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What’s In A Name? Branding Battles in Bordeaux – The Attacks on Small Chateaux

One of the problems with trying to build a brand in Bordeaux is that many chateaux have similar or even the same names. This down to chateaux being created from the break ups of historical great estates which were sold and split up in the past; estates being divided due to inheritance, or chateaux being created by members of the same family who set up shop elsewhere. There are numerous examples: the three well known estates of Chateaux Leoville Las Cases,Leoville Barton and Leoville Poyferre all came from the Leoville estate and Chateaux Pichon Baron and Pichon Lalande were also once one entity. However this can stir up trouble if a particular chateau wants to try and protect their brand.

The problem doesn’t occur between the Grand Cru Classé as these are well established enough in their own right to avoid confusion but it does happen between Grand Cru Classé estates and less well known chateaux that bear the same name. The thinking behind it is that fame by association to a prestigious wine producing estate can benefit lesser chateaux as folks assume they are one and the same – which in turn can damage the more prestigious estate’s reputation. The only examples of branding battles of this nature I can find are First Growths attacking smaller fry that impinge on their brand identity.

The latest battle has been between the Saint Emilion First Growth, Chateau Figeac and two estates both owned by the Dutruilh family: Chateaux Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac. The Court of Appeal of Bordeaux decided on 30th November 2012 that Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac would have to drop their names after 6 years of litigation.

Chateau Figeac’s lawyer explained that the First Growth had initiated the proceedings in order to protect their brand as part of their marketing strategy. These two neighbouring small chateaux could, apparently, interfere with the prestige and international reputation of the First Growth. The two chateaux were once part of the ancient vineyards of the much larger Figeac of the 19th century, hence their use of the name Figeac. This ancestral use of the name was considered by the court to be deceptive to customers, misleading them into thinking that the two chateaux are connected to the Figeac of today in some way. The court considered that unwitting customers would think that these two chateaux could be thought to be the Second Wines of the First Growth and that this was misleading.

The Dutruilh’s lawyer said:

“My clients did not create the situation. When Dutruilh took over the property, these brands had incorporated the word Figeac for decades, openly and to all! And suddenly, by the caprice of a neighbour, years of effort and work creating wines known under these names has been challenged.”

“There is a sense of injustice. This is a very violent shock, a terrible blow for them, as they obviously have never had any intention to be parasitic.”

The Dutruilhs have six months, under pain of penalty, to drop the names and to try to communicate to their customers that the contents of the bottle have not changed but bear a different name. A hard task on a small budget.

Figeac has not set a precedent here – back in 2010 a battle between Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Lafitte (note the extra ‘t’) ended up in the Court of Appeal at Toulouse. The withdrawal of the parties occurred later in 2011. What had seemingly annoyed the Rothschild’s was that Chateau Lafitte (formerly Chateau Lafitte Mengin), a Premier Côtes de Bordeaux was benefiting from the association between their names. It looks as if the Rothschilds and Mengin signed a mutual agreement in December to end this battle and surprisingly Max Mengin and got what he wanted: the right to call his wine Chateau Lafitte (note the extra ’t’!!!) and not Chateau Lafitte Mengin.

There are several other Lafites around with various spellings and one savvy Chinese investor bought Chateau Chenu Lafitte in 2010. Another set of Chinese businessmen picked up Chateau Latour Laguens in 2008. (See my blog The Battle For Lafite for more information). You’ll find lots of Latours in Bordeaux as the name simply means ‘The Tower’ but First Growth Chateau Latour successfully took Chateau La Tour Gayet, in the Côtes de Blaye, to court in 2001, forcing the smaller chateau to change its name. (The new name the owners came up with is Chateau Les Tours Gayet.)

In 2011 Saint Emilion First Growth, Chateau Cheval Blanc won a court case after 5 years of proceedings against Chateau Guiraud Cheval Blanc in Côtes de Bourg. The court found that the similarity of the two names could create customer confusion and ruled that Guiraud Cheval Blanc had to drop the name. The two chateaux were not in the same league; Guiraud Cheval Blanc wines sold for around 7 euros a bottle. However this doesn’t seem to be a case of the lesser known chateau trying to benefit by the association to the First Growth to me – the hamlet the chateau was located in was actually called Cheval Blanc (near Saint Ciers de Canesse), hence its name. This wasn’t enough to convince the judges but they did throw out the request for damages filed by the First Growth.

What does this mean for the future? As chateaux battle to establish their brands to new markets, especially those which do not have an understanding of the intricate and often over lapping histories of the Bordeaux wine producing estates, will we see more protectionist litigation? I think we will. It has been quietly going on for decades . . . sometimes these things are agreed mutually far away from the courts and behind closed doors. Of course they won’t always win – Chateau Haut Brion failed in the case of Chateau Moulin de Brion in 2000 thanks to some clever legal loop holes Moulin de Brion found concerning the use of the name ‘Haut’ as a counter attack. More recently Chateau Mouton Rothschild lost its case against the Hawke’s Bay estate in New Zealand, Osawa Wine’s Flying Mouton, in November 2012. However as brands are now big business in Bordeaux I think we will see more litigation and more of the big boys throwing their weight about.

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3 Responses to What’s In A Name? Branding Battles in Bordeaux – The Attacks on Small Chateaux

  1. Peter May says:

    Chateau La Tour St Bonnet (Medoc cru bourgeois) was forced to drop the ‘La’ from its name by you know who.

    As it happens, the first time I tasted it many many years ago I chose it from a hotel wine list that didn’t had ‘forgotten’ to print the ‘St Bonnet’ part of the name.

    • Nick says:

      Thanks for the information Peter and Delaf, it’s much appreciated.

      I wasn’t aware that La Tour St Bonnet had also fallen foul of Latour – or that Latour Laguens now has a remarkably similar label to Latour in China. I wonder if they will have any success in getting it removed? I know Lafite has pressed for and won a few cases in China to do with fakes . . . but this is more copycat than fake?

      Cheers

      Nick

  2. Delaf says:

    First growths should really be afraid of chinese buy-outs of “lesser” estates bearing a name similar to theirs. Your reference to Chat. Latour Laguens is pertinent, as this wine is now only sold in China under this name, with a new label picturing a tower topped by a lion (like Latour)… All this perfectly legal, at least under Chinese law. Latour Laguens had an enormous stand at the last Chengdu Wine Fair. This is a really big threat for first growths, explaining their new dynamics for defending their name.