Often referred to as Napa’s “first growth” vineyard, To-Kalon is the region’s — and arguably California’s — most important grape-growing real estate. Planted on well-draining, gravelly soils in the Oakville AVA, vines must search deep underground for water, creating stress ideal for grapes to ripen.
To-Kalon provides optimal growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is by far the most-planted vine across the 1,000-acre fragmented expanse. Along with a smattering of other red Bordeaux varieties, and a small but notable Sauvignon Blanc presence, To-Kalon’s Cabernet Sauvignon wines come with a minimum three-figure price tag.
Prices of distinguished bottles, like Schrader Cellars “Old Sparky” Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and Realm Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Franc, typically surpass $600.
Ownership of the prestigious vineyard is split among six entities. Robert Mondavi Winery, owned by Constellation Brands since 2004, has the largest piece of the pie, with more than 450 acres of planted vines.
Grape grower Andy Beckstoffer owns 89 acres of To-Kalon, but he doesn’t produce any wine himself. Instead, Beckstoffer hand-selects whom he sells grapes to, with a client list that reads like a who’s who of Napa winemaking, including Schrader Cellars, Paul Hobbs, and Tor Wines.
Opus One, a joint venture between Constellation Brands and Château Mouton Rothschild, owns a smaller slice of the vineyard and also rents a chunk from Robert Mondavi. To-Kalon’s remaining three proprietors include The University of California, Davis, as well as the Detert and MacDonald families.
Confusingly, not all wines bearing the name To-Kalon must include grapes grown within the eponymous vineyard. Further shaking things up is the fact that all the grapes grown within vineyard bounds will not necessarily be used in bottles bearing the name To-Kalon. This is the result of trademarked labeling terms, and a bitter 2002 legal dispute between Mondavi and Beckstoffer.
Want to learn more about the cast and controversy at this esteemed destination? Here is everything and everyone worth knowing at To-Kalon.
H.W. Crabb: The Godfather of To-Kalon
In 1868, Ohio native Hamilton Walker Crabb purchased 240 acres of farmland in Oakville, Calif. Crabb planted vines and experimented with winemaking, naming his venture Hermosa Vineyards.
He expanded his operation in 1881, purchasing an adjacent 119-acre parcel of land. Shortly after, in 1886, Crabb renamed his business To-Kalon Wine Company, inspired by a Greek expression meaning “the highest beauty.”
Crabb’s To-Kalon Wine Company garnered international acclaim, making him one of America’s top winemakers. Though Cabernet dominates modern plantings, To-Kalon Wine Company made notable wines from an expansive selection of grapes, including Malbec, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Missouri Riesling, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon
Crabb increased his holdings a third and final time in 1891, with the addition of another 135 acres of vineyards. A period of vineyard fragmentation and further expansion of To-Kalon followed his death in 1899. Various subplots changed hands nearly a dozen times before Robert Mondavi became the vineyard’s majority landowner in 1978.
Mondavi acquired his share through a series of acquisitions starting in 1966. When he founded his winery on a 12-acre holding of Crabb’s original 1881 plot, Mondavi became the first to construct a new winery on the Napa Valley floor in over 30 years.
As a nod to his vineyard’s fabled history, Mondavi registered the trademark “To Kalon” in 1988, followed by the term “To Kalon Vineyard” in 1994. The winery first used the To Kalon trademark on its 1986 Fumé Blanc Reserve, a Sauvignon Blanc whose name is a nod to one of the grape’s most famous French appellations, Pouilly Fumé.
Around this time, the largest section within To-Kalon not owned by Mondavi was an 89-acre plot held by Beaulieu Vineyards. Grape grower Beckstoffer gained control of this parcel in 1993 and ripped out the Merlot and Petit Verdot vines, replanting the space with a variety of Cabernet Sauvignon clones and a few rows of Cabernet Franc.
Beckstoffer sold his first grapes in 1999 to several Napa winemakers, who labeled their wines with the “Beckstoffer Oakville” designation. The following vintage, Beckstoffer convinced Schrader Cellars to label its wine “Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard.”
That move didn’t sit well with Mondavi, who had trademarked the “To Kalon Vineyard” term just two years earlier.
Beckstoffer vs. Mondavi
Following the release of Beckstoffer Original To Kalon Vineyard, in 2002, Mondavi sued Schrader Cellars for copyright infringement and sought a sales injunction. Schrader filed a counterclaim, with Beckstoffer quick to follow with his own suit against the Robert Mondavi Winery.
Beckstoffer’s argument was straightforward: “I believe that a vineyard is a place, not a marketing concept,” he wrote in one of the lawsuits.
The parties eventually settled out of court in 2003, though the terms of the agreement were never made public. Beckstoffer did, however, uphold the right to let his clients use the terms “To Kalon” and “To Kalon Vineyard” on their labels.
The settlement has led to the confusion that surrounds the term “To Kalon Vineyard.” Its inclusion on a wine’s label now has two very different meanings.
For wines made using Beckstoffer’s grapes, it is a geographical indication of origin, subject to TTB rules. But for Mondavi, it remains a trademark, therefore exempting it from TTB rules.
While the term “To Kalon Vineyard” on a bottle made with Beckstoffer’s grapes denotes a minimum 95 percent of To-Kalon Vineyard fruit, the Robert Mondavi Winery is free to use the term on any bottle it desires.
Or, as Tim Mondavi (son of Robert) put it in an interview in the St. Helena Star in 2002: “The trademark allows us protection on the term To-Kalon. It says it’s our right any way we choose to use it … We can use it, if we choose, to bottle a wine from Nairobi.”
The Deterts and the MacDonalds
Far from Nairobi, and actually situated on the original H.W. Crabb holding, are the 25-acre Detert plot and the 21-acre MacDonald plot. They remain the smallest family-owned vineyards within To-Kalon, yet neither producer is allowed to use the trademarked name on their wines.
Though this may seem like a grave injustice, both wineries manage to produce critically acclaimed wines that carry premium price tags. Wine-Searcher list’s MacDonald’s Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon with an average price of $566, while Detert’s Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon comes in at a comparatively “modest” $91.
Vineyard or Marketing Concept: The Battle Rages On
In summer 2017, Constellation announced plans to launch a new To Kalon Vineyard wine brand. In a Mondavi-esque move, the New York-based drinks conglomerate filed three new trademark applications: “To Kalon Wine Company,” “To Kalon Vineyard Company,” and “Rooted in To Kalon.”
In January 2018, however, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Constellation had abandoned the trademark registrations. Why? Stiff opposition, once again in the form of Beckstoffer.
The same grower who previously filed an opposition to the new trademarks was back in the courts. Beckstoffer managed to get the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to extend the period of opposition to October. By Sept. 26, Constellation called time on the planned name for the new venture and abandoned all three applications.