From the Ashes – Dombeya Fenix 2009

by Johann Olivier

It is fair to say that we hadn’t intended on releasing a new wine. Certainly, it must be said, not another Bordeaux-style blend, identical to the award winning Dombeya Altus that already sat comfortably in the Dombeya portfolio.

And we certainly had no intention of releasing the same wine, under a different name, after establishing Altus as a wine of distinction in the marketplace.

But events have conspired against us. It’s a story worth telling, so indulge us if you may…

We received a legal challenge from South Africa’s biggest wine company, Distell, over the use of the word, Altus. They alleged that it infringed their trademark on Alto, a brand within their portfolio. Clearly, the two words are spelled differently, and whilst one is a brand that covers an estate and a range of wines, the other is merely a ‘stage’ name for a wine within a completely dissociated brand.

It seemed to us to be about as spurious an assertion as we had ever heard. As did the legal eagles we consulted on the matter, who suggested that it was as good a case of succeeding as they had seen.

Subsequently, we prepared to take the matter to the High Court of South Africa, confident of a win, and of Distell having to pick up the tab for their wild slash outside off stump. That was until we found out that the High Court rarely awards costs in these matters, and that we would more than likely have to bear the full cost of defending the action.

How much, I hear ask? Our advice was a minimum of 300 000 rand, but possibly up to 500 000 rand depending on how long the case dragged on for. Fine if you are using funds from a publicly listed company, but a lot more painful when they are coming out of your own pocket.

With teeth gritted, we reluctantly decided to tuck our tail between our legs and agree to Distell’s demands to kill off Altus. However, not merely content with achieving their goal, they then demanded that we pay their legal fees to this point, or meet them in court.

So, in a twisted, 21st century, ‘Man bites Dog’ role reversal, we ended up having to give money to Distell to avoid winning our case, but losing anyway.

The end result is that we have a new name for Dombeya Altus. Appropriately, the wine will be called ‘Fenix’, having risen from the ashes of its former identity. It’s a cracking wine, from the outstanding 2009 vintage, with a few years of bottle age under its belt and all the better for it. Needless to say, it is the same blend as Altus, because it is the same wine.

At some point we’ll have more to say about the lack of collegiality inherent to this whole saga. It was something that could have been resolved by a simple phone call from someone at the Death Star. It is hard to imagine that in a time not far removed, a winery would have gone to the trouble and expense to prepare a forty plus page brief on something so trivial without first either picking up the phone, or jumping in the car to discuss the matter in person. But times, as they say, are different now.

We’d also like to to thank the numerous supporters in the business who offered to testify on our behalf. Some were amongst the most influential members of the South African wine trade, and integral to the supply chain of S.A.’s biggest wine companies. All expressed disdain for the nature of this action, and we thank them for this.

We hope you enjoy the wine. It’s a damn good one, regardless of what it is called.