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Italians Challenge Sonoma Wine Label

Consortium says Petroni Brunello di Sonoma violates trademark

by Jane Firstenfeld
Italians Challenge Sonoma Wine Label
Sonoma, Calif. -- Lorenzo Petroni, the Italian-American owner of Petroni Vineyards ( has been targeted by an Italian wine consortium for the flagship Sangiovese wine he labels "Brunello di Sonoma." Since last fall, Petroni and his representatives have been embroiled in correspondence with the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino and its attorneys, who contend that the term "Brunello" is restricted only to wines produced in Montalcino, Italy.

A letter from consortium President Francesco Marone Cinzano, dated Sept. 12, 2007, states that the brand "Brunello di Montalcino" is registered as a U.S. trademark.

"We consider the designation of a wine as 'Brunello di Sonoma' a breach of the rules," the letter states. "We ask you, therefore, to cease immediately the production, sales and advertising of any wine designated as 'Brunello di Sonoma.'"

Later correspondence from a consortium attorney spelled out the Italian naming requirements: "The wine denominated Brunello di Montalcino (must) be obtained from grapes coming from vineyards made up exclusively from the variety Sangiovese in the winery estate denominated 'Brunello,' only in Montalcino."

Petroni, who makes his wine from Sangiovese Grosso grapes organically grown on his Sonoma estate, says he does not see the logic in the consortium's demands. According to the National Grape Registry ( maintained by UC Davis in tandem with the USDA, "Brunello" is the first of many synonyms for the Sangiovese grape. These synonyms, according to Nancy Sweet, who maintains the database, were in large part obtained from the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (

Petroni told Wines & Vines that so-called "Brunello" clones of Sangiovese are widely available from U.S. nurseries, including Santa Rosa's Nova Vine (, which lists Sangiovese VCR 6 (Montalcino) with a description that includes the term "Brunello clone." The clone is sourced from the Italian Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo.

In November, an attorney for Petroni responded to Cinzano at the consortium, saying, "Your certification mark is 'Brunello di Montalcino,' not 'Brunello,' and my client does not use your certification mark. … My client's use of 'brunello' is to identify its wine made from the brunello clone of Sangiovese Grosso varietal grapes. We do not believe that anyone has been or will be confused and think that 'Brunello di Sonoma' identifies an Italian wine. The wording is designed to identify both the brunello clone and the geographic location of the vineyards where grown, Sonoma."

Petroni, who released about 1,000 cases of his initial vintage, 2002 Brunello di Sonoma, in 2007, received a certification of label approval (COLA) from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in December 2006. The COLA styles Brunello di Sonoma as the wine's "fanciful name," in contrast to the brand name, Petroni.

Petroni sells most of this flagship wine at his well-known North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco, and he says he has no intention of exporting it anywhere. So what consequences does Petroni face from the consortium?

Wine Institute general counsel Wendell Lee suggested that these lawyer's letters (no suit has been filed) constitute "saber rattling." Although he referred to a TTB rule that lists approved "wines by country" and an official list of approved U.S. varietal names--which does not include "Brunello"--the use of the word as a proprietary or descriptive name passed muster with the bureau.

The consortium and its attorneys, Lee says, "must realize that a COLA has been issued. Their grounds aren't strong."

Nevertheless, "I'm not shocked to hear they (Petroni) received the letter," Lee says, adding that it would be unlikely for the TTB to revoke the COLA, and that the Italians' only remedy "would be in court."

"We have permission to use (the name) from the U.S. authorities and are doing so in good faith," Petroni said. "Other companies are marketing 'Brunello,' so we're not sure why this is happening to us. Maybe it's because our wine is so good."
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