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The Calistoga AVA war heats up again


In what’s turning into the longest-running farce in U.S. appellation annals, the Calistoga contretemps is back again in the headlines.

Just to bring you up to date on the plot, we first heard, back in 2003, that local vintners wanted the then-Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms bureau (now the Tax & Trade Bureau) to approve a Calistoga American Viticultural Area designation (AVA). In September, 2006, Chateau Montelena formally applied for approval. At that time, Montelena’s owner told me the Bureau told him the proposal was “the least controversial one they’ve ever done.” Well, that was a setup line if ever there was one, for a year later the Calistoga AVA had been effectively sidelined. Two wineries, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards, both challenged it, saying it would harm their businesses, if approved, because they would have to change their names, since neither sources at least 85% of their grapes from the Calistoga area.

A risk-adverse TTB thus shelved the proposal, with spokesman Art Resnick explaining, “TTB needs to take a second look at this.” (For a good summary of the situation as of last year, see this link to the Napa Valley Register.)


Well, now Calistoga III: The Curse of the Compromise is playing in a theatre near you. Seems TTB worked out a tentative deal whereby the two wineries with “Calistoga” in their names will be grandfathered in, allowing them to keep their names going forward. But wait! There’s more. No sooner was the compromise revealed than the two Congressmen who head up California’s wine caucus, George Radanovich (R-Mariposa) and Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) came out forcefully against it.

“We have very serious concerns that (the compromise)… could do lasting harm to the growing American wine industry,” they wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. On the other hand, the powerful chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), came out in support of the compromise (leading some reporters to note that Harkin had gone to school with one of the wineries’ co-owners).

I don’t see what the fuss is. Go ahead and approve the Calistoga AVA, and let the two wineries keep their names. It’s not a big deal. Appellation names are overblown anyway. Radanovich and Thompson are engaging in a little hyperbole when they say the future of the wine industry is at stake.

So let the compromise march forward. But in return, let TTB state, once and for all and on the record, that this is the last time they’ll let a geographic abomination like Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards slip through. No more name games. TTB has got to develop a spine.

  1. Steve,

    If “Appellation names are overblown anyway” then maybe the TTB should put its foot down and not “let a geographic abomination like Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards slip through”.

    There needs to come a point where someone does something to stop the dilution of the equity of AVAs.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    All were talking about here is whether or not the winery has to use the little trademark symbol next to their name. The winery would naturally like to avoid that little symbol which would indicate it was a trade name and had nothing to do with where the grapes were sourced.

    But this is old ground. The subject was settled 20 years ago and that was supposed to have been the last ot grandfathering. Everyone was on notice from that time on about the risks of appropriating place names different from where grapes were sourced.

    So if they get grandfathered don’t be surprised to see a wine with Calistoga in the trade name, California as the appellation and Freddie Franzia knocking at the door with a wad of cash.

  3. Larry the Wine Guy says:

    Well stated Morton. These 2 wineries were well aware of the risks when they used Calistoga in their winery names and if they were unaware of the rules shame on them. This is no compromise as I see it. The 2 wineries in question offer nothing in return for the use of the name Calistoga. A compromise would have offered them 5 years to reach 85% Calistoga AVA grape composition and the use of Calistoga in the interim. If they do not reach the required 85% Calistoga grape composition they should be prohibited to use Calistoga in their winery name.

  4. Gil the Calistoga Cellars fan says:

    Some folks are missing the point. This is a real David vs Goliath story of large corporate wine interests attemtping to use a government process to threaten the livelihood and survival of a small vineyard, Calistoga Cellars. Calistoga Cellars plays a strong and vital role in the Calistoga Community, although some treat the Calistoga folks like an unwanted red headed step child. Calistoga Cellars has a local tasting room, local employees, contributes to local charitable causes, pay the same local and State taxes that you do. By the way, they pay taxes to the US Government, who has a department called the TTB. The TTB’s job is to make decisions about AVAs around the Country. Well, they came to Calistoga, interviewed everyone involved and proposed a rule #77. The rule made Calistoga an AVA and grandfathered Calitoga Cellars use of their name. Then what? The large wine producers did not like the decision, so they all went to Washington, DC recently to try to get the politicians to convince the US Secretary of the Treasury to reverse its own department’s decision. Forcing Calistoga Cellars to give up its name will throw 12 years of hard work down the drain, put some people out of work and give the large operators another notch on their belt. Perhaps, it is time for them to spend their time building their own operations and hire some folks to go to work rather than trying to squish another small competitor and put good people out of work.


  1. The Calistoga AVA war heats up again | Wine Industry Insight - [...] Steve Heimoff has some solid reporting on the Calistoga wine wars — yet another AVA controversy that has spun…

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