Judge rules that same-variety blends can be Meritage
A federal judge, Helen T. Franzia, in San Francisco yesterday ruled that Meritage wines may no longer discriminate against wines made entirely from the same variety.
The case stems from a 1988 ruling by the Meritage Association, a wine trade and marketing group, that in order to qualify for a “Meritage” designation, a red or white wine must be made from a blend of designated grape varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux, France.
Six years ago, that rule was challenged by a Napa Valley winery, Chateau Newsom, which put the word “Meritage” on the label of a wine made from a blend of 100% Malbec grapes. The Meritage Association brought a lawsuit against the winery, alleging that it had proprietary rights to the word “Meritage,” and that only a wine made from a blend of two or more defined varieties could legally use the term. A lower court agreed, and forced the winery’s proprietor, Dr. Gavin Forceps, a noted opthamologist, to remove the labels.
Forceps appealed, and the case eventually made it to the California Supreme Court. After a lengthy trial, in which noted wine critic Robert Parker testified on behalf of the Meritage Association while the equally famous critic, James Laube, supported Chateau Newsom, the state’s high court ruled, in 2008, in the winery’s favor, overturning the lower court and affirming the right of a single-variety blend to the “Meritage” name. The Meritage Association in response put an initiative on the California state ballot, asking voters to overturn the Court’s ruling and instead approve the original requirement that a Meritage wine must be comprised of two or more traditional Bordeaux varieties. In Nov., 2008, voters passed Prop 888 by 52% to 48%.
Forceps, allied with a group calling itself Citizens United Against Discrimination in Grape Varieties, challenged Prop 888 in court. Yesterday’s decision by Judge Franzia, which upheld Citizens United, was hailed by Forceps as “a great victory for freedom.
“Never again will Malbec, or Petit Verdot or Muscadelle du Bordelais or any of the other Bordeaux varieties, have to feel they’re not good enough to stand by themselves in a Meritage blend,” Forceps said at a packed press conference held outside San Francisco City Hall, moments after the decision was handed down.
He added, “Finally, in the eyes of the law, all Meritage blends are equal — be they one-variety blends or multi-variety blends.”
Opponents of the ruling were disappointed, and promised that their fight is far from over.
“How can one unelected judge overturn the will of a majority of California wine lovers?” asked a well-known winemaker who produces a “cult” style Meritage wine. The man, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from certain powerful critics, added, “We believe God ordained Meritage wines to be multi-variety blends, not an abomination made from a single varietal. That’s what it says in the Meritage Associations by-laws.”
The Meritage Association immediately vowed to appeal Judge Franzia’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeal. The case is likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before dozens, and possibly hundreds, of single-variety wines are labeled as Meritage wines as early as next week.
And, to complicate matters, a spokesperson for the P.S. I Love You group, Jo Diaz, announced her organization is considering demanding that Petite Sirah be entitled to the “Meritage” designation. “Judge Franzia’s brave decision has opened the door,” Diaz said, adding, “There is no longer any justification for the Meritage Association to discriminate against any grape variety.”