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U.S. High Court Refuses Wine Case

January 24, 2006|Michael Muskal | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a challenge to a California law that requires wines carrying the name "Napa" to have at least 75% of their grapes from Napa County.

The decision not to consider an appeal from Bronco Wine Co. is a legal defeat for the maverick winemaker based in Ceres, Calif. -- best known for its low-end Charles Shaw line of wines nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck.

The dispute involved three other Bronco brands -- Napa Ridge, Napa Creek Winery and Rutherford Vintners -- that were challenged because they used grapes from areas other than Napa. The company has begun using largely Napa grapes for the latter two lines, company spokesman Harvey Posert said.

"Bronco Wine Co. is disappointed with the Supreme Court's denial of its request to review the state court's erroneous ruling on our claims," Posert said in a telephone interview. "Bronco wine, however, intends to maintain all of its brands and will do so in full compliance with the law."

The fight revolves around the value of a wine's name as a marketing device.

Napa wines have developed a loyal following and the Napa Valley Vintners Assn., a trade group, fiercely works to prevent the market from being flooded by what it has called impostors -- wines using the Napa name but made substantially with grapes grown elsewhere.

In a 2000 law, California required that at least 75% of the grapes used to make wine labeled from a particular county must come from the named region.

But a 1986 federal law was more generous, allowing existing wine labels to keep their names even if they didn't meet the grape content requirement. Bronco insisted that the federal rules allowed it to use the Napa name and that the state was prohibited from establishing stricter regulations.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal in May rejected Bronco's argument. The California court also denied Bronco's claim that the labeling was protected by the company's right to free speech.

In August 2004, the California Supreme Court overturned a lower-court decision and ruled against Bronco by finding that the federal rules didn't trump the state wine label law.

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