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R.I.P. Tulocay. Here comes Coombsville!


I knew it. Knew that getting involved in another dustup over AVAs is like wading into quicksand. It’s easy to get in, hard to get out, and the more you try to disengage, the more stuck you get. Last week it was the flap over Calistoga and the Federal government’s proposal to make it harder to create “nested” AVAs. This week, that same Federal government — via the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which oversees AVAs — announced it will no longer consider creating a Tulocay AVA in the southeastern Napa Valley. It was only the second time in many years that TTB has pulled an AVA application from consideration.

Now, such a “sure thing” had been this Tulocay AVA that it was assumed up in Napa that it was just a matter of time before it happened. Alas, such was the furor over “Tulocay” that TTB yesterday yanked the application “because of questions regarding the actual name of the proposed viticultural area.” It’s as dead as Hillary’s presidential campaign.

The details, as I write, are these. The original petitioners for a Tulocay AVA, back in 2006, were Aaron Pott, then winemaker at Quintessa (now a consultant) and someone called Marshall Newman, from Newman Communications. They proposed to appellationize [is that a word?] 11,200 acres, of which 900 were planted to grapes. The name “Tulocay” is of Native American origin.

Everything seemed to be rolling along, and Tulocay seemed destined to become California’s latest AVA, joining other luminaries such as Lime Kiln Valley, Merritt Island and Salado Creek. But a funny thing happened on the way to AVA-hood: Somebody wrote TTB a letter charging that the creation of a Tulocay AVA would cause “inestimable economic damage” to his brand.

That was Bill Cadman, the owner of Tulocay Winery. His objection sprang from the fact that he has been able to use the word “Tulocay” for decades on wines not made from the Tulocay region (e.g., his Amador County Zinfandel). He feared that if “Tulocay” became law, he would no longer be able to do so.

Art Resnick, the chief spokesman for TTB, emailed me the official Notice of withdrawal. It said that the agency had received 20 comments on Tulocay during the comment period: 8 in favor and 12 against, with the naysayers urging instead a “Coombsville” AVA in the same region (and based on a different set of historical facts). The Notice also said that TTB was contacted by Cadman’s lawyer (who’s with the San Francisco firm of Hinman & Carmichael), who urged TTB to use “extreme caution” in considering the Tulocay AVA. This is lawyerese for “We might sue you really bad if you go ahead with this.”

TTB saw the light! (Or felt the heat, which is the same thing.) Their conclusion: “After careful consideration TTB has determined that it would not be appropriate to proceed with the establishment of the proposed Tulocay American viticultural area…”.

In other words: Here comes Coombsville!

Now, what are we to make of this whole brouhaha? I, for one, am getting a headache trying to follow the whirlwind of politics, business, egos, lawyers and government bureaucrats that infests every discussion of AVAs. They used to be so simple and charming: It was all about weather and dirt and history. Now, it’s the lawyers’ full employment act. I have a suggestion: Let’s just let individual wineries have their own AVAs (like Chateau-Grillet has in France). No fuss, no muss, no drama. After all, it’s not about the AVA, it’s about what’s in the bottle, anyway.

P.S. What if someone starts a Coombsville Cellars before the AVA goes through? Do they get grandfathered in?

  1. Steve, you seem to be more up on the AVA process than most, so let me ask a simple question: what is the difference between this situation, the Calistoga situation, and Rutherford Hill (vis a vis RUtherford AVA) and two Stag’s Leap-named wineries (vis a vis Stags Leap District). Is it only “grandfathering”?

    If TTB is so concerned with brand vs place confusion that they are willing to reverse the gears on the Tulocay application, and that they are willing to toss Calistoga Estate and Calistoga Cellars under the bus, why not make a clean start and revisit these other AVAs where there appears to be even more potential for consumer misunderstanding?

  2. That’s why I said it gives me a headache. I’m not paid enough to try to figure this AVA stuff out. Make me Secretary of the Treasury and I’ll give it some thought.

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    When I first read about a Tulocay appellation I immediately associated it with Bill Cadman’s long existing brand and not with the Coombsville area. If someone told me a vineyard was in Tulocay I’d have no idea what they were talking about. The Coombsville area, however, is known to many of us as a uniquely interesting place to grow grapes and one which, when someone says the vineyard is in the Coombsville area, we know exactly what they are saying – both where grown and what to expect from the grapes. Similarly I know pretty much where Calistoga is and what to expect from a grape variety from that area. These are good names for appellations because they roughly conform to popular understanding.

    Regarding grandfathering, this was done once because up until the formal AVA process someone using Stags Leap as a brand name had no idea that someone could come in and create an official AVA with their brand name. While their brand name may have misled individuals into believing their grapes were grown below Stag’s Leap , until the AVA process it did not put their business plan in peril. But since the initiation of that AVA process and the initial grandfathering, anyone who begins using a place name that misrepresents where their grapes are grown has been forewarned. They have done it at their own peril.

    Bill Cadman would not be guilty of this because of his long standing use of the name, predating the AVA process and grandfathering, and the fact it was never popularly associated with a growing region. In short he was not trying to fool anyone. He has a legitimate gripe that someone was stealing his brand name. If the TTB went forward with this AVA his brand name could be on every wine made in “Coombsville.” The TTB obviously did the right thing.

    Now, anyone grabbing Coombsville in their winery name today or over the last two decades better have a business plan that includes Coombsville grapes. A claim of ignorance on their part will ring as false as it does for Calistoga Estate and Calistoga Cellars.

    Spring Mountain Vineyard (SMV) faced the same predicament as Cadman except Spring Mountain was a place name long associated with the cool wet mountainous area behind St. Helena. SMV had no intention of misleading anyone. They had a business plan, originating in 1992, and built on 100% grapes grown on the slopes of Spring Mountain. But in 1993 other wineries on Spring Mountain wanted a designation for their wines that reflected their unique terroir. SMV did not want dozens of wineries using their trademarked brand name, but could see how a legitimate AVA could validate their own business. Both sides came to an accommodation with Spring Mountain District. This is the way it is supposed to work.

  4. Stags Leap District and Rutherford are still elephants in the room, as I see it. The Tulocay and Calistoga situations seem to have put a spotlight on how dicey AVAs can be vis a vis winery names.

    Steve, I can understand you favoring NVV and TTB on Calistoga, but why then should two Stag’s Leap -named wineries be allowed to make “Napa Valley” wines? Similarly, why should Rutherford Hill be able to make a portfolio of 12+ wines, none of which bear the Rutherford AVA?

  5. The rules state that only brand names created after July 7, 1986, must meet the appellation of origin requirements of the appellation with which it shares a name. Rutherford Hill was created before July 7, 1986.

  6. Steve,

    In answer to your question about someone starting a brand called Coombsville before the a.v.a. gets approved.

    Thomas Foster and I have done just that. The label will focus on Bordeaux varieties other than Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Coombsville area.

    We have released a Petit Verdot, Merlot, and a blend of equal parts Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. We have plans to release Malbec and Cabernet Franc by itself as well in the future.


    Michael Turner

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