You Can Trust a Wine Label, Right?

I have a bottle of 1968 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon with the phrase “Napa, California” featured prominently.  So, I can trust that this wine comes from the Mayacamas region in Napa, right?  Well, until 2004, not necessarily.

That’s when Bronco Wine Company (producer of Charles Shaw Wines found in Trader Joe’s or more commonly known as Two-Buck Chuck) clashed with Bill Lockyer, then California’s Attorney General, before an unsympathetic California Supreme Court.

Bronco was selling three different brands (Napa Ridge, Napa Creek Winery, and Rutherford Vintners) back then.  So, anyone buying one of those bottles ten-plus years ago assumed that this was Napa Valley wine.  Au contraire.  As the Supreme Court said in its ruling, “Under Bronco’s ownership, all three of these brands have been used exclusively to sell wines made from grapes grown outside Napa County.”

You see, this is what got Lockyer’s panties in a bunch.  He believed that it was deceptive to sell wine labeled as being Napa but with nothing in the bottle actually from there.  According to the Court, the grapes were actually sourced from “Stanislaus County and the environs of the City of Lodi — areas where the cost of grapes, and often their perceived quality as well, is considerably lower.”

Lockyer brought his cease and desist action against Bronco on the basis of Business & Professions Code § 25241, which provides that any wine labeled as coming from Napa or any of its AVAs (American Viticultural Area) must be at least 75% Napa juice.

Bronco argued that since these three brands had been using these labels prior to 1986, they were grandfathered into the right to continue to do so under Federal law.  And, federal law trumps state, right?

Sadly for Bronco, that was not a winning argument.  The California Supreme Court ruled, “We agree … that section 25241 is consistent with Congress’s overall purpose in enacting 27 United States Code section 205(e) — that is, to ‘insure that the purchaser should get what he thought he was getting, [and] that the representations both on labels and in advertising should be honest and straightforward and truthful.’”  So, Bronco, you can’t say Napa on the label unless it actually comes from there.

Undeterred, Bronco asked the US Supreme Court to set California straight.  The US Supremes politely declined that invitation.

Not knowing the Bronco’s inner workings, I can’t say what impact the ruling had.  But I can tell you that Napa Creek Cabernet now consists of 75.83% Napa grapes.  And when you buy anything that says Napa, you can trust that it’s actually from there.  Thank you, Mr. Lockyer. ©

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