Archive for the ‘vodka’ Category
There is big news out of a federal court in San Diego. On Friday, the judge in two of the Tito’s labeling cases said it, loud and clear. Words matter — on labels. This is important because it was starting to get very confusing, what with all the label cases floating around, and many dismissals. There are at least eight separate Tito’s cases scattered around the country, and a couple dozen alcohol beverage litigations pending in recent months. Along the way, Judge Miller made it clear he is not too impressed with the rigor of TTB’s label review system, or the fact that the Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka labels have been approved on many occasions.
On Friday, November 20, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Judge Jeffrey Miller issued two very similar Orders in two separate cases against Tito’s Vodka. The cases are:
– Hofmann v. Fifth Generation
– Cabrera v. Fifth Generation
In hindsight, Judge Miller’s November 20th Orders seem obvious. If the claim meant little to nothing, why would Tito spend zillions of dollars to make sure everyone knows his vodka is “handmade”? Why else would it be the main word on the main label, and throughout his marketing? Why else would it work so well, to shoot this brand to the top of a tall and slippery pole? In recent months Tito has argued that the term is mere puff. But I can’t think of any puff term that has a prayer of moving the bottles as well as a term, such as the one at issue, with a little more grit and traction. I don’t see the terms “premium,” “finest,” “smooth,” or any other agreed-upon puff terms getting anyone far, as compared to a term that is much more likely to actually mean something.
In a 17 page Order, Judge Miller denied Tito’s motion for summary judgment in Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, the first of many such cases. The Judge did likewise in a 14 page Order, in the Cabrera case. This means both cases have much greater odds of ending up at trial someday, even though most such cases are settled well before that. This also means the odds are much higher, that a judge or jury might actually tell us, someday in our lifetimes, what this inscrutable term actually means, and whether Tito’s is made thusly. Without having a strong opinion on whether Tito should win or lose, I do have a strong opinion that it is a huge copout to say, the term is simply too hard to define, or, as so many people on the internet like to say about it, “who cares.” For better or worse, my job is more or less about what words do, don’t, should, or shouldn’t mean, hence my deep interest in this case. A term like “bourbon” or “straight” means a lot, and that is good.
The Orders tend to say that TTB approval of the label and term at issue are determinative only to the extent TTB conducted a rigorous review. It is hard to say TTB’s review is other than non-rigorous, inasmuch as TTB quite clearly said they don’t even have any standards or rules around such a term. The plaintiffs argued, and the Judge agreed (in the Hofmann and Cabrera Orders), that “a federal regulator’s actions create a safe harbor only … where the agency’s actions ‘were the result of a formal, deliberative process akin to notice and comment rulemaking or an adjudicative enforcement action,’ and are therefore sufficiently formal to merit Chevron deference.” I have been interacting with TTB’s label review system on a daily basis for more than 25 years now. It would be preposterous to claim that the system has been anything close to formal, deliberative, or similar to an adjudication. Most of the time, no lawyers or neutrals are involved. Most of the time there is no evidence, and there are no evidentiary rules. Many times the system has all the rigor of a bouncer, at the trendiest nightclub, deciding whether you are cool enough to enter the club. Far less often, the system involves knowledgeable people, on opposing sides of an issue, with a plausibly neutral decisionmaker.
It is quite easy to illustrate this. Take a competing vodka; let’s call it Pedro’s. Pretend Pedro’s Vodka is demonstrably distilled in a humongous vodka plant, outside Texas, and shipped to Dallas in railroad …
3/23/2015 Update. Caution. The above headline seems fairly skewed. See below for what we think really happened last week. The case is not halted at all.
Tito had another bad day yesterday, this time in federal court in San Diego. This further makes it obvious that the world of labeling has changed markedly since the Supreme Court’s Pom decision of June 12, 2014. On March 18, 2015, Judge Jeffrey Miller (of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California) ruled that the Tito’s vodka case, relating to deception and the term “handmade,” should move forward. Since the case was filed on September 19, 2014, Tito has argued that the case should be dismissed.
The judge did agree with Tito on a few points, but agreed with the complainants on the larger points. Tito had argued that the case should not move forward because there was no real damage to anyone. In response, the court’s Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Tito’s Motion to Dismiss, noted some consumers care a lot about “processes and places of origin” when deciding what to buy. By way of example, the court pointed to past controversies about kosher, halal, diamonds from conflict zones, and wine appellations.
