There was never much question that Calistoga would be recognized as its own unique grape-growing region, as it was last week by federal regulators.
The area surrounding the tourist town at the toasty northern tip of the Napa Valley had a unique enough climate, geography, and grape-growing history to justify having an American Viticultural Area all its own.
The thorny question that vexed regulators and sparked a fierce truth-in-labeling debate was whether two wineries using Calistoga in their names ? but not many Calistoga grapes in their wines ? should be exempted from the new rules.
The 300-member Napa Valley Vintners and owners of the most storied Calistoga winery, Chateau Montelena, argued that exempting the two wineries would confuse consumers and jeopardize both the Napa Valley?s reputation and the integrity of the entire AVA system.
Others saw a David-versus-Goliath battle that left two small wineries threatened with extinction at the hands of large, entrenched winery interests.
Calistoga Cellars, established in 1998, started a ?Stand Up for the Little Guy? letter-writing campaign. It joined with Calistoga Estate, established in 2005, in arguing the new rules would have a devastating financial impact on their operations.
But after six years of review, regulators last week passed the new rules establishing the Calistoga AVA with no exemptions, a decision hailed as the latest victory for truth-in-labeling in the wine industry.
?It has been a long road, but like the incredible wines made in Calistoga, we will savor this wonderful news,? Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said in a statement.
The 2007 proposal to allow grandfathering was not specific just to Calistoga, but would have opened the door to similar exemptions in AVAs across the nation, said Rex Stults, industry relations director for the Napa Valley Vintners.
?If these changes went through, wine labels would effectively have no meaning,? Stults said.
The dispute began in 2003, when Bo Barrett, co-owner of Chateau Montelena, asked federal regulators to recognize the Calistoga area as the 15th sub-appellation in the Napa Valley.
The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which approves the wording of all labels on alcoholic beverages, proposed approving the new grape-growing area in 2007. But it also proposed exempting one of the two wineries ? Calistoga Cellars ? from the requirement to make its wines from at least 85 percent Calistoga-area grapes.
The agency seemed hesitant to take sides in the dispute.
?We do not believe that ? it is an appropriate government role to make choices between competing commercial interests, if such choices can be avoided,? the TTB wrote at the time.
Stults said the agency was looking for an easy way out of a tough spot.
?I think that the bureaucrats in D.C. were uncomfortable making a difficult decision,? Stults said. ?It was clear to us they did not understand the importance of the terrible precedent that they were proposing.?
The election of a new administration was critical to breaking what had become a deadlock on the issue, Stults said. Thompson made the issue a high priority, and was able to impress upon the White House and the Treasury Department that exemptions to labelling laws were a bad idea.
?I just think that he had a more receptive audience than he had previously,? Stults said.