The alcohol trademark wars continue! Now, usually when we talk about trademark disputes in the booze business, those disputes tend to center around creative names and trade dress of specific craft brands. This is most common in the craft beer arena, but it also happens in wine and liquor. While the sudden turn towards corporatism in the craft alcohol industries is more than mildly annoying, it is at least understandable when there is a trademark fight over the more unique aspects of branding.
Much more annoying is when trademark disputes arise from one party trying to fight over the more generic terms in the alcohol industry. An example of this comes to us from JaM Cellars, the makers of the JaM brand of wine. Full disclosure: I’ve consumed roughly a metric ton of JaM wine in my time and really, really love it. What I love less, though, is that JaM decided to sue The Wine Group, makers of Franzia boxed wine, over its newly branded “Bold and Jammy” brand of boxed red wine.
On April 1, 2020, JaM Cellars filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against The Wine Group, makers of the popular Franzia brand boxed wine. Plaintiff JaM Cellars is the owner of trademarks relating to the word JAM used in wine products (U.S. Trademark Registration Nos. 3,787,229 and 3,855,785). According to the complaint, since being introduced in 2009, wine using the JAM marks has received several awards, and JaM Cellars has expended millions of dollars in advertising the wine using the JAM marks.
JaM Cellars filed the complaint in the U.S. Federal Court in the Northern District of California. In addition to allegations of trademark infringement, the complaint also includes unfair competition claims under federal and state law.
The full complaint is embedded below, but a couple of items worth highlighting. First, this is not the first such case between these two entities. JaM also has a “Butter” branded wine and sued The Wine Group over its “Butterkissed” wines, as well as a more recent and pending suit over The Wine Group’s “Rich and Buttery” branded Franzia wines. What should immediately strike most everyone, and especially those of you who, like me, consider yourself amateur sommeliers, is that all of these terms are incredibly common in the wine industry. Why the Trademark Office approved these marks is a totally valid question, but it doesn’t seem as though JaM Cellars should be able to wield the USPTO’s ignorance as a way to keep descriptive terms out of the brands of its competition.
And yet that is exactly what it’s trying to do. Explicitly, even, right in the pages of the complaint.
Plaintiff’s JAM Marks for wine are not descriptive when used in association with wine and therefore are inherently distinctive. The inherent distinctiveness of Plaintiff’s JAM Mark is presumed and incontestable given its ownership of the incontestable federal trademark registrations.
That’s some 91 pt. sophistry right there. The argument is essentially that it cannot be argued that the terms in question on either side of this trademark lawsuit could be considered descriptive because the Trademark Office approved the trademark JaM is using to file the lawsuit. As though the USPTO has never approved a descriptive trademark in error, or made any error of any kind, apparently. One hopes the courts or defendants smack that particular passage around in open session.
Beyond that, this all comes down to customer confusion. JaM Cellars spends far less time in its complaint on anything to do with customer confusion and instead focuses on how The Wine Group branded its Bold and Jammy boxed wine differently than its other brands. The image below is directly from the complaint.
Is the branding different? Well, sure! One might call the branding for Bold and Jammy more…bold and jammy? But you might also notice that the same Franzia branding across the top is in place. And then, compare that to the branding on the JaM wine, which looks very, very different (again, straight from the lawsuit):
I feel quite confident that the average consumer walking up and seeing these two products side by side (which they aren’t in stores) would not be confused into thinking they were related. I’m all the more confident that the average wine drinker isn’t going to have that confusion given the stature of each brand among wine drinkers.
In the end, all of this is a stupid fight over incredibly common terms in the wine industry. While The Wine Group has a history of settling with JaM Cellars out of court, this is a fight I hope they see to the end.