Background about the case is here (the main complaints) and here (the main defense). This posting is a short version, and more commentary will be available at Wine & Spirits Daily, later today (or upon request). The nub of the matter is, the label and indeed the main selling proposition for Tito’s vodka, all the way back to its inception, center on its “handmade” aspects. This claim (the biggest word on the label) is now the subject of at least five lawsuits all over the U.S. They are 1) Hofmann (as here), 2) Pye (filed in federal court in Florida), 3) Aliano (filed in Cook County and removed to federal court), 4) McBrearty (filed in New Jersey state court and removed to federal court), 5) Cabrera (filed in San Diego, federal court), and 6) Grayson (filed in Las Vegas, federal court).
The Hofmann court said the class action claimants need not show that the vodka was defective or that the vodka was worth the price paid. Instead, the relevant inquiry is whether consumers were deceived about the “handmade” claim, and persuaded to buy on the basis of that deception. In essence, the judge is saying the plaintiffs made a mistake by arguing that class member would pay less – instead of arguing that they would not buy the product at all – but for the label claim at issue.
The Order has a funny typo on page 11 (stemming from the plaintiff’s brief), referring to the label term as “homemade,” when in reality the label shows the term “handmade.” A pillar of Tito’s defense, so far, is that TTB has approved the label on many occasions and after careful review. The court was not impressed by this point: “the court concludes that [Tito] has not shown that the safe harbor bars Plaintiff’s claims.” The court said TTB’s review was peripheral and informal at most, especially in view of the fact that TTB does not even have standards or rules for the term at issue.
The order seems careful and even-handed, but then seems to lean against Tito more, by saying:
In the court’s view, the representation that vodka that is (allegedly) mass-produced in automated modern stills from commercially manufactured neutral grain spirit is nonetheless “Handmade” in old-fashioned pot stills arguably could mislead a reasonable consumer. This is not, therefore, an issue that can be resolved at this stage.
Judge Miller further ruled that the 2013 Forbes article, that largely raised the questions about the Tito claim, is reliable enough, to form a basis for the allegations. Relatedly, the court was not too impressed with Tito’s argument that this article sufficiently alerted consumers that the claim might be dubious.
Finally, the court asserted that the complaint is not too vague for Tito to prepare an adequate response. The court said Tito’s “cogent” responses prove it. The court sided with the plaintiffs in most areas, but went against the plaintiffs in dismissing three major claims, on the basis that they were not pled properly. The court also, however, provided the plaintiffs with 14 days to fix those deficiencies and so this order is overwhelmingly helpful to the plaintiff side.
Simon Fleischmann (a top class action litigator at Locke Lord in Chicago) explained:
While this is a disappointing ruling from a defense standpoint, it is important to remember that this is just one trial court decision on the pleadings in what will likely be a broader war waged in several courts across the country on similar issues. And perhaps most importantly, the opinion emphasizes the highly individualized nature of that particular plaintiff’s purchasing decisions in a way that will make it difficult to certify a class of similarly situated consumers later on in the litigation.
Simon knows the context well. He is litigating very similar issues on behalf of Templeton Whiskey.
The court’s order is here.
TTB does not allow Aged Vodka, or Aged Gin. But this would seem to show it’s pretty easy to work around these arcane, antiquated restrictions. Note how the word “aged” is nowhere but everywhere on this label, and Absolut does not mind throwing in a reference to “craft” for good measure.
Over the years many have suggested that Tito’s vodka is not really made in small batches or by hand. I tried to keep an open mind, as the brand grew, and even in the face of the lawsuits summarized here.
So I have been particularly looking forward to a response, on the merits, at long last, from the source. Tito finally responded, on November 17, 2014, in the form of a motion to dismiss the Florida case. (The defendants also filed a similar motion, a month later, in the California case. The California motion is 28 pages and substantially similar to the one filed in Florida, right down to mangling the name of the agency that issued the so-crucial approvals. It does add a dash of spice here: “Plaintiff himself knows nothing, and he filed a lawsuit that ignores what the Tito’s label actually says and instead bases his claim on hearsay statements in a magazine article, hoping he can later commit discovery to get the facts he admittedly lacks.”)
