Just a day before Valentine’s Day, one of my favorite online retailers, Last Bottle, received what had to be some rather unwelcome news: Beckstoffer Vineyards filed a lawsuit against Last Bottle and its parent company, Blicker Pierce Wagner Wine Merchants, LLC, for, among other things, breach of contract, false advertising, and trademark infringement.
Last Bottle is one of the best “flash” wine websites where they sell one wine at a time, often at a deep discount, until, ostensibly, the “last bottle” is sold and then they move onto another wine. I have been receiving wine from Last Bottle for over a decade now and, full disclosure, I have received a lot of credit from the company due to their (essentially) affiliate program.
Over the past decade, when I write about a wine I received from Last Bottle, I provided a unique link to their site. If someone uses that link and then eventually makes a purchase from the company, the new customer receives $10 off their first order and I receive a $30 credit to use against a future “purchase” of my own.
As I said, over the course of the last eleven years, I have received a lot of credit with Last Bottle and I have been very happy with the wines they sell and the customer service they provide.
In recent years, they have added at least two other sites: First Bottle (which is more of a higher end, “traditional” wine retail “storefront”) and Last Bubbles (a site similar to the mother ship, but focused solely on champagne and sparkling wine).
[Shameless plug: click on any of the links in this post and, if you sign up and make a subsequent purchase at the respective site, you will receive $10 off the first purchase andI will receive $30 in credit.]
I rarely read the copy that is provided with each subsequent offer from Last Bottle (or either of the other two sites, for that matter) since the kind folks at Last Bottle are prone to, well, hyperbole when describing a wine they are selling (phrases like “mind-blowing” and “HOT DAMN!” along with a multitude of exclamation points are common).
A couple of weeks ago, however, I did notice a particular wine on the site and thought “Hmph, well, that’s interesting.” The wine in question? A 2019 Sleeper Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, which was listed on the site as a $250 wine, but for sale from Last Bottle for $99. And there was this:
“There’s a lot more super-secret stuff we CAN’T tell you about (thanks to a 6 page non-disclosure), but really, we already let the cat out the bag when we typed “Beckstoffer To Kalon”—no doubt our legal counsel is furious…not to mention the all-powerful To Kalon Illuminati…
There is a lot to unpack there.
Sleeper Cellars is owned and apparently operated by the same company that owns Last Bottle. From my understanding, Sleeper buys wine and/or grapes on the bulk market and then bottles the wine under its own label. More on the bulk wine market is below.
Beckstoffer Vineyards is owned by Andy Beckstoffer, who is one of the major players in the Napa Valley wine industry. While Beckstoffer Vineyards does not make and has not made any wine of its own, the name appears on dozens of brands around the state as Beckstoffer owns many top vineyards in several different appellations.
Without much doubt, the most prestigious of those holdings is the To Kalon Vineyard, of which Beckstoffer owns 89 acres. Entire books have been written about the most famous of all vineyards in the Valley, and Andy Beckstoffer has been very protective of the vineyard’s name and reputation, often suing other owners of parts of the vineyard (it totals nearly 360 acres), for various infringements.
Beckstoffer, perhaps more than any other individual, has been responsible for the meteoric rise in the price of Napa Cabernet. He famously set up a price structure that includes a unique way of determining what he charges for a ton of fruit from his vineyard; he initially changed the pricing structure to charge winemakers 100 times whatever they were going to charge per bottle for a ton of his fruit, with the lowest price permitted set at $125 (thus, to make a $125 bottle of wine, Beckstoffer charged $12,500 a ton and $30,000 for a $300 wine).
[For the curious, a ton of grapes produces about 60 12-bottle cases of wine and the price of fruit varies tremendously. A ton of fruit in lesser appellations, for example, might be in the $500-1000 range.]
The Bulk Wine Market
There is a lot that could be written about the bulk wine market, but here is the gist of it. At times, a producer has either too many grapes or too much wine. There are a host of reasons for that; perhaps the wine did not quite meet the standards set by the winemaker; or maybe, in an effort to keep a wine in demand (and the price high), the production is limited. So said producer, instead of pouring the juice down the drain, sells it on the bulk market, often at a reduced price.
The way I understand it, there are often contingencies placed on the bulk wine, most notably that the purchaser can’t reveal where precisely he or she purchased the wine or the vineyard where the fruit was harvested. This is done mainly to protect the original producer’s wines. In other words, why would someone buy a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon for around $400 when they could get, say, a Sleeper Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon for a hundred bucks?
The Third Party
Andy Beckstoffer did not sell the fruit/wine used in the Sleeper Cellars To Kalon to the folks at Last Bottle. Apparently, they got the juice from one of Mr. Beckstoffer’s clients and at this point, at least as far as I have been able to ascertain, that third party has yet to be identified. Likely, once discovered, I imagine they will lose access to any future To Kalon fruit from Beckstoffer Vineyards.
As I mentioned above, Andy Beckstoffer has some pretty specific requirements for the producers to whom he sells his fruit. But he clearly did not authorize Sleeper Cellars to use either “Beckstoffer” or “To Kalon” on their 2019 Cabernets. Also, and I think this may be the real issue for my friends at Last Bottle, the above quote pretty clearly indicates that they knew what they were doing was wrong, but seemingly didn’t care.
Who knows how this will all play out? I read the complaint and it does not state any specific monetary award other than the profits from the sale of the wine. While I do not know Andy Beckstoffer at all (I met him once, a meeting which he has no doubt long since forgotten), but he does not seem like the kind of guy I would want to anger. I do know the folks at Last Bottle (at least a little bit), and they seem like really good, nice people. I hope it all works out for them.
The folks at Last Bottle/Sleeper Cellars knew good and well what they were doing and that they’d very likely end up in court over it. Anybody with even a tiny rudimentary knowledge of the wine industry would’ve seen this one from a mile away.