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Ste. Michelle Vs Treasury Wine: Corporate Stags Behaving Badly Or A Brilliantly Executed Sucker Punch?

At first glance, the violation of a 31-year-old peace accord between Napa Valley’s dueling stags appears to be a case of two big corporations behaving badly.

That is what court documents, most legal sources and winery executives initially told Wine Industry Insight over the past 2 weeks for an article intended for publication last Thursday.

However, a different perspective came in on Friday that points toward the possibility that this legal tit-for-tat may actually be a carefully laid trap, designed to sucker punch Ste. Michelle Wine Estates into inadvertently convicting itself of the very same violations it has accused Treasury Wine Estates of committing. All while providing Treasury a publicity boost for a new brand.

Screen Shot 2016-10-13 at 9.55.26 AM

A label registered for St Huberts – a brand owned by Treasury Wine Estates which also owns Stags’ Leap Winery. Ste. Michelle Wine estates, which owns Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, objects to the label. The Stags Leap District Growers Association wishes all its stags would behave.

Why a sucker punch?

Using a sucker punch was vital because — despite Treasury Wine Estate’s substantial wine global clout — its resources pale compared with Ste. Michelle’s corporate owner, Altria which has a near-limitless war chest.

The lawsuit against TWE was filed on behalf of Ste. Michelle by Altria’s law firm, DLA Piper — the third largest on the planet whose tough, brilliant trademark attorney, Ann Ford, has a reputation as a “killer” litigator.

Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris USA, John Middleton, Inc., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, Inc., Philip Morris Capital Corporation, and Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Philip Morris International was spun off in 2008. Altria maintains a 28.7% stake in the UK-based brewer SABMiller plc. (See also news from today – 11/18/16 – Altria becomes major shareholder in Anheuser-Busch).

Treasury replies

An official spokesperson for Treasury said, “I won’t comment on the opinions of others, however it is worth mentioning that Stags’ Leap Winery has been harmoniously existing with its neighbors in the Stags Leap District for more than 30 years. TWE is an active member of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association (SLDWA) and wishes to maintain a collaborative relationship with them and the neighboring wineries.”

Altria, Ste. Michelle and the Stags Leap District Growers Association have not responded to our request for a comment. Their comments, if received, will be included in follow-up articles

Neither TWE nor the SLDWA have denied their involvement in such a potential ruse.

On the other hand, SLDWA did write a letter to TWE on September 14 to ask that the wine company refrain from using The Stag brand on California wine and the back labels that Treasury had registered to that date.

A note on the stag apostrophe conundrum: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a possessive stag (‘s). Stags’ Leap Winery may have more than one stag (s’) who may or may not be possessive. The Stags Leap District is neither plural nor possessive.

Also note that full court documents linked below are available only to Wine Executive News premium subscribers

The conflict in brief

  1. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (SLWCellars),  owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which is, in turn owned by tobacco giant Altria:
  2. Sued Stags’ Leap Winery (SLWinery), owned by Treasury Wine Estates, alleging improper referencing of the Stags Leap AVA on a label along with alleging unfair competition, false advertising and copyright violations.
  3. SLWinery then countersued SLWCellars seeking a court declaration that its intended label did not violate the multiple Ste. Michelle accusations. In the process, it argued that it had not violated the stag-wars peace accord, and alleged (among other things) that SLWCellars was guilty of the same practices it was now suing SLWinery for.

That peace accord, signed on May 30, 1985 by SLWinery’s Carl Doumani and SLWCellar’s Warren Winiarski settled a bitter series of legal and regulatory battles and brought a modicum of peace and cooperation between those two Napa Valley warring stags.

Wine Executive News subscribers please click here to read the rest of this 3,200-word article and access court documents.

Also In This Article:

The full text of the following sections along with court documents are available to premium subscribers of Wine Executive News.

  • Polarized opinions, reluctance to become “collateral damage”

  • Treasury’s Teyve moment: “And on the other hand ….”

  • “The Stag” — a Treasury brand from an 1862 Aussie winery — Meets with success in Oz.

  • The Stag’s migration to America meets with Altria’s blockbuster legal team

  • Ste. Michelle complaint goes ballistic from the opening text of its 78-page filing

  • Was this actually an Aussie coreeda move?

  • Did well-timed provocations set up a sucker punch

  • Ste. Michelle loses by winning their case before filing it

  • Some Stags Leap vintners see a possible positive outcome

  • The Hawk Crest Indictment

  • Treasury’s final label + Stags Leap Vintner Hopes

  • Who’s going after the OTHER four other wineries named stag? And the beer?

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