With the aid of more than one big law firm, and a superior command of the facts, I was eager to sit back and see how deftly Tito could shut down its many detractors. The motion weighs in at 20 or so pages and it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the entire brand, the company, and just about everything on the front label hang in the balance. Also, Tito had the immense benefit that he knew or certainly should have known this day would come around sooner or later. This should have been clear since the first references to “handmade.” This should have been further clear upon the various inquiries about the term over the years, as described in the motion.
The motion starts pretty strong, asserting that plaintiff’s complaint is so vague: “We do not know how many bottles they bought or how much they paid, because they do not tell us those facts. They do not claim there was anything wrong with the vodka they allegedly purchased, or that they did not like it for some reason. They do not claim they complained about it, tried to return it, or even notified anyone of their dissatisfaction … .” Then, “With so many details missing, Fifth Generation is not in a position to make a meaningful response to the Complaint (other than simply to deny the allegations). Nor is the Court in any position to assess whether all or any of the claims pass the plausibility standard. … Measured by those standards, the Complaint is woefully deficient and must be dismissed.”
This may be a good start, but by page 3, the motion seems to go off the rails. It tries to say that the plaintiffs could not have been deceived, because a 2013 Forbes article had already suggested Tito was playing fast and loose with the truth. Tito’s motion says:
In light of what Plaintiffs have pled – and in particular their reliance upon a widely-circulated 2013 Forbes magazine article – it is hard to see how they could plausibly claim they were misled by the label on Tito’s Handmade Vodka for any purchases made after the article was published. Similarly, the number of times they purchased may raise plausibility concerns: If they enjoyed the taste of the product and thought it was a good value, did the label truly influence any but their first purchase? And, if the first time they ever tasted Tito’s Handmade Vodka was at a party, at a restaurant, or in some other setting in which they decided they liked the taste before they ever saw the label, could the label plausibly be said to have influenced even their first purchase? Plaintiffs’ skeletal allegations raise all of these questions and more, but answer none of them.
The defendants seem impressed with this point, breaking out the bolded italics.
Maybe I am missing something fundamental, but this seems absurd as any kind of defense, let alone a cornerstone of a defense. Does it really make sense to assume the plaintiffs would, should, or did get key information about the product from a magazine article — instead of the big, federally mandated, reviewed and approved label plastered on the front of the bottle? The Forbes article is interesting, relevant, and important — but is it really so epochal that everyone interested in vodka should be intimately familiar with it, from the moment of its publication? On the very same page, the motion makes clear in any event that “Plaintiffs never claim that they saw or read the article.” The motion seems to be saying that even though the article is wrong, and low-quality, every yahoo from Texas to California to Florida should know all about it, from the moment of its publication. Perhaps Tito seeks to argue that the lead plaintiffs knew about the article before the purchases at issue, and that this should have caused them not to buy the vodka, or, at the very least, that it would make them not good representatives for the class.
Next, the motion veers over into shaking the pompoms, declaring Tito’s to be “great tasting” and with a value proposition “true to its Austin, Texas roots.” By page five, the motion tees it up beautifully, saying “Plaintiffs contend that Tito’s Handmade Vodka cannot be ‘handmade’ because it is ‘made from commercially manufactured neutral grain spirit that is trucked and pumped into Defendants’ industrial facility.'” This would seem to be the heart of the matter. And so I move to the edge of my seat, waiting for Tito to hit this duly teed-up softball out of the park. And then I wait some more, as the softball seems to sit on the tee, without the benefit of even a swing or a miss, let alone a base hit. Immediately after raising this tantalizing question, the motion changes the subject toward an unilluminating primer on how vodka is normally made.
The defense is a bit too romantic when it explains how the “secret,” “pre-Civil War” pot still methods somehow make the product handmade. And it moves in the other direction when it describes how Tito grasped a pen with his own hands to design the label: “The label on Tito’s Handmade Vodka is also ‘handmade’ in its origins. The graphic of the old fashioned pot still was drawn by Tito Beveridge himself. He chose the fonts, the colors and the other elements of the label that communicate the consumers the essence of the brand.”
Tito makes a stronger point by explaining that TTB inspected Tito’s labels, plant and methods on many occasions, and still allowed the “handmade” claim. The defendants make quite a few other technical arguments and on some of those it’s hard to know who is right. And yet I find myself still waiting for the defendants to simply assert, at long last, that they do not bring in tankers of commodity spirits mass produced with continuous stills, far from Texas or the hands of anyone in Austin. Looks like we will need to keep waiting.
Finally, for all those who wrote in and said the label claims don’t matter and are only for nerds, please take another look at the label and web page depicted above. This is a screenshot of www.titosvodka.com as of January 4, 2015. I did not add any words or images but I did add a yellow tag near each of the most relevant spots; I emphasized the relevant portions and discarded a lot of the less relevant matter.
I have been hearing about Our Vodka for quite some time but have not had much chance to scope it out. Now that I found time, I thought there would be a lot more there there. I only see US approvals for two in this series so far, to cover Detroit, and Seattle, as above.
I start this post with a skeptical but open mind, willing to be persuaded that it’s a good idea. My skepticism flows from how local can it be, with a company in France and another in Sweden, running the show? It also flows from, if this is really supposed to have some local pizzazz, could there be a worse way to capture its spirit, than from something boiled to and past the point of neutrality — as a matter of law, fact, and science?
The first article I happened upon seems to have readily concluded that it’s a bad idea. The Stranger doth proclaim:
Pernod Ricard is the corporation that owns Absolut, as well as Chivas Regal, Jameson, Glenlivet, Malibu, Kahlua, Beefeater, and on and on and on. Its Our/[Insert City Here] local-lookalike marketing scheme was first rolled out in Berlin last year; it’s now been installed in, or is imminent in, 11 cities around the world. … Holly Robinson, one of the co-founders of actually local Captive Spirits Distilling in Ballard, says: “I do believe they will ABSOLUTLY be eaten alive by the community. Seeing they are opening a few blocks away, we are hoping to use some of their dollars to lure more customers to the neighborhood to see our awesome Ballard breweries, distilleries, & such… this is their way to get their foot in the door to a [local] scene that they’ve [otherwise] dominated for decades.”
There’s already an Our/Detroit Vodka. Over at Deadline Detroit, Jeff Wattrick has done a fine job of documenting Pernod Ricard’s especially disingenuous, icky marketing in Detroit, which manipulates that city’s situation in especially disingenuous, icky ways…
Craft spirits are a welcome trend. As with craft beer and local wineries, there is something fun about being able to get a well-made drink and then talking with the people who made it about why it’s so good. … Unfortunately, as with all things interesting and local, craft spirits have been co-opted. Consider “Our/Detroit” vodka. It’s locally produced! It cares about the community! It’s a project of the French distillery giant Pernod Ricard Group…wait what? Pernod Ricard, whose brands include Absolut, Jameson, and Seagram and whose annual revenues top $7 billion, is behind this faux-local vodka.
By this point, I am struggling to support this enterprise, or find somebody other than Our that has something nice to say. Let’s see, I do give the companies credit for trying do something hard, new, different. It looks like Our has dialed things down a bit, because the first Detroit approval, in June 2014, had a big reference to “Local Vodka” on the front label. But by the time October and Seattle rolled around, this had morphed to “Our Vodka.” At least Drink Spirits is sympathetic, saying:
There’s no ignoring that Pernod Ricard has a problem on their hands with their major vodka product: Absolut Vodka went from being THE import vodka in the 1980s to being only one of a dizzying number of contenders in the vodka space in the 2000s. The result has been a single digit decline in sales for the past couple of years for a brand that once seemed unstoppable (and given the volume that Absolut has, just a couple of percentage points is a massive shift).
The Absolut Company is set to work with local distilleries around the world, using the same vodka formula, to create vodka using locally sourced ingredients. The theory is that even though the fundamental core of Our/Vodka is the same throughout, the flavor and character of each city’s release will be unique because of the variance in flavor and character of local grain (or “locally purchased alcohol of regional descent”) and water.
We have no illusions that Our Vodka will move the needle dramatically in either direction for Absolut and Pernod Ricard, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal of it. Our/Vodka is the kind of cool and innovative thing you simply wouldn’t expect to come out of a giant corporation, and it shows that even the giants understand just how important craft spirits have become. …[W]e expect there to be quite an uproar in the craft space from distillers and their faithful denouncing Our/Vodka as “anti-craft” which completely misses the point. If their aim was to simply have a hand in craft, they could just snap up the often rumored for sale Titos Vodka, which is as good a craft image as money can buy. Instead, they are working with small distilleries, local entrepreneurs (in Detroit, it’s three women entrepreneurs. …
The vodka seems to raise some good and important business issues, and I am sure it makes a fine cocktail.