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Wine news from Wine Spectator
March 25th, 2019

Another battle has broken out over who can use the name of Napa Valley’s most famous vineyard, To Kalon. The Vineyard House, a winery owned by Jeremy Nickel, son of the late Far Niente proprietor Gil Nickel, filed suit against Constellation Brands last week, claiming that a Constellation subsidiary, Robert Mondavi Corporation, fraudulently obtained a trademark of To Kalon and that Constellation has marketed it deceptively.

Nickel also contends that a portion of The Vineyard House property is part of the original To Kalon Vineyard, and thus should be entitled to use the name for its own purposes. But historic documents suggest otherwise.

The lawsuit may sound familiar. Mondavi trademarked "To Kalon" in 1988 and "To Kalon Vineyard" in 1994. In 2000, vineyard magnate Andy Beckstoffer, who owns a portion of To Kalon Vineyard, began selling the fruit as To Kalon to vintners, including Fred Schrader. Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars in 2002 for putting To Kalon on its labels.

Beckstoffer countersued, arguing that Mondavi was misleading consumers by including grapes from vineyards that were not part of the original To Kalon Vineyard in wines with the name on their label. Beckstoffer also claimed that Mondavi had fraudulently obtained the trademark. The case eventually was settled, and Beckstoffer was granted rights to use To Kalon on wines from his portion of the vineyards.

In 2017, Constellation applied for two additional trademarks: "To-Kalon Wine Company" and "To-Kalon Vineyard Company." Beckstoffer again raised opposition, suggesting that reviving a To Kalon brand would alter its meaning, which has been used as a vineyard designation since. Constellation ultimately abandoned the trademark applications. (Constellation also bought Schrader Cellars that year.)

The new suit raises old questions: Can a vineyard name be trademarked? And what exactly is the true To Kalon?

Nickel’s suit claims that his property includes acreage that dates to the original To Kalon Vineyard, established by Hamilton Walker Crabb in 1868. Nickel acquired this property after the death of his father. The estate is just west of Far Niente, and its neighbors include Harlan Estate and Futo. In the lawsuit, Nickel asks the court to revoke Constellation’s trademarks and to allow him to use the To Kalon name on his own wines.


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"Jeremy [Nickel] cares very much about the integrity of the To Kalon name, and believes everyone that owns a piece of the To Kalon property should be entitled to use the name," said Vineyard House spokesperson Larry Kamer. He also said that Nickel believes that grapes are being used for Constellation’s To Kalon wines that are not from To Kalon, though neither he nor the complaint provide evidence.

Several wineries can claim ownership of portions of Crabb’s original property, but under the current trademark, vintners can only use the To Kalon name if they buy grapes from Beckstoffer or Constellation.

But there has also been much debate over the years as to where the historical boundaries lie. Over his lifetime, Crabb expanded his Oakville estate several times. How much of that land should be considered part of To Kalon?

The National Park Service’s Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) recently added documentation about To Kalon to the Library of Congress, based on both old records and geological surveys. Following a methodology laid out by the National Register of Historic Places, the report defines To Kalon’s boundaries to include all historic features of the property, but not "buffer zones''or acreage not directly contributing to the significance of the property. This means hillside properties owned by Crabb or subsequent owners that have only recently been planted with vines cannot claim to be part of the historic vineyard.

In the HALS report, the Nickel parcel is documented as part of Crabb's estate but not as part of To Kalon. The map shows the To Kalon Vineyard boundary stopping at Oakville Grade Road. One of Crabb’s probates cited in the survey shows that the parcel on the other side of the road, where The Vineyard House is located, was used for timber production and a reservoir, and was not planted to grapevines during Crabb's time. Subsequent aerial photography and interviews show that it wasn't planted to vines until around 1980.

The lawsuit could be an uphill battle for Jeremy Nickel, who is no stranger to legal fights. He was an heir to his father’s Far Niente estate, when Gil Nickel died in 2003. In 2011, Jeremy Nickel filed a lawsuit against three members of the board of directors of his family’s wine companies, claiming that they misused company funds and gave themselves raises. The management fought Nickel’s suit, calling it "meritless," and other Nickel family members sided with the board. The matter was eventually settled when the winery was sold to GI Partners in 2017. Nickel was bought out of his shares, and is no longer affiliated with Far Niente.

Alexandra Wagner, a spokeswoman for Constellation, called Nickel’s allegations regarding To Kalon without merit. "Constellation Brands is committed to operating with the highest degree of ethics and integrity and in full accordance with all applicable laws and regulations," Wagner told Wine Spectator via email.

Kamer says Nickel is hoping for clarity that To Kalon means To Kalon. "It dilutes the value of the name to be treated in the manner in which Mondavi and Constellation are using it."

Posted: March 25, 2019, 7:00 pm

How did the Bartolotta brothers, partners in the Milwaukee-based Bartolotta Restaurants group, become leading restaurateurs in the Midwest? Joe Bartolotta, president and co-owner, would point out that his brother, Paul, brought talent and experience from working in the kitchens of storied spots like the Rainbow Room in New York and Spiaggia in Chicago; he had been executive chef at the latter for nine years. But Paul, chef and co-owner, would credit Joe's knack for finding business opportunities and managing diverse concepts over the past quarter-century in Wisconsin's biggest city. The admiration the brothers have for each other is palpable.

The Milwaukee-area natives went from opening their first 55-seat restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta, back in 1993, to now running 17 restaurants and catering venues, with cuisines ranging from Italian to French to contemporary American—even a "custard stand"—while managing some 1,000 employees. These ventures include Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Bacchus and Award of Excellence winners Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, Mr. B's Steakhouses and the original Ristorante Bartolotta. There's also Care-a-Lotta, an organization that supports some 200 different charities in the Milwaukee community, where "everybody wants to give and help," says Joe.

The business partner–brother duo spoke with editorial assistant Brianne Garrett about building a fine-dining empire from nothing, their first wine argument, and what the future holds in Milwaukee—and beyond.

Wine Spectator: What is the dynamic like, running a business with a sibling?
Paul Bartolotta: So my brother obviously leads the business—he is living it every day and has sourced some really remarkably unique buildings and locations, and built some really beautifully interior-designed restaurants. We collaborate on the menu, the development and the functioning of [them].
Joe Bartolotta: Part of being a great businessman is identifying great resources and assets, and my brother, Paul—he's won two [James] Beard awards; he's a brilliant chef. He's worked long stints in Chicago at Spiaggia and long stints in Las Vegas. From my perspective—I'm not a chef, I know my way around a kitchen pretty good, but Paul's the chef; Paul's the culinary engine of the company.

WS: How have Bartolotta restaurants evolved since your first opening in 1993?
JB: We've become very passionate. We've gotten a lot better at educating the guests, because when you educate the guest, that creates an emotional connection; they feel they've gotten some knowledge and some hospitality. I think that's really the strength of our company.
PB: We want to have a dialogue where, if people want to ask a question or make a comment on something, they don't get barbecued so the next time they're hesitant to raise their hand. We [also] put in place a lot of good people. There's a team of other chefs; I've never really stepped in front of our chefs, because if I wasn’t living in that same town all the time, why should I take the credit when they're doing the heavy lifting? These guys are working their hardest.

WS: When and how did wine become a focus at your restaurants?
JB: We approach our wine lists very differently, perhaps, than most. The first restaurant was Italian, [Ristorante Bartolotta], and Paul and I got into a little debate, because I had most recently worked at big hotels, and I was used to a wine list that was broad and diverse and had a lot of international choices for the guests. When we started to open the Italian restaurant, Paul put his foot down and was very adamant about an all-Italian wine list. I was really afraid, because people want a Napa Valley Chardonnay, you know?
PB: He was like, "We need something where people will immediately go, 'I know that wine.'" We didn't have any track record in this market; we weren't really sure what would work. And even a lot of the Italian wines weren't the Chianti in the flask. We were already bringing in the kind of wine I was used to in Chicago, getting them brought up here because there wasn't even distribution of those [wines in Milwaukee]. But this has obviously changed dramatically since then.
JB: Lake Park Bistro—that was our second [restaurant]—is the all-French list, and then the third restaurant was Bacchus, and that became more of an international-type restaurant. So we have a lot more selections there from a lot of different producers and countries.

We've been able to educate the guests—that's probably the most important part. We trained our servers really thoroughly, and when it came to pushing back and saying, "Well, I want something that tastes like a Chardonnay, but I'm not familiar with any of the Italian wines," we had to train them and educate them that Italian wines have the same properties and a lot of the same flavor profiles as what they may be used to, and they began to start drinking the Italian wines and understanding them. And I hear this from even our distributors; one of them was in Ristorante last week or so and he said to me, "Gosh, I remember in the very beginning when you were asking for all these weird wines that nobody had, and now it's just commonplace."

WS: Has there ever been talk of expanding beyond Milwaukee?
JB: We're looking for other opportunities, maybe in a bigger market. My brother Paul has succeeded in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. I can open one restaurant in a major market—likely Chicago, L.A., New York—and it's equivalent to the sales of three or four of our restaurants. There are added costs, being a bigger market, but the upside opportunity is significantly higher.

Milwaukee is a funny culinary scene—it's got a lot of growth going on, a lot of young independents are opening, a lot of creative guys doing interesting stuff.


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Posted: March 22, 2019, 5:00 pm

High up in the Rockies, sunshine skiing season is in full swing, and this year, there's a new way for the slopeside wine lovers to après to the extreme. Just opened this year at Colorado's Arapahoe Basin Ski Area (known fondly as A-Basin), restaurant and wine bar Il Rifugio at Snowplume invites winter sportspersons to get cozy, sip wine and nibble on Italian bites … if they can get to the place, perched 12,500 feet up on the Continental Divide.

Claiming the title of "highest restaurant in the country," Il Rifugio (meaning “the shelter” in Italian) is only accessible to guests by chairlift, and diners are expected to ski or snowboard back down to the base of the mountain once they're sated. The restaurant's reusable plates, cups and cutlery are also taken via lift to be washed at another restaurant mid-mountain, since there is no running water in the building. Food and beverage supplies are taken up the mountain via snowcat—only twice weekly, to be mindful of the environment.

Arapahoe Basin / Ian Zinner
Tap the Rockies?

"It was not a goal to become the highest restaurant in the U.S.; just a happy realization," Katherine Fuller, A-Basin's communications manager, told Unfiltered. "There was already a building there—patrol headquarters is in the bottom level of the Snowplume building. A little over 10 years ago, we used to sell simple grab 'n' go lunches, like premade sandwiches and soup, out of that building. But up until this winter, it was just a warming hut on the top floor."

That former warming hut is now open for lunch seven days a week during season (expected to last through early June this year), allowing ski-in enophiles to take in 360 views of A-Basin’s terrain and the surrounding mountain ranges while enjoying antipasti, zuppe and panini along with a selection of nine vinos by the glass or bottle. For an Italian-inflected alpine experience, there are two Proseccos, the Querceto Chianti Classico, Damilano's Barbera d’Asti and Rocca di Frassinello's Le Sughere from Tuscany. Which may or may not be just what you need to power your very long, steep, snowy trek home down a mountain afterward, so enjoy molto responsabilmente.

Arapahoe Basin / Ian Zinner
A thin-sliced–beef sandwich completes a morning of carving.

“At ski areas, most people expect to pay a premium for mediocre food," Chris Rybak, A-Basin's director of food and beverage, said in a press release. "With Il Rifugio, I wanted to offer something nicer and more European."

Of course, Il Rifugio's entrance into the very loftiest tier of dining means that another eatery was knocked down from its "highest restaurant" pedestal: Alpino Vino, at Colorado's Telluride Ski Resort, sits pretty at 11,966 feet. The restaurant, which is a sibling to Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Allred's Restaurant, has a bit more on the menu, including a prix-fixe dinner and a 150-selection wine list, so it has now tweaked its title to "highest elevation fine-dining restaurant in North America." See, there's plenty of room on the mountain (of mountaintop dining) for both of these spots.


Newest Wine Bot to Become 'Salutary God' of Your Vineyard; Resistance Futile

Some of our eno-robotic friends are more the homebody types—offering glasses of bubbly to weary humans or uncorking and enjoying the fruits of the vine themselves. But a new autonomous vinebot is more willing to get its mecha-appendages dirty, joining "outdoor" bots like Bordeaux's Ted and Portugal's VineScout in plotting vineyard mastery.

This AI viticulturist goes by the name of Bakus (android for "Bacchus"), and it calls the vineyards of Champagne home. Bakus was born of France-based startup VitiBot's desire to improve sustainable viticulture. "We are confident that Bakus will soon become the salutary god of the vineyards of France and of the world, which will facilitate the long-awaited environmental transition," CEO Bernard Boxho told Unfiltered, in the closest French approximation yet of, "I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords."

One of the main tools at Bakus' disposal is its internal sensors designed to identify where herbicides and other sprays are most direly needed, thereby using them as sparingly as possible. "This is a major asset," said Boxho. "Not only is man far from this potentially harmful spray, but the product is no longer dispersed [more widely]." Bakus can work up to 10 hours straight, day and night, and at 2.75 tons it's also relatively light on its feet compared to most tractors, which reduces soil pressure and compaction.

Courtesy of VitiBot
Bakus, a god of "mindless" fun … for now.

Boxho says the company is working on adding features to the bots, like the ability to trim and prune vines and remove leaves. And a Bakus owner-partner can control and monitor the machine from any PC, tablet or smartphone. The first batch of six Bakuses ("Baki"?) will be operating on Champagne vineyards by this summer. Pricing hasn't been finalized, but Boxho says the bots will be comparable in cost to conventional vineyard tractors. "We want a robot that is accessible to all," he said. And he intends not to stop until global domination is achieved, hoping to open up exports by 2021.


Kate Bosworth, Chloe Wine Collection Seeking America's Next Top Wine-Lover–Filmmaker

Nothing against the fine work of vintner-auteurs Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ridley Scott and, uh, Gérard Depardieu, but the future of enophile directors is clearly female: Put Amy Poehler in the director's chair, and presto, we're getting a Napa-set wine-country movie out in May. Now comes word of She Directed, an initiative to recognize women filmmakers, co-starring actor Kate Bosworth, Chloe Wine Collection and the advocacy/equality organization Women in Film.

She-directors can submit a short film or feature excerpt by July 7, 2019, for a chance to win $10,000 and mentorship sessions with Women in Film; viewers like you, along with viewers like Bosworth and other industry pros, will then select a set of semifinalists, which will be further winnowed to a winner.

Michael Kovac / Getty Images for Chloe Wine Collection
Kate Bosworth sets the scene.

“I’m honored to raise a glass to those who are putting women at the center of the story, both in wine and in film," Chloe Collection winemaker Georgetta Dane told Unfiltered via email. Women, she noted, still only make up a small fraction of California winemakers and commercial film directors. "Our hope with the She Directed campaign is to provide more opportunities for women in film and spotlight female voices.” If that sounds like you, head over to the contest page and … action!


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Posted: March 21, 2019, 7:00 pm

Note: This article originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator.

Wine pairs with anything; Tabasco pairs with anything. And the person pairing both together is McIlhenny Co. CEO Tony Simmons, whose passion for the fruit of the vine—and the fruit of the pepperbush—led to his 3,000-bottle cellar on Avery Island, La.

Simmons represents the fifth generation of his family to helm the ubiquitous hot sauce brand, a dynasty he likens to that of a storied winemaking clan—plantings, bottles, barrels and all.

"Every morning, I'm at Avery Island at 9 a.m. I go down to the blending area where we make the product, and the team will have up to 96 barrels open for me to inspect," he says. "And I check each of those barrels—smell it, inspect it, and I taste some of them. I try to finish my coffee first."

When Simmons was a teenager, his father would send him to grab a bottle of wine from the small cellar he kept on the island. "All he had was first-growth Bordeaux," Simmons recalls. "It would be a Lafite Rothschild. And I'd go pull the cork on it for dinner. I had no idea what it was."

From the unwitting enophilic peaks of his childhood, Simmons returned to earth as a young adult, paying little attention to wine, drinking casually but not collecting. In the 1990s, with his children high school age, Simmons moved with his family to Charlotte, N.C., and planted the seed of his cellar.

"Some of the first wines I bought were Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages," he says. "I started a vertical, from 1995 up to 2003. It was fun for me to have a couple of friends over, open three or four bottles from different vintages and see if we could taste the differences."

A decade later, Simmons relocated to Avery Island to work full-time for the family business. Further following in the footsteps of his father, he set about constructing a wine cellar, contracting a Houston designer to build it off the garage of his new house.

Accommodating 3,200 bottles total, the room features floor-to-ceiling racking 24 bottles high, bins against the back wall for case storage, and a central column bearing close to 1,000 wines. A WhisperKool Extreme Series temperature-control system battles the oppressive Louisiana heat, keeping the collection right in the target zone of 55˚ F.

When it comes to buying decisions, Simmons' agronomical pedigree shines through. "My philosophy has always been: Who has good wine this year? Who hit it right? Whose weather was the best? I focus more on which region was having a good year than any one particular wine."

There are exceptions, of course. Simmons holds a coveted spot on Pride Mountain Vineyards' reserve list, closed to newcomers since 1999, and takes annual allocations of everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Viognier from the cult Napa producer.

He also has first dibs on a case of white Drouhin Clos des Mouches, sourced every year just for him by Rick Hopper's Carte des Vins wineshop in New Orleans. "It's my favorite wine, so it's mine," he says, laughing but deadly serious. "He can't sell it to anyone else. If he gets two cases, he can sell one of them, but he better not sell my case."

Building on a tradition established by his father, who laid down a 1951 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve for Simmons' birth year, Simmons cellars Bordeaux first-growths, bought en primeur, vintage-dated to the births of his three grandchildren. "When they get to a certain age, I want them to have a wine they can try and say, ‘This is as old as I am,' " he explains. "I don't buy wine to invest in it; the investment is sharing it with the people you love."

His immediate family isn't the only recipient of the gifts of Simmons' passion. Avery Island hosts dozens of gatherings for food professionals, oftentime bringing in outside chefs to craft multicourse meals showcasing Tabasco in a range of dishes and preparations. Simmons selects the wine pairings for each event, sitting down with the chef and sampling bottles to work out matches.

When it comes to selecting a wine to stand up to the peppery twang of Tabasco, Simmons' recommendations are as flexible as his family's signature sauce. "When you cook Tabasco, the heat tends to cook out, and what you end up with is flavor," he says. "A lot of Cajun cuisine has Tabasco in it that doesn't come out as heat—étouffées and gumbos."

Asked to choose a favorite match, though, he opts for a classic: white Burgundy with raw oysters, a little bit of lemon and a hit of Tabasco. "I just think white Burgundy complements it to the moon," he says.

As his wines come of age alongside his 66,000 barrels of pepper mash, he scrolls through his inventory on CellarTracker, noting bottles entering their drink window and ready to be enjoyed from the collection.

"A pepper bush doesn't come ripe all together," Simmons says. "The only way I can control the quality is to only pick the reddest, ripest pepper."

He knows that in Tabasco, as in wine, finding the right time to pick, to sip, to share, is everything. He lives in the heat of the moment.

What's in Tony Simmons' cellar?

Cellar location: Avery Island, La.

Number of bottles: 3,200

Favorite wines: Joseph Drouhin Beaune White Clos des Mouches; various bottlings from Pride Mountain Vineyards

Oldest bottle: Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1951

Vertical: Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 1995–2003

First wine memory: Pulling a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild from his father's cellar to have with dinner

Cellar temperature: 55 F

Cooling system: WhisperKool Extreme Series


Photo Gallery


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Posted: March 20, 2019, 2:00 pm

Vintage Wine Estates is betting big on California's Central Coast. The Sonoma-based wine company has purchased Laetitia, a Pinot Noir and sparkling wine specialist that helped pioneer the cool Arroyo Grande Valley in the Central Coast region. The sale includes the brand, the winery and 287 acres of vines planted mostly to Pinot and Chardonnay, as well as an additional 400 plantable acres. The sale price was not disclosed, but an industry source told Wine Spectator that it's in the range of $30 million to $40 million.

Laetitia winemaker Eric Hickey will remain in his role, but owner Selim Zilkha, 91, will be stepping back from the business. The winery produces 35,000 cases of still wine a year, but has the capacity to produce 120,000 cases, and Vintage plans to make the facility a hub for its Central Coast wine production, including its canned wine brand, Alloy Wine Works. It also plans to build a new winery for Qupé, another Central Coast brand it recently bought, on the nearly 2,000-acre property.


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"Laetitia has a great history and great scores," Vintage Wine Estates CEO Pat Roney told Wine Spectator. He says Laetitia's sparkling wines were also a draw, filling a category that was missing from the company's portfolio.

Laetitia was the former home of Maison Deutz, which was built along Highway 101 in southern San Louis Obispo County by France's Champagne Deutz in the 1980s, as its California outpost. It was later renamed Laetitia.

Zilkha, who was born in Iraq and moved to the U.S. as a child, made his fortune as founder of several energy companies before he bought the winery in 2001. Laetitia continued to make sparkling wine but it is best-known for its still Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay.

"We are very proud of the winery we have created here," said Hickey, who has been working at Laetitia for nearly 22 years. "I'm excited about the energy that [Vintage Wine Estates] is going to bring, and their focus."

Roney says Vintage will boost Laetitia's wine production up to 70,000 cases annually. It plans to grow the vineyard, adding Rhône varieties, and will use some of the grapes to bolster its other labels, such as Layer Cake and Cameron Hughes. But the company does not plan to change the trajectory of Laetitia's wines. "We bought [Laetitia] because of the fabulous style of the wines and won't change that," said Roney.

The deal is part of Vintage Wine Estate's larger move to expand into the Central Coast. The company has been on a buying spree of late, acquiring Santa Barbara–based Qupé in November 2018. Earlier this year it purchased the Alloy Wine Works brand from Field Recordings in Paso Robles, adding canned wine to its lineup.

Vintage now owns more than 30 brands, representing roughly 2 million cases of annual production. "We think the Central Coast is a strategic area to be in," Roney explained, adding that Laetitia will give the company greater access to markets in Southern California.

Posted: March 19, 2019, 9:45 pm
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