The One with the Great Debate of To Kalon
Welcome back to the blog! Today we talk about the great debate over the legendary To Kalon Vineyard of Napa Valley...is it a place? A brand? It may be up for you to decide! Read on for all of the dirty details...then let me know which side of the fence you land on.
Ok, so to start things off, a bit of background info...
To Kalon is a renowned vineyard in the Oakville AVA of Napa Valley known for its historical significance, optimal grape growing conditions, phenomenal wines...and its pricey fruit. In fact, these wines are some of the most expensive and highest-rated wines of California, retailing at around $125 per bottle, minimum.
Photo taken from winespectator.com
Named after a Greek phrase meaning "highest beauty", this plot of grape-growing goodness dates back over 130 years, to a gentlemen named Hamilton Walker Crabb (pictured below). Between 1868 and 1879, Mr. Crabb acquired approximately 360 acres of land from which he harvested and sold grapes, which at the time, was a lesser-known activity in Napa Valley. Crabb was an avid experimenter, and by the end of the 1970s, he had curated the largest collection of vinifera grape varieties (over 400 of them!) in the United States.
Photo taken from historyoftokalon.com
Though originally operating under the name "Hermosa Vineyard", the winery was renamed to To-Kalon Wine Company in 1886. Over the next several years, Mr. Crabb won numerous wine awards, spoke at conferences, and essentially promoted the To Kalon name until he passed away in 1899.
Winery operations continued until 1939 when a fire devastated the estate, taking with it the illustrious To-Kalon name (at least for the time being) . Over the following decades sub plots were defined then redefined several times, changing hands nearly a dozen times before Robert Mondavi became the vineyard's majority landowner in 1978 and bringing a resurgence to the historic name.
Over the next several years, ownership of the prestigious vineyard landed amongst six entities. Robert Mondavi Winery (owned by Constellation brands since 2004), took the largest piece of the pie with more than 450 acres of planted vines. Grape grower Andy Beckstoffer (who becomes a key player) acquired 89 acres. Opus One, a joint-venture between Constellation Brands and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, purchased a smaller parcel, and also rented a chunk from Mondavi. The remaining three proprietors included The University of California, Davis and the Detert and MacDonald families.
Photo taken from mowse.blogspot.com
Here's where the plot starts to thicken...
In 1988 , Robert Mondavi (pictured below) registered "To Kalon" as a trademark and therefore barred anyone else (including other landowners) from using the name, and in 1994, he added "To Kalon Vineyard" to his list of trademarks.
Photo taken from rmi.ucdavis.edu
Two years later, Beckstoffer convinced Schrader Cellars, to whom he had sold grapes, to label its wine "Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard"...which of course didn't sit well with Mondavi.
Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars for copyright infringement and sought a sales injunction. Schrader filed a counterclaim right back ,with Beckstoffer closely in tow with a suit of his own against Robert Mondavi Winery, arguing "I believe that a vineyard is a place, not a marketing concept."
Photo taken from cellartracker.com
While Mondavi argued that "To Kalon had no present meaning or significance" at the time he registered for the trademarks, and Constellation Brands insisted that "To Kalon is not a place", the parties eventually settled out of court in 2003, though the terms of the agreement were never made public. We do know, however, that Beckstoffer upheld the right to let his clients use the terms "To Kalon" and "To Kalon Vineyard" on their labels... up to a certain case threshold.
The settlement has led to confusion surrounding the name; for Beckstoffer wines, it's a Geographical Identification of Origin and indicates a minimum of 95% To-Kalon Vineryard fruit for any wine labeled as such.
Photo taken from winespectator.com
Robert Mondavi Winery, on the other hand, is free to use the term in any capacity it wants to. As Tim Mondavi (son of Robert) so eloquently states it, "it's our right any way we choose to use it...we can use it to bottle a wine from Nairobi."
Don't be fooled...the story doesn't end here. The latest legal showdown over To Kalon began just last November, when Jeremy Justin Nickel (a potential 7th proprietor) and his winery, The Vineyard House, challenged the Robert Mondavi Winery and Constellation. The two have been suing and countersuing each other since mid 2019 over the use of "To Kalon". Last January, Constellation brands sued The Vineyard House for its words "HW Crabb's To Kalon Vineyard" on their 2015 Block 8 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Photo taken from https://cluboenologique.com/story/the-battle-for-the-soul-of-napas-to-kalon/
Nickel's argument is that owners of vines in historic vineyards should be able to pay homage to that place on the label, whether its been trademarked or not. This position would require him to prove that his vineyard is, in fact, within To Kalon's historic boundaries, which, since said boundaries have been redrawn so many times throughout the years, is still disputed.
But what about the other families who own land of To Kalon? Sadly, neither the Deterts nor the MacDonalds are allowed to use the trademarked name on their wines. Even without the big name though, both producers make some pretty darn big wines that come with premium price tags. In fact, MacDonald's Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon has an average price of $566/bottle on Wine Searcher! I guess you could say they're doing alright...
Graeme MacDonald has logged hundreds of hours of research over the past few years documenting the vineyard's historic importance as a place. He's even taken his findings so far as to nominate To Kalon for National Register of Historic Places status, something that Constellation is still fighting.
So there you have it, a snapshot of the Great Dispute of To Kalon; a battle that still rages on to this day...
And here's a hot tip...Last Bottle sometimes features wines of To Kalon at a fraction of their retail price. That's where I picked up the beautiful Beckstoffer bottles pictured above! Never used Last Bottle before? Use the link in my Instagram bio @thecandidcork for $10 off your first order!
So let me know....are you team Mondavi or team Beckstoffer? Let me know in the comments! As always, click here to join my mailing list and be the first to know about new blogs, giveaways, news and more.
Cheers, Corkers! Until next time...