Winery sues UI, Iowa State


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The University of Iowa does not own exclusive rights to black and gold, winery owner Doug Bakker argues.

And that’s what he wants a judge to tell the institution, according to a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Des Moines against the UI and Iowa State University.

The dispute centers on the labels on two bottles of wine made by Madison County Winery: black and gold on a bottle of a Vignoles Chardonnay blend, and red and gold on a bottle of Marechal Foch blended with Cabernet.

Originally, they also had the words “Iowa Gold” and “State Red” on them. A third bottle of a St. Croix and Merlot blend said “Native Pink” on a pink and navy label.

Bakker, who co-owns the winery, said the colors worked well together and reflected the colors of the wines: gold, red, and pink.

“They’re solid color combinations. The colors were initially to be reflective of the wines themselves,” Bakker said. “It was a unique way of designing the labels and having a series.”

The universities disagreed.

According to a cease-and-desist letter sent by a UI representative in August 2009, just weeks after the bottles hit the market, the colors combined with the text implied a connection to the university.

Bakker received a similar letter from Iowa State University a month later.

The owners of the winery, which opened in 2005 and produces five varieties of wine, tried to comply, Bakker said. He removed the words “Iowa” and “State” from the labels and instructed all retailers to refrain from marketing the wines alongside UI products. The universities still insisted the products infringed on their trademarks, and Bakker sued.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said he could not comment on the legal case.

Having trademark protection based on colors is highly uncommon, said Drake law Professor Peter Yu, an expert in intellectual-property law who is familiar with the wine case.

Yu said the universities don’t have a strong argument.

To receive trademark protections, a mark has to be distinctive to the type of product and color.
But according to the lawsuit, it’s commonly accepted the UI doesn’t commercially produce wine. And many sports teams throughout the country use black and gold.

That hasn’t stopped UI officials from perusing companies they feel are infringing on their trademark in the past.

In April, university officials asked the owner of the Hawkeye Hideaway Bar in Iowa City to give up the familiar moniker and color scheme.

And last fall, the UI insisted Anheuser-Busch stop producing “fan cans” — Budweiser beer in black and gold cans. The company agreed, but cases remain in Iowa City as establishments sell their stock.

The UI, along with other schools throughout the country that also asked the beer company to stop making the product, prevailed.

Fans see Budweiser advertised during football games, which could generate consumer confusion about the connection between the UI and Anheuser-Busch, Yu said.

But that’s not the case with the wine, he said.

“You’re not going to see an ad from Madison County Winery during the game,” Yu said.

If the court does rule in favor of the universities, which Yu said he thinks is unlikely, the case could have wide implications for what companies can do in the future.

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