Branding Strategies in Agricultural Commodities: Vineyard & Block Designates

By Katja Loeffelholz, Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty

The prominence of vineyard-designated wines is another lesson in value-added agricultural branding which presents both the winery and the vineyard owner or lessee with a number of marketing and legal issues. Recognizing the value of vineyard designated names, vineyards have long been designating blocks within their vineyards with proprietary names.

In this way, even though multiple wineries are purchasing grapes from the same vineyard property, each winery can have a distinct name to refer to the vineyard block where the grapes were grown, also known as the “block designate.” If a vineyard owner sells wine grapes to a winery under a vineyard designate or block designate, the winery may use that vineyard or block name on wine produced from those grapes to designate origin so long as such use complies with the vineyard designation labeling requirements of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Accordingly, the vineyard owner — not the winery – theoretically owns rights in the name.


Wineries may consequently find their vineyard-designated wines embroiled in a trademark dispute between different winery owners. One of the most well-publicized vineyard name trademark disputes involved the famed To Kalon Vineyard. Originally planted in 1868, To Kalon was eventually divided up and by the 1990s, both the Robert Mondavi Winery and Andy Beckstoffer owned portions of the vineyard. Mondavi secured federal trademark registrations for both the TO KALON and TO KALON VINEYARD marks. Schrader Cellars had entered into an agreement to purchase grapes from Beckstoffer, and Schrader planned to use the “Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard” designation on its wine label. In 2002, Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars, and sought an injunction to bar Schrader’s sale of “To Kalon Vineyard” designated wine. The parties eventually settled their dispute, and Beckstoffer was granted a royalty free license to continue to use the To Kalon name.

Thus, when the vineyard is owned by another party, the risk to the winery in marketing vineyard and block designated wines made from contract grapes is that once the contract ends, so can the rights to continue use of the vineyard and/or block designation. A winery must accept that by producing and marketing vineyard-designated wine made from grapes grown in a vineyard that the winery does not own, the winery is potentially spending time and money building brand equity for someone else. When the grape contract ends, there is considerable risk that the “brand” of the vineyard owner may be used by the vineyard owner itself, or potentially by other wineries that contract with the vineyard owner.

Wineries are often unaware that the vineyard designation or block designation actually belongs to the vineyard owner. Many wineries feel that if they are using the vineyard designation on wine and popularizing the vineyard name, they should own the rights in the vineyard or block designate as a trademark. While this may be a questionable legal position, this attitude among some wineries may nevertheless be problematic from a practical perspective. Should a winery successfully register rights in a mark which is used as a vineyard or block designate, the vineyard owner will need to spend considerable time and money in a potentially unsuccessful effort to regain clear rights in the name. The best way a vineyard owner can protect itself is to register its brands and properly license them to a winery.

To maintain trademark rights, an owner must control the quality of goods sold under the mark. For a vineyard owner, this can be accomplished through specific provisions in a grape contract or through a related trademark license agreement which is separate from the grape contract. A license will clearly establish that, as between the vineyard and the winery, the vineyard is the owner of the mark and that the winery (and its use of the designate) is subject to the terms of the license, as well as, the vineyard owner’s control of the quality of wine provided under the mark. In practice, such quality control can often be administered in a non-disruptive, nonintrusive manner (e.g., sufficient quality may be presumed based on maintenance of quality heretofore maintained by the winery operation).

The strategy of enhancing the value of grapes by naming the grapes from a certain vineyard is also widely used to enhance the value of other agricultural commodities, such as cattle from a certain ranch, or spinach from a particular farm. As the commodity producer, it is important to register the trademarks for the brands used with these agricultural products so that the commodities themselves (as well as the land from which they come) can accrue value, prestige and reputation which inures to the brand assets.

Are you adequately protecting your vineyard designate or agricultural commodity?

For inquiries, please contact Katja Loeffelholz, a registered attorney with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and Of Counsel to Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty at [email protected].

New Legislation to Help California Grapegrowers Collect

To be a winegrape buyer you have to get a processors license from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s market Enforcement Branch (the “MEB”).  When a buyer doesn’t pay for the grapes though, the seller can resort to a lawsuit or the seller can file a complaint with the MEB under the Processors Law. (Cal. Food & Ag. Code Sections 55521 et seq.)  Under the Processors Law the MEB’s hammer has been the suspension or revocation of a winery’s processors license.  Pay the grower what is owed or MEB may shut down your processors license, rendering a defaulting buyer technically unable to make or sell wine.

That may sound simple enough, and the hammer is very real, but the punishment exacted may not be proportionate to the harm done.  Suspending or revoking a processors’ license, even temporarily, may not actually get the grower paid quickly, and has actually had the result of some defaulting buyers simply ignoring the MEB’s decision unless and until they can afford to pay.  A few wineries have just shut down instead of paying, the MEB’s suspension being the last straw.   

Through AB 907, Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Fiona Ma has proposed changes to the Processors Law that would give the MEB greater latitude to fashion remedies through fines and assessments of administrative costs against wineries that don’t pay their growers.  The fines would be up to $10,000, and the recovery of administrative costs would be assessable up to $6,000. Another key amendment proposed by AB 907 is allowing the MEB to require a winery that has had problems paying its growers to put up a surety bond in order to keep its license.  Currently, the MEB can only require a guaranty of payment from a processors’ license applicant, with the recession teaching too many creditors the hard lesson that guaranties are not always worth the paper they are written on.  Posting a surety bond is a pretty simple arrow, and a cost-effective one, to add to the MEB’s quiver, and one that is common in many other industries. 

While grower organizations are in favor of AB 907, winery organizations are tepid toward it.  But, there really hasn’t been a hue and cry about AB 907, which may be because winery organizations don’t want to waste capital at the Capitol on something that really will only affect a relative handful of grape buyers anyway. 

AB 907 is currently referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee for further deliberation.  We’ll keep apprised as AB 907 goes through volatizing.

For further information on business law matters, including grape purchase contracts, contact Scott Greenwood-Meinert at [email protected]
Copyright Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty at

The Producer’s Lien: An Often Overlooked Legal Remedy in Grape Contract Disputes

In the wine industry, one of the most common legal disputes is breach of contract between grape growers and wineries.  Often times, grape growers are surprised to learn that, upon the delivery of grapes to a winery, they automatically have a statutory lien against any wine made from those grapes.  This lien, called a “producer’s lien,” means that the winery cannot lawfully sell the wine without paying the grower.  The lien can be found in California Food and Agricultural Code § 55631 et seq.  See following link for statute text:
Additionally, this lien takes priority over many other security interests.  (See Frazier Nuts, Inc. v. American Ag Credit (2006) 141 Cal. App. 4th 1263)
The amount of the lien is the amount the winery contractually owes the grape grower for the grapes or, if an amount is not specified in a contract, the value of the grapes upon their delivery to the winery.
Sometimes, however, a grower inadvertently waives his or her right to this lien.  Often times, a contract between a grape grower and a winery includes a clause whereby a grower warrants that the grapes are not subject to any lien or other encumbrance.  The parties generally intend such a clause to ensure the winery that the grower has the legal right to sell the grapes.  Courts, however, may interpret this clause as the grower’s waiver of the producer’s lien.  If one wishes to avoid waiver of the right to the producer’s lien, such a clause should warrant that the grapes are not subject to any lien or encumbrance other than the producer’s lien.
Enforcing a producer’s lien can be time-consuming.  If the winery has not paid the grower, the grower can initiate an action in court to foreclose on the lien.  Because actual foreclosure can take months, the grower may also immediately seek a preliminary injunction from the court to prevent the winery from selling or destroying the wine pending foreclosure.  Eventually, assuming the grower proves his or her case, the court will issue an order giving the grower the right to possess the wine.  The grower must then work with the sheriff’s department to obtain physical possession of the wine.  Even if the wine has been blended with other wine, a grower can still take possession of the wine.
One of the difficulties with a producer’s lien, however, is that a grower must then have the appropriate licenses to market and sell the foreclosed wine.  If the grower lacks such license, then the grower must work with a license broker or other authorized person to sell the wine.
If you have any questions about contract disputes, including contracts between grape growers and wineries, please contact us.
Copyright Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty at