Pot Luck

Big California Wine Crushes a Houston Import from Italy: Sutter Home Forces Trinchero Family to Remove Its Own Name from Labels

La reproduction interdite... When a colleague showed me the new label for Trinchero Barbera d'Asti Superiore (2006 vintage) last night, I thought to myself, either he is playing a practical joke on me or this is a work of surrealist art.

As if plucked from a painting by Magritte or a fountain by Duchamp, a confident label stood before me (above), austere and elegant in its ensemble, yet marred by a glaring omission: A gaping space at the label's center was bare, unavoidably and inexplicably innominate and anonymous.

I had been told that the Trinchero winery in Piedmont, Italy -- a pioneer of organic farming there, known for its stunning bottlings of Barbera grapes, one of my favorite wineries from the Barbera d'Asti appellation -- had been approached by the Sutter Home winery group, owners of the Trinchero Napa Valley label. The California behemoth, said the family's Houston-based importer, Douglas Skopp (Dionysus Imports), had threatened the Trinchero family with legal action if they refused to remove their family name -- their family name -- from bottles destined for sale in the U.S.

But such an aberration seemed improbable: Why would Sutter Home, one of the largest winery groups in the world, care about a small family-owned winery in Italy that sells relatively few bottles in the U.S. market? After all, Trinchero (Piedmont), while widely embraced by organic and Natural wine enthusiasts, commands only a niche market in the U.S.

Sutter Home is a wine industry powerhouse, with one of the largest market shares in our country. These are the guys who invented "White Zinfandel."

When I spoke to Trinchero (Piedmont) export director Monica Riessent this morning, she told me that the winery simply couldn't afford to fight a legal battle with the American giant.

"They said that they'd allow us to sell our wine in the U.S.," she told me, "but they insisted on a number of restrictions in the contract they sent: We could only sell a limited number of bottles...In the end, we knew that we couldn't fight it."

The good news is that Trinchero's Houston importer Skopp is determined to continue working with the winery here in Texas (the wines are imported by nationally distributed Polaner Selections in other states). And although they've had to remove their family name from their flagship Barbera d'Asti Superiore, the label for their top-tier single-vineyard bottling of Barbera "Vigna del Noce" (Walnut Tree Vineyard) will remain virtually unchanged. (It's one of my favorite Italian wines available in our market.)

Houston Wine Merchant buyer Marcy Jimenez is a big fan of the winery and you can find the wines at the store. You'll also find them at many Houston restaurants.

But, sadly, it's another tale of David and Goliath in a world where the might of globalization increasingly arms the giants of the world with absolute and insurmountable power.

All things considered, how many sales would Sutter Home lose if the Trincheros in Piedmont were allowed to continue printing their family name on their labels? It's hard to imagine that the number would do much damage to a winery group that sells at least thirty labels in the U.S. market, including some of our country's most popular supermarket wines, including Newman's Own, Sutter Home and Ménage à Trois, not to mention Trinchero Napa Valley.

If ever there were a tale of the one percent subjugating the 99, this is it.

And it's enough to make me sick...

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine and modern civilization for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen