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Louisville, Flavorman, Tito, Locke Lord, ADI

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Louisville is great. Such a nice break from the clamor of DC. I think I am nearly qualified to make this call because I have been going to Louisville half a dozen times per year for a few years now, and I have now hit all the top 50 or so bars and restaurants. I just got back from a 10 day stay.

Some highlights of course are the great people at Flavorman, Moonshine University, Challenge Bottling, Grease Monkey Distillery, and the Distilled Spirits Epicenter (all seeming to be one big happy family).

Another highlight was speaking at ADI. More on that in a few days.

A major highlight was meeting Tom Cunningham and Simon Fleischmann from Locke Lord (a big Chicago law firm). They are handling some of the whiskey disputes, on the defense side, and I learned more about class action lawsuits during a few drinks with them, and their speech, as compared to three years in law school. For those who missed the boat on attending the 2015 ADI convention, here is a summary of Locke Lord’s presentation, Spirits Industry Under Fire:  What You Need to Know About Class Action Litigation.

The most illuminating parts of this booklet (a companion to the speech), in my opinion, are as follows:

  1. Plaintiff class action lawyers thrive on ambiguity in the law and jump in where regulators don’t. For example, the federal government has not done much with defining such basic concepts as “natural” or “handmade” and so this part of the bar jumps in — in the form of actions such as the Skinnygirl and Tito lawsuits.
  2. In startlingly strong language, the Locke lawyers assert:

    firstPlaintiffs’ class action attorneys by and large don’t care whether your product is truly “handmade” or made in “small batches” or is “craft.” They trade in what is essentially blackmail and terrorism. If they have a basis for alleging that your product is not what you claim it to be, even if you fervently believe that it is, they will sue you. Very few cases go to trial. Especially class action cases, which can easily kill a company. They have the power to put you out of business simply by making a claim. Therefore, you are likely to pay them to simply drop their claim, even if it’s bogus.

  3. Not big fans of their brethren on the other side of the class action bar, and with refreshing candor, the Chicago lawyers explain:

    Plaintiffs’ class action attorneys are either inherently lazy or extremely efficient, depending on your perspective. For most of them, the goal is to maximize their fees by expending the least amount of effort. They are a creative breed of attorney, but after one comes up with a legal theory that pays off, others will tend to simply file copycat cases and “paint by numbers” to receive their reward.

  4. The same lawyer and plaintiff are behind many of the cases:  Templeton, WhistlePig, Angel’s Envy, and Tin Cup. There is also a herd mentality.

    If these cases are settled with any significant amount of attorneys’ fees recovered, many more cases will likely follow. Any spirits producer who uses ambiguous terms on its label or in its marketing will likely be a target. More plaintiffs’ attorneys will join the frenzy. Big settlements are like blood in the water – they will attract more sharks.

  5. The truth is not always a complete defense and it’s not only falsity that puts the blood in the water.

    Knowing where you cross the line between [puffery and deception] is an art, not a science. That line is fuzzy. A claim does not need to be outright “false” to be actionable … [If] it tends to be misleading or deceptive, even if strictly true, a plaintiffs’ class action lawyer will likely seize upon it and file a lawsuit.

  6. Easy precautions are avoiding risky or ambiguous claims, being transparent, and having a knowledgeable person review your marketing materials. You can also trip up the herd by changing your labels periodically — making it much harder for the herd to declare that all in the nationwide class suffered on account of the same labels and claims.
  7. Another strategy is to block the plaintiffs’ effort to certify a class.

    whoIf a plaintiff is suing for disgorgement of the proceeds of the allegedly deceptive marketing, which the plaintiff argues is $5 per bottle, and you have sold 1,000,000 bottles of your product, the exposure is $5 million if a class is certified that consists of everyone who purchased those 1,000,000 bottles. But if the court decides that the case is not appropriate for class certification, the plaintiff’s damages are $5. The case is a serious threat if a class is certified, and no threat at all if one is not certified. So even if you were to lose the case on its merits, if no class is certified you still “win.” [But, because of] the typically high potential exposure and the high cost to defend these cases, the plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t really need to win. All they have to do is survive that initial motion to dismiss and they will be in a position to use their leverage to negotiate a lucrative settlement. Essentially, you can’t win. If you get sued, you’ve already lost, unless you happen to have a very deep pocket. And even then, you still lose. … It is a dirty business.

