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03.31.2009  
 

Who'll Take the Cake?

California wine producers in trademark food-fight

 
by Paul Franson
 
 
Layer Cake Wine
San Francisco, Calif. -- A lawsuit filed over a sweet subject is creating a sour taste at the Wine Group. One True Vine, owner of the Layer Cake wine brand, is suing The Wine Group for trademark infringement over its Cupcake brand.

One True Vine is owned by Jayson Woodbridge and Chris Ramonski, who also make expensive Cabernets under their Hundred Acre brand, based in St. Helena.

One True Vine created the Layer Cake label to sell various wines from around the globe at lower prices than Hundred Acres. It markets wines from Argentina, Australia, Italy, France and California, typically priced in the mid-teens (Layer Cake Napa Cab is $28). They're promoted with a heavy dose of nostalgia, including a homey story about Woodbridge's grandfather and a three-layer chocolate cake on the label. One True Vine introduced and sold the Australian wines in July 2006. It also registered the trademark.

Woodbridge, reached in Australia where he was working on the harvest of the Layer Cake Shiraz, exclaimed, "For me, Layer Cake is a labor of love. I built it as a dedication to my grandfather, a wine everyone can afford."

He added, "It's important to me. It's sad that they've taken our ideas and made their marketing materials so similar to ours. This is no different than people knocking off products in China."

Cupcake is a brand of Underdog Wine Merchants, a division of The Wine Group (TWG) of Tracy, Calif., which last year racked up the second largest volume of case sales (behind E & J. Gallo) of any wine company based in the United States, according to Wine Business Monthly's February 2009 estimate. It uses the offices of Concannon Vineyards in Livermore, Calif., as its address.

Cupcake Wine
Underdog styles itself as "The champion of the more interesting, albeit sometimes misunderstood or under-appreciated wines and wine styles." Its portfolio of wines includes A*Mano, Angel Juice, Big House, Boho Vineyards, Cardinal Zin, Chateau Laroque, Cupcake, Killer Juice, Monticello, Now & Zen, Osborne, Pinot Evil, Tempra Tantrum, just to name a few. Its website is underdogwinemerchants.com.

According to a 50-page deposition filed in Federal Court, the Wine Group first began using the Cupcake brand in April 2007 based, on filings with the TTB for label approval. It has offered a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, and Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay from California, and has applied to use the brand on a Riesling from Washington.

Its labels include cakes (in this case, cupcakes) as well as references to a grandfather and to layer cakes, and winemaker's notes since pulled from its website comparing the wines to layer cakes. The wines typically sell between $9.99 and $13.99 per 750ml bottle.

Both wines are sold through similar channels, including Cost Plus World Markets, Raley's and Nob Hill Markets; One True Vine even found a flyer from Cost Plus World Markets featuring the two brands side by side.

In its suit, One True Vine contends that the similar strategy of selling multiple varietals from different places, and the references to cakes are likely to confuse buyers. It sent a letter to The Wine Group asking it to stop using the Cupcake brand in May 2008, but Wine Group attorney Deborah Davis Han from Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin of San Francisco, disagreed, claiming confusion was not likely.

One True Vine has sued for an injunction to prevent The Wine Group from using the name (or similar brands incorporating "cake"). It also demanded The Wine Group's profits from the product and punitive damages.

Woodbridge seems determined to win. "I hate the idea of a lawsuit, but I'm going to defend my brand until the end of the earth. I have to go through this."

John Sutton, general counsel for the Wine Group, told Wines & Vines, "The Wine Group strongly believes this lawsuit is without merit and intends to vigorously defend its rights."

Jayson Woodbridge is a flamboyant vintner whose second vintage of his Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon drew raves. The wine now sells for $200. He once introduced a Chardonnay containing flecks of gold. But he was also cited by Napa County for construction without a permit and even charged with making wine without the required permits. He made a $100,000 donation to charity and paid fines to settle the first complaint, and the criminal charges were later dropped. Many neighbors complained about his activity, and other vintners condemned his actions and attitude.

Read the lawsuit at: courthousenews.com/.
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