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Wine Notes

What's in a Name? Ask Sebastiani

March 23, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The application for a fictitious business name, filed with the Napa County Clerk's office, said merely that the Sutter Home Winery, the largest marketer of White Zinfandel in the world, wanted to use 19 new brand names.

Among them was the name Domaine White Zinfandel.

After the recent flap created by Sebastiani Vineyards over the use of a varietal designation in a brand name, it was clear what Sutter Home was doing.

But first the background.

Late last year, Sebastiani president Don Sebastiani applied for, and gained approval to use the brand name Domaine Chardonnay on a line of white table wine that would sell for about $5 a bottle or less.

He announced that the wine itself would contain no Chardonnay at all.

The idea, he said, was to make a wine that tasted more like Chardonnay than some of the $5 Chardonnays now on the market that are technically entitled to carry the name Chardonnay but contain up to 25% of grapes like Riesling and Muscat. Such wines have an aroma that's nothing at all like Chardonnay.

Consumers Outraged

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the branch of the Treasury Department that controls wine, gave Sebastiani approval for the use of the name Domaine Chardonnay, never asking if the wine itself would have any Chardonnay in it.

Screaming foul and fraud, wine consumers and members of the industry were outraged. Two consumers even sued Sebastiani to prevent the wine from hitting store shelves.

Even field office officials of BATF admitted the approval to use the brand name by their Washington office was probably a serious error, and one pointed out what could likely happen if it were permitted. "We could have Chateau Cabernet and the wine would have no Cabernet in it," he said.

Such obfuscation could "wreck the credibility of the varietal designation as we know it," said one Sonoma County wine maker, who was so irate he said he was prepared to "run down there (Sonoma) and let the air out of Don's tires."

Sutter Home Winery didn't say boo, it just acted.

"As soon as I saw a copy of the (Sebastiani) label and heard all the hoopla, I said, 'It looks like they're going to allow it,' so I decided to apply for all those names," said Roger Trinchero, president of Sutter Home.

"We feel we have a lot of equity built up in the name of Zinfandel, and we don't want to risk the possibility that someone could capitalize on what we've developed. So we applied for all these names, not because we're going to use them, but just to make sure someone else doesn't."

Among the names listed on Sutter Home's application with the county were White Zinfandel Cellars, White Zinfandel Vineyard and Winery, and even Zinfandel Hill Cellars. (Sutter Home is located on the Napa Valley floor.)

Since the Domaine Chardonnay controversy arose, BATF has ruled that Sebastiani may not use the name after all, but, "At the time we applied for this, our indication was that Sebastiani was going to be permitted to market a Domaine Chardonnay," said Trinchero.

Trinchero said he has no plans to use any of the names, and that he registered them to prevent anyone else from using them.

Flora Springs Winery in the Napa Valley eschews the term reserve for its top-of-the-line, limited-quantity Chardonnay, preferring instead to call the wine Barrel Fermented.

The phrase, first used on a Flora Springs Chardonnay in 1980, unfortunately doesn't tell the whole story of the time and effort that this family-owned property has invested trying to come up with a classic.

The 1987 Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay has just been released and it is wine maker Ken Deis' magnum opus in terms of style and quality, better than anything the winery previously produced.

There is a delicate spice and sandalwood character to the initial aroma and then an extremely rich, complex scent follows it. The taste is layered with multiple elements and the aftertaste is a pure delight of warmth and richness with a lean, crisp finish. There's no overt buttery quality here, just deep, rich Chardonnay flavors and a note of oak.

A Magnificent Wine

This is a magnificent wine, worth the $21 price tag. Better still is a limited-quantity (200-case) Flora Springs Chardonnay made even better by aging the wine an additional length of time on its yeast lees (the traditional French "sur lie" process).

This wine, which will be available only at the winery, was made from the same wine as the Barrel Fermented, but the added aging in barrel makes it truly marvelous, with a vanilla creaminess added to the other elements.

For those who can't find Chateau Woltner Chardonnays mentioned here recently, or who find the Woltner wines too pricey (at $25 to $54 a bottle), the Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay is made in a similar style and is equally impressive. The "sur lie" wine has not yet been priced.

Here's a curious story that is amusing for those who remember their periodic chart of elements from chemistry.

At the National Orange Show Wine Competition held earlier this month, wines were served blind to all judges in coded glasses. After the first 26 glasses had been served in a group from A to Z, lettering codes proceeded AA, AB, etc.

By coincidence, in a class of Cabernet Sauvignons, a wine coded AU was awarded a gold medal and a wine with the code AG got a silver medal.

Since the wines were coded, results weren't immediately released so I haven't yet found out who made AU and AG.

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