I reached out to Simon and Tom to ask what is new during the past few weeks in these matters. They pointed out:

  1. whatThe Tito’s vodka plaintiffs are seeking to consolidate a handful of Tito cases as of a few days ago. Consolidating class actions makes a lot of sense. When multiple cases are filed in different places, the defendant has to fight the same battle numerous times. An argument that carries the day in one judge’s courtroom might not carry the day in another. Multiple cases also expose witnesses to multiple depositions. The plaintiff’s lawyer gets the advantage of reviewing the first transcript and using it to develop better or more clever questions in the next deposition. For these reasons and others, having all the cases brought together in a single courtroom is a sound defense strategy. It often also helps facilitate a settlement.

  2. In other news, while the pace of the new class action filings has slowed, they continue to be filed.  Breckenridge Distilling was sued in Chicago by one of the groups of lawyers that previously sued Templeton Rye. In addition, Anheuser-Busch has been sued in an interesting “hybrid” case that includes aspects of the numerous “Made in the USA” cases that have plagued other manufacturing industries for several years and the cases against the spirits industry that involve claims related to the sourcing of ingredients from places other than the place the product is “made.” Fully briefed motions to dismiss are pending in the majority of the cases against the spirits industry. The next six months should see a number of opinions that will give us a good idea of where these cases are headed. If judges generally accept the defendants’ arguments, we may see the wave of cases against the industry dissipate. If judges generally reject those theories, we expect to see more cases filed.

We will continue to watch all these cases closely because when it comes to alcohol beverages, “the herd’s” actions are as important as anything the federal government is doing. That is new and epochal.

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Tito Case Moves Forward, Not in Tito’s Favor

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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 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) Hoffman (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 Hoffman 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.

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A Great Bud Ad

What was the best beer ad, or ad of any type, in yesterday’s Super Bowl broadcast? Hint, it was a Bud ad, but not the one with the dogs, horses, and wolf. Instead, it was the one above. The one in which Bud took on its main competition, directly and powerfully, roughly like those on the field. It’s the first time in many years that Bud did not seem to be on the defensive. It seems clear that Bud’s plan is to defend Bud the brand such as above, and defend Bud the company by buying a bunch of esteemed craft brewers. Maybe they can have their cake and eat it too.

h3Before I scope out anyone else’s views, here are mine:

  1. The 60 second ad opens with a view of an old brewery with a big Budweiser sign and a small American flag atop it; the building is bathing in the sun and surrounded by trees and evokes old-time Americana within a couple seconds.
  2. Within five seconds, it says BUDWEISER, PROUDLY A MACRO BEER and shows lots of real and good looking ingredients, to go along with the pretty buildings way back at seconds 1 and 2.
  3. The ad takes dead aim at and skewers various hipsters such as the ones above. Hipster number 1 is perfect, with his mustachio, earnestness, believability, dancing eyebrows. The others are just as good, as they fumble and fawn over their wee glasses of beer, as much as is probably possible in the span of 2 seconds.
  4. The music is just right and sets a defiant tone.
  5. Lots of big machines, big horses and Bud’s history are packed into this ad; it yields nothing in terms of declaring the work that goes into making this beer great.
  6. It suggests those hipsters are phonies and don’t necessarily enjoy drinking beer as much as normal Bud consumers.

The ad is so good, and so expertly crafted that I can’t even think of any ways to try to refute or find fault with it. Now, having said that, I am eager to go to others to see what I missed in this ad that overflows with powerful imagery.

I was surprised to see Paste call it anti-craft rather than deftly pro-Bud. The article seems to say Bud spent $9 million to air it and I would not be surprised if it cost even more to produce it (or as much as an average movie of 90 times the duration). The Atlantic calls it the event’s riskiest ad and says it’s likely to appeal to those over but not under about 40. The LA Times points out that the ad touts that it’s for people who like to drink beer, but asks you to notice that “the ad doesn’t say the beer is for people who like to taste beer.” The article says most of the ad is on target and wraps up saying “Craft drinkers have dismissed macro beer and have been openly condescending to its fans for years; turnabout is certainly fair play.” Ad Age says, and I agree, the ad is notable for its swagger. The ad, by Anamoly, “marks the return of ‘This Bud’s For You,’ which has not been used in a significant way in Bud advertising since the late 1970s, according to the brewer.”

The debate still rages over whether Bud is good beer. But the debate is over about whether Bud can craft good ads.

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Oak Aged Vodka

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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.

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Tito Responds

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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.

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alcohol beverages generally, vodka


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