What's in a name? A lot of angst. Cape Mentelle has backed down in a debate over the use of the name Wallcliffe. The row almost split the Margaret River wine community.
Cape Mentelle, owned by French wine and luxury goods company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, began legal action against Flametree this year for breach of trademark over the use of the Wallcliffe name on its labels. Cape Mentelle has named its premium sauvignon blanc semillon Wallcliffe since 1999. Flametree has used the name on its SRS Wallcliffe chardonnay since 2010.
The argument divided the fashionable West Australian region, famous for its powerful chardonnays, long-lived cabernets and user-friendly semillon sauvignon blancs.
But on April 17 Cape Mentelle relented, saying it would no longer pursue wineries using the Wallcliffe name on their labels - pending further deliberations on Margaret River sub-regions.
Cape Mentelle has three names that include the word Wallcliffe registered as trademarks, and was trying to register the stand-alone name. But others in the region say Wallcliffe is the name of a locality and shouldn't be the property of any one winery.
A lively meeting of the Margaret River Wine Association was held on March 27 at which the mood was strongly anti-Cape Mentelle's position, which was widely seen as aggressive and confrontational.
Then Cape Mentelle issued a statement on April 17, which said in part:
"Given the reactions voiced during the association meeting, Cape Mentelle has decided not to pursue wine companies who reference Wallcliffe on their labels for breach of trademark. Our recommendation to producers considering the adoption of the term on wine labels is to wait until such time as the sub-regions are further defined and legally adopted through formal registration with the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation through existing protocols, a process in which we intend to actively take part."
Flametree chief winemaker and general manager Cliff Royle interprets this as meaning Cape Mentelle will drop its legal action against Flametree. The move has been welcomed as conciliatory. It should see the temperature under various people's collars cooling.
So how did the debate begin in the first place?
Wallcliffe is the name of Cape Mentelle's original vineyard in front of its winery.
The father of Cape Mentelle founder David Hohnen first bought land in the region in 1965 - a property named Wallcliffe Farm. The first plantings at Cape Mentelle were in 1970 and the original vineyard, in front of the winery, has been known as the Wallcliffe vineyard since the '70s. Wallcliffe House, built by the pioneering Bussell family in 1865, was also owned by a member of the Hohnen family.
In 1999-2000 Cape Mentelle registered the trademarks Wallcliffe Vineyard, Wallcliffe Winery and Wallcliffe Estate. But not the name Wallcliffe itself.
Perhaps it was unable to. It's possible it was seen as a geographic name that others should be able to use. And if Wallcliffe itself was not a Cape Mentelle trademark, how could it stop other wineries using the name?
Cape Mentelle, in late 2013, succeeded in having a trademark registered for Wallcliffe as a stand-alone name, much to the alarm of many members of the Margaret River community. Intellectual Property Australia initially accepted the application, but later overturned its decision after receiving a submission from the Margaret River Wine association. Cape Mentelle then threatened to sue the association.
Margaret River winemakers, including Royle, pointed out the name had been in common use since long before the arrival of Cape Mentelle and is used on many local businesses and organisations, roads and streets; even the local fire brigade. But Cape Mentelle senior winemaker and director Rob Mann believes the association should consider an alternative name for the sub-region referred to as Wallcliffe.
The packed meeting of the association, chaired by its president Nigel Gallop, overwhelmingly rejected this idea. It asked Mann to go back to his superiors and get them to reconsider. It also agreed overwhelmingly that the name Wallcliffe should not be the property of any single company. Three leading winemakers - Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix, Oliver Crawford of Devil's Lair and Brian Fletcher of Swings & Roundabouts- threw their support behind Cape Mentelle, but they seemed to be its only supporters.
Flametree supporters are disappointed at what they see as bullying by Cape Mentelle. After all, Flametree agreed to stop using the name Wallcliffe on its labels after the initial writ was served but Cape Mentelle didn't stop there. It made further demands, which Flametree had been resisting.
High-profile local winemaker Vanya Cullen said: "I don't like the bullying. And it's a huge derailing of all the work the region has done to identify sub-regional differences. The slow and gradual adoption and usage of place-names over long periods of time is an important part of Australian history."
She also theorised what would happen if the present owner of Wallcliffe House, businessman Michael Chaney, decided to plant vines and make wine, and wanted to sell it under the Wallcliffe name. "Would they try to stop him too?"
Gallop is pleased with Cape Mentelle's move and believes the episode has re-focused attention on sub-regions. He says there's a lot of interest in re-opening discussions to define sub-regions, and expects it to be a matter of priority, but suggests the impetus should come from the producers rather than the association.
Royle says the outcome is good for the region, which now needs to move quickly to register the six sub-regional names proposed by the ''father'' of Margaret River, Dr John Gladstones, in 1999. Debate over the boundaries of those sub-regions could come later. The mooted sub-regions are (from north to south) Yallingup, Carbunup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale.