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.

Bottling Week 2010

Yesterday, we racked the 2009 Malbec, the 2008 Merlot, and the 2008 Cab. We also continued washing bottles, and bottled the Chardonnay and the Grapefruit wine. It was a highly successful day, and (as far as I know) I once again completely forgot to take pictures. If anyone did take some pictures, please send them to me.

Next Saturday, we’ll be at it again. Here’s what we’re going to be doing:

1. Bottle 30 gallons of 2008 Merlot (it’s been in French Oak 18 months)

2. Bottle 30 gallons of Port

3. Bottle 15 gallons of 2008 Petit Sirah (18  months in American Oak)

4. Rack the rest of the Merlot and the Petit.

5. Wash empty barrels.

As with all Bad Astronauts events, there will probably be taste-testing and food involved at some point as well. I’m hoping there will also be more picture-taking.

The 2008 Wines are Coming Fast!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but much has been happening in the Bad Astronaut Wine world, so I think it’s about time I got back to it and filled you all in!

First of all, the 2008 Wines are incredible! We bottled the Zin a little while back, and I’m having to hide it from myself so that I don’t drink it all before it reaches it’s peak.

If you participated in the bottling, and/or if you have some of the wine, I would say that it’s just about now fully over the bottle shock and is tasting really good. I’m really looking forward to how it will taste next year!

Pretty soon, we’ll be bottling the 08 Merlot, the 08 Petit Sirah, some 09 Charonnay, and perhaps a couple other surprises!

The season of releasing the Grapefruit Wine has begun!

Tomorrow will be the first official tasting of the Bad Astronauts Galactic Grapefruit Wine. We did an unofficial tasting a little while ago in Sonoma, but since then, we’ve gotten approval on the label, printed the labels, and labeled and foiled the bottles. Tomorrow, we’ll be pouring grapefruit wine at the Sacramento Institute of Fun’s Jazz De-Mystified event (the Institute of Fun is another one of the businesses I’m involved with, by the way).

Next weekend, we’ll be pouring at Revolution Wines’ Christmas Walk.Big things are happening for the Bad Astronauts.

Wine updates

Sam and I drew samples, tasted, and tested the pH on all 9 of the 2008 wines tonight. I’m happy to report that I’m very happy. The Chenin Blanc and Rose’ are stable, clear, tasty, and have good acidity. The Zin, Cab, Petit Sirah, and Barbera are all delicious and fault-free. The Merlot is an interesting case…we think it has smoke taint.

Remember all those fires during the summer? Well, things were particularly bad in Napa and Sonoma. Our Merlot came from northern Sonoma (Kenwood). The taste of this wine is spectacular for how young it is. The smell is sort of like a forest fire.

The question is: do we try to eliminate that smell, or is this a uniquely 2008 sort of a thing that people will come to love and will pay a premium for in 2010? We’re going to run this question (and the wine) by a couple people who have been in the business much longer and see what they think. Stay tuned!

Sonoma Home Winemaker Pouring

Yesterday, Margaret and I poured Bad Astronauts wine at the Sonoma Home Winemakers Celebration. We met a lot of people, including a couple who were going to astronaut Rusty Schweickart‘s house for dinner and wanted a bottle of Bad Astronauts Galactic Grapefruit wine to bring him! We gave them one, of course! I hope they post something here about how he liked it and whether he’d be willing to be the good astronaut spokesperson for Bad Astronauts wine!

We also met a guy who’s dad worked for mission control in Houston and who described himself as a “Space Baby”. He very much enjoyed our wine.

This was our first public Bad Astronauts pouring, and it was a huge success. Everyone who tasted our wines loved them, the Galactic Grapefruit was a hit with the crowd, and we raised some money for Sonoma High School while having a lot of fun!

Bad Astronauts Merlot

Here’s the merlot status so far:

I drove to northern Sonoma county (Kenwood) Monday morning to get the grapes. I got to downtown Sonoma at about 6:00, had some coffee there, and then drove up highway 12 for another 20 minutes or so to the vineyard.

Morrison Vineyard is the most beautiful place in the world. Ian Morrison, the owner of the vineyard, grows only Merlot, and he does it very well. He’s also a very nice man.

After chatting with Ian for a while, I walked the vineyard. The grapes were ripe and delicious. The yield per vine was definitely much lower towards the top of the hill, and I think I preferred the taste of the grapes at the bottom of the hill.

The picking crew started picking at about 8:00, and I had my grapes loaded into the truck by 9:00. I drove back to Sacramento, and arrived back at the winery at around 11.

Initial numbers:

24.5 – 25 brix (depending on testing method)
pH 3.66

After crush (thanks Priscila, Sam, Jim, Zach, and Dave for your help!) I added enzymes and potassium metabisulphite.

Tuesday, I threw 20lbs of dry ice on the grapes.

Wednesday, Margaret and Priscila put 20 more lbs on.

Wednesday night, the must temperature was 50 degrees. I added superfood, followed by yeast, and 800g of tartaric acid. My goal is to get the pH down to about 3.4.

Thursday, I added 2 lbs of untoasted oak chips (in a nylon straining bag).

Friday morning, fermentation was underway, but slow. I added my phase 2 superfood and DAP addition.

Everything’s looking great, and I’m very excited about this wine.

pH, TA, and Malolactic info

Red wine pH should be between 3.4 and 3.6. TA should be around 7 g/L. Malolactic Fermentation (which converts malic acid into lactic and makes red wines smoother and more awesome) has the following effects on acidity (according to this site:

* a pH increase of between 0.1 and 0.45 units (more typically 0.1-0.25)
* a chemical deacidification usually reducing titratable acidity by about 1-4.6 g/l (as tartaric)

So, our wine currently has the following stats:

pH 3.5
TA 8.5 g/L

After ML, it could potentially have the following stats:

pH 3.6 – 3.75
TA 3.9 – 7.5

I’m not ok with the risk of the pH being over 3.6, which makes me think I should adjust pH to 3.4. However, I’m also not ok with a TA over 7, which makes me think I shouldn’t adjust.

After some more reading, it sounds like what we’ve got is a higher concentration of Malic (a weaker acid) than of Tartaric (a stronger acid). This explains why the pH (which measures the effect or strength of the acid in the wine) is high (less acid strength) and the TA is high (more acid).

So, if I adjust with Tartaric acid, I think it will decrease the pH and increase the TA, but the Malolactic fermentation will have a larger effect because we have a relatively high concentration of Malic.

If you’re a chemist, please let me know if I’m on the right track here!

If you’re not familiar with TA and pH, here’s some reading.