'Cult Cabernets' were big in the '90s. In the 2020s, two California wineries are fighting over a trademark for the word.

By Mike Pomranz
June 15, 2021
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Bottles of red wine
Credit: EAQ/Getty Images

Back in the 1990s, as winemaking in California truly began to flourish, a new pseudo-style of red began to emerge, dubbed "cult Cabernets." (As a teenager at the time, I was more likely to be drinking Clearly Canadian, but I've read the history.) The name essentially doubled as an explanation: These were coveted, high-priced wines that typically only the most dedicated of drinkers had the wherewithal to acquire.

That said, "cult" is just a word-not an official appellation or varietal-so at some point, winemakers looking to co-opt the word's cachet realized they could simply name their wines, "Cult." In fact, so many winemakers had that same idea that, now, a lawsuit has emerged over who owns the trademark to produce "Cult" wines-or whether it can be trademarked at all.

The Napa-based Appellation Trading Company filed a lawsuit last week against the nearby Salvestrin Wine Company over the use of the name "Cult," according to court documents obtained by the site Wine Business. As Wine-Searcher further explains, Salvenstrin has held a trademark for using the word "Cult" for wine since 2020, but Appellation Trading is asking to have that trademark invalidated, not only because "cult" has become a descriptive term with broad usage, but also-in lieu of that-because they used it first.

In the filing, Appellation Trading reportedly claims that their Cult wine first began using the labeling in January 2010, whereas Salvenstrin's Cult wine wasn't available until July 2011. Salvenstrin apparently stated they've been using the word "Cult" since 2009, a claim that Appellation Trading has called "groundless."

Why has this not come to a head before? The lawsuit lays out a long and winding history, stating that Salvestrin had previously threatened to sue when Appellation Trading's Cult wine had different ownership, but never took any legal action-that is, until Appellation Trading bought out the brand, and Salvestrin reportedly took up the campaign again.

So fed up with the threats, Appellation Trading Company decided to make the first move after "the principal of ATC reached out to his counterpart at Salvestrin and confirmed that Salvestrin still intended to sue over ATC's use of a 'Cult' brand name for wine," the court documents stated. Meanwhile, Salvestrin will probably sue anyway: ATC's attorney said he expects Salvestrin to "most likely file a counterclaim for trademark infringement," according to Wine Business.

As to what will become of this mess, anyone who knows California wine history would probably conclude that, yes, "cult" is a word that has been hanging around in a broad capacity for some time. But then again, cult Cabernet's heyday was two decades ago. Maybe the judge was drinking Clearly Canadian at the time?