulf between the two duck-themed brands, lawyers for Duckhorn warned of the newcomer possibly burying the established brand through the combined ubiquity of Trinchero-owned wine labels — which accounted for a combined 19.6 million cases shipped in 2012 — and Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer.

Founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, the winery has pursued several wineries through the courts for alleged trademark violations, according to multiple media reports. The most recent case, also filed in San Francisco federal court, ended Nov. 13 with an injunction banning Hill Wine Co. of St. Helena from using the Duck Call and Duck Blind brands, or any duck-related name or image.

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Despite such recent success, a trademark attorney specializing in beverage marketing law saw a hard path for Duckhorn to prove sales harm or even the possibility of buyers confusing the Duckhorn and Duck Commander brands.

“Anyone buying a $100 bottle of wine will make damn sure they’re getting the right bottle of wine,” said Dan Christopherson of Lehrman Beverage Law in Oakton, Va., which is not involved in the court case. “(Duckhorn) has to substantiate the likelihood of confusion — that’s the standard required to win a lawsuit like this.”

According to Christopherson, courts usually decide trademark ownership based on the so-called DuPont factors — 13 standards used to establish the similarity of products as well as their names, symbols and customer bases.

The wide price gap between Duckhorn and Duck Commander wines make customer confusion unlikely, he said, as does the latter brand’s fame stemming from products unrelated to wine. Furthermore, Duckhorn faces not one but two foes able to fund a stout courtroom resistance: Duck Commander Inc. and Trinchero, which controls such mass-market best-sellers as the Sutter Home label.

“For them to challenge someone with deep pockets is harder than pushing around a small company,” said Christopherson. “I would imagine that for Duck Commander and (the Robertsons), that is their baby and they’re not going anywhere, and they have the funds to fight for it.”

Even as Duckhorn fights to protect its hold on waterfowl themes in wine labeling, duck-themed brands have proliferated in recent years. Since 2007, 544 brand registrations for table, sparkling, dessert and cooking wines have included the word “duck” in some form, according to an online database of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

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