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Two wineries' dispute has prevented Calistoga from its AVA status.

The future of the overdue Calistoga AVA awaits a U.S. government decision.

Napa Valley (AVA)

What’s holding up Calistoga AVA approval?

A. Two winery brands.

by Alan Goldfarb
January 31, 2007



For the last two years at Premiere Napa Valley, the Napa Vintners’s midwinter auction, the wines on the block have been partitioned by signposts which designate each of the region’s 14 sub-appellations. In parentheses on the placard which reads Calistoga, there is the word “PENDING.” That’s because, since October of 2004 when the folks in Calistoga first petitioned the government to grant them official AVA (American Viticultural Area) status, the Napa Valley’s presumptive fifteenth AVA has been just that – presumed to be close to receiving official sanction.

That may be wishful thinking. When this year’s Premiere Napa Valley rolls Calistoga Cellars Cabernet around at the end of February, the word “Pending” will most assuredly once again adorn the Calistoga marker.

The request for AVA designation is being held up at the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) in Washington, chiefly because of two winery brands which have Calistoga-designated names on their labels.

Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards, the brands in question, are without wineries in Calistoga, and make their wines in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, respectively. Both procure some, but not all, of their grapes from Calistoga. Nonetheless, the TTB is currently listening to arguments from all sides before it makes its ruling which is likely many months away.

Napa Valley Vintners AssociationToward that end, a group representing the Napa Valley Vintners– the powerful marketing and lobbying trade organization – went to the nation’s capital last November to speak to the TTB about the situation. Not only does it want to see the long-overdue AVA designation granted to Calistoga, the NVV has an interest in upholding the laws which apply to such designations. Those laws were hard-won in the NVV’s recent California Supreme Court decision against the Bronco Wine Co., a decision which upheld truth-in-labeling rules.

Tom Shelton, the president and CEO of the Joseph Phelps Winery and chair of the NVV appellation committee, was one of those who went to Washington.

“The meeting was informational,” was the way in which Shelton, who happens to own three acres of vineyard in Calistoga, characterized the discussion with the TTB. “We’re trying to garner support for the AVA in a way that would be consistent with other AVAs; that would not open a Pandora’s Box as to how other AVAs are used. It’s a question of authenticity as to the use of these AVAs.

“We’re trying to get a handle so that we don’t compromise the use of our own AVA. We’ve struggled long and hard over the Bronco (case). We’re hoping the federal government doesn’t come up with a policy which conflicts with the state direction that we achieved in Sacramento.

“The TTB listened to us,” Shelton explained, “(but) they couldn’t really say a whole lot because they’re in the discussion phase of this. So, they’re reluctant to talk about their thoughts. They didn’t tip their hand.”

Putting Labels on the AVA

But the owners of Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate have let the TTB know where they stand on the issue. In separate and exclusive arguments, both let the TTB know that they stand to lose a lot of revenue if they’re forced to change the name of their brands, thus expunging the word “Calistoga” from their labels.

“I have nothing against it (the AVA designation) except that it screws us,” Roger Lauer of Calistoga Cellars told Appellation America. “…We have four attorneys working on it. We had been working on (our brand) for almost 10 years, and spent a lot of money. We may (now) be forced to (change our name).”

But you’ve been accused of holding up the AVA designation.

“That’s true. But look what it does to us,” said Lauer, who recently sold his winery and 11 acres of Cabernet and Merlot to Nils Venge of Saddleback Cellars, who will call his Calistoga brand Envy .

Lauer, in the meanwhile, will continue to use the fruit from his former Calistoga vineyard for the next two years for his brand, along with fruit from other sources. His wines are made at McNab Ranch in Mendocino County, while retaining the Calistoga Cellars name.

“I feel sorry for them (the others in Calistoga),” he said, “but if you were in our shoes, what would you do?”

Marvin Stirman, who is in the retail wine business, ironically in Washington, D.C., heads up a group of 28 people who have bought a building in Calistoga which they plan to convert to a “hospitality house.” His Calistoga Estate Vineyards, which has its wines made at Adler Fels Winery in Santa Rosa,
I’m only opposed to it because I’m personally affected and don’t see the value to it.
~Marvin Stirman, Calistoga Estate Vineyards
claims it uses all of its fruit from the Napa Valley, “but certainly not all from Calistoga,” according to Stirman.

Is he opposed to Calistoga being granted AVA status?

“Essentially yes, because I’ve spent years working like hell putting it (his brand) together,” he answered. “… Now what am I going to do, start all over again? What happens to all that that good money?

“I’m only opposed to it because I’m personally affected and don’t see the value to it.”

What’s the Value of an AVA, Anyway

Stirman insists that he didn’t know, nor was informed by his attorneys that “there was a Calistoga AVA proposal. "If I had, I would have a different name. But it makes sense to me that I have this name. I don’t see where we’re misleading anybody.”

Stirman went on to say, “Consumers don’t know what an AVA is and we don’t really care. I don’t see that what we’re doing is harmful to Calistoga. If anything, we’re helping. We’re publicizing the region. Why wouldn’t you want the name publicized? To me, it’s puzzling. I don’t see why they think it’s necessary to have an AVA Calistoga.”

Bo Barrett, the winemaker at Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena, who is heading up the committee which is trying to push through his area’s AVA, and was among the group that went to Washington, had a ready comeback for Stirman.

“They should have done their homework before they picked their name,” he said. “Cuvaison gave up its second label ‘Calistoga’ for the good of the community. And Montelena (did the same with) ‘Calistoga Cuvee.’”

But why does the Napa Valley have to have yet another AVA?

Rex Stults, the industry relations director for the Napa Vintners, as you might expect, had an answer.

“We want a product to represent a place and why should Calistoga be deprived of that recognition?” he answered. “People are surprised that Calistoga is not already recognized as an AVA. Calistoga has been an integral part of the Napa Valley as long as we’ve been producing wines. It has its own character and it manifests in the bottle.”

The NVV’s public relations director Terry Hall weighs in on the subject. “We went through a period of trying to grow wines which would

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