Bad Astronauts’ First Trademark Dispute!

Last month, I got an email that I was almost sure was spam. The subject was “REGARDING BAD ASTRONAUTS DARK MATTER TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT”, and the email simply said “Please see the attached document”. Now, anyone who knows anything knows that it’s almost always a bad idea to open an attachment from someone who you don’t know – especially when they don’t tell you what the attachment is. So, I deleted the email.

The next day, I got a FedEx envelope addressed to me at Bad Astronauts Winery, with a very official-looking letter inside! I’ve scanned the enclosed letter for your viewing pleasure:

Now, those of you who know the history of the wine that came to be known as (but is no longer known as) “Bad Astronauts’ Dark Matter Zin” know that only 25 cases were made, it was made in my backyard, no label was ever made, it’s illegal to sell homemade wine, and there are probably only 6 bottles of this wine left in existence. After I stopped laughing, I started showing the letter to a select few people and asking for advice on how to respond.

The best ideas for responses were:

  • “I’ve never heard of Mondavi. Is this some sort of Nigerian scam?”
  • “I’m willing to settle.”
  • “I challenge you to a duel.”
  • “Let’s River Dance it out.”

When I sobered up, I consulted with my trusted legal counsel and, based on my budget for legal counsel, decided on a less confrontational approach. Our goals were to gently make fun of the original letter while resolving the situation and trying to get some free wine or cheap Napa grapes out of it. Here’s the letter we wrote and emailed in response:

Re: Dark Matter

Dear Ms. Taylor:

Thank you for your correspondence of March 3, 2011, regarding your client, M & J Mondavi Family, LLC, and its claim to a DARK MATTER trademark associated with a Zinfandel wine. As you are no doubt aware, the Bad Astronauts Winery is a name used by a group of home winemakers who produce their product in a garage in Sacramento. In 2008, the Bad Astronauts acquired approximately 1,000 pounds of Zinfandel grapes from the Fairplay region of El Dorado County. In 2009, we bottled the Zinfandel, and found it quite tasty. We have never produced a label for our bottles, sold the wine, or marketed the Zinfandel. Indeed, the wine has never been a part of the stream of interstate commerce such as to bring it within the orbit of United States Trademark laws (as far as I know, granted I am not an attorney and have not retained one prior to or since receiving your letter). I believe there is a simple misunderstanding, in that the name we have used to describe our small quantity of garage-made Zinfandel, Dark Matter (keeping with our space-themed names for our homemade wines, such as Black Hole Merlot, Rings of Uranus Malbec, Comet Colombard, Canali Cabernet, Phoenix Landing, Martian Red, etc {all of which we are now considering registering with the USPTO}) has somehow entered the public domain via that new-fangled invention known as the Internets. Prior to receiving your letter, we had no idea that another winery was making, or had made a Zinfandel (or any other wine) by the name of Dark Matter. We apologize for any confusion caused to your client’s discerning customers. I completely understand that our tasty garage-made wine that has no label and which has never been marketed or sold, could be confused with your client’s Howell Mountain-Napa region designated, Robert Parker reviewed wine. To avoid any such confusion in the future, the Bad Astronauts Winery of Sacramento will cease and desist from referring to our 2008 Zinfandel as “Dark Matter” and will not use that name to describe any of our other efforts. As a token of good will, we would be happy to provide your client with a sample bottle of our 2008 Zinfandel (which again, I have to say is quite tasty, but supplies are going fast as we have only three bottles left).

I hope that this letter resolves this issue. If you have any further questions, comments, or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best regards,
Chris Minnick

After about a month, we still hadn’t heard anything back, so we decided to send a followup email:

Here’s the letter I wanted to send:

Dear Ms Taylor:

I’m writing with regards to my letter from last month, in which I told you my intention to cease using the Dark Matter name to describe my tasty homemade wine. I have not heard back from your firm or from the Mondavi family or its fine corporation. I’m worried sick. Because of the seriousness of our offense and your lack of response, I can only surmise that you are preparing to take action against me. To perhaps fend off this action, I have consumed the last remaining bottles of my tasty garage-made zinfandel.

Some of the members of the Bad Astronauts think that you are a Nigerian scammer. I told them I don’t believe it. Your lack of response has me concerned that I may be wrong. For the sake of my sanity, and the sanity of my family, I beg you to provide me with proof that your original letter was not part of an elaborate scheme to defraud me and steal the Dark Matter trademark ™.

Sincerely and regards (unless you’re a Nigerian Scammer ™),

Chris Minnick
Bad Astronauts Winery

and here’s the letter I finally did send (after consulting with my trusted legal counsel):

Re: Provisional Offer to Purchase Grapes

Dear Ms. Taylor:

As you may recall, we corresponded last month regarding the use of the Dark Matter name to describe various Zinfandels (one made by your client, M & J Mondavi Family, LLC, from Howell Mountain grapes, and one made by the Bad Astronauts in a garage). Optimistic that our dispute has been resolved, I have a business proposition to offer your client. The Bad Astronauts are looking to purchase 2,000 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Napa Valley. Could you please ask your client if they would be willing sell us such grapes from any one of their Napa holdings? In case they have any concerns about the grapes’ use, you can tell them that the Bad Astronauts’ last Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine (Phoenix Landing) won best in show and a double gold medal at the El Dorado County Fair, gold at the California State Fair, and numerous other accolades. If the price for the grapes is right, we’d be happy to kick in one of the last remaining bottles of this extremely tasty wine.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter and for communicating this good faith offer to your client. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best Regards,
Chris Minnick
Bad Astronauts Winery

I did get a polite response back from the lawyer, letting me know that the original matter has been resolved and that she has passed on my offer to her client. So – we’ll see what happens. I’m not real optimistic about our chances for scoring cheap Napa grapes — I’m sure that this post will help, though.