Jury Will Decide Winemaker Clash Over ‘Buttery’ Chardonnay

It’s up to a jury whether “rich & buttery” runs afoul of a winemaker’s trademark for its Butter chardonnay.

(AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — “Buttery” is a term commonly used by wine enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike when describing a full-bodied chardonnay. But one Napa winemaker took boxed wine purveyor Franzia to court over the word, and a federal judge says a jury must decide whether Franzia’s use of “rich & buttery” on its chardonnay label constitutes trademark infringement. 

Jam Cellars has been selling its Butter chardonnay since 2010. It was developed by vintner John Anthony, who told the Napa Wine Project that a fellow winemaker suggested the name after trying some of the chardonnay at the 2010 Pebble Beach Food and Wine and Food Festival. 

Finding the first vintage was not quite buttery enough, Anthony told the Napa Wine Project that additional toasted oak chips from a cooper in Napa eventually yielded the desired flavor profile.

Jam Cellars has spent $35 million marketing Butter, according to the lawsuit Jam filed against The Wine Group in 2019 after the latter relaunched its Franzia brand with a new chardonnay called “Rich & Buttery.” 

The label has since been a hit, particularly with female wine drinkers, according to Anthony. The lawsuit against The Wine Group notes that Jam Cellars has sold over 18 million bottles of Butter wine since 2010 — 6 million bottles in 2018 alone. Its marketing includes sponsoring the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival every year since 2015, as well as festivals in Dana Point, California, and New Orleans.

Franzia’s box of “Rich and Buttery” chardonnay features a color scheme and bold font that Jam believes intentionally mimics its own black and yellow label. 

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam denied The Wine Group’s request for summary judgment in a 10-page ruling Friday, writing, “While not identical, the sound and meaning of the marks are not so dissimilar as to preclude the existence of a triable issue of fact. Rich & Buttery noticeably contains the word ‘butter’ in it, and both marks are used to convey the same meaning: the flavor profile of the wine.”

This isn’t the first trademark dispute between the brands. In 2017, Jam sued The Wine Group for using the term “butterkissed” to describe its Cupcake Vineyards brand of chardonnay. Jam’s 2019 lawsuit says the companies settled over “butterkissed,” with The Wine Group agreeing to use the mark as a sub-brand.

Gilliam alluded to the prior lawsuit in his ruling. “While the court has some reason to be concerned based on this and other lawsuits that plaintiff may be effectively attempting to monopolize use of the term ‘buttery’ to describe chardonnay, summary judgment is not warranted,” he wrote.

A jury trial is set for early July in Oakland.

Attorneys for both sides did not respond to emails requesting comment Monday.

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