Robert Hill-Smith seems like a reasonable guy. I’ve only chatted to him briefly a few times over the years. I know he is very well respected in the wine community and beyond. My impression is he wouldn’t take legal action unless he absolutely had to – and he definitely wouldn’t take it against a competitor in the wine industry that he loves so dearly, unless he knew he had a case.
When Pernod Ricard released its Jacob’s Creek Barossa Signature range last year, Hill-Smith took the French-based company to the Federal Court. In a decision that has baffled wine observers, he lost.
Nick Stock spoke for many in the wine community when he posted on Facebook: “At the very least it’s poor form on the part of Jacob’s Creek to try to appropriate ‘Signature’ in a Barossan context. At worst it is just plain old passing off. Fortunately history tells us that they will most likely stuff up the brand and shelve it in a handful of years when a new marketing regime rolls through, but for now it’s an incredibly bad look whether arrogant or simply naïve.”
Nick was inundated with support. I liked this comment by Steve Wemyss: “Many companies today fail the basic ‘is it the right thing to do’ test – exploiting legal loopholes with very marginal practices.”
Pernod Ricard clearly did the wrong thing. Yalumba has produced The Signature since 1966. What was Pernod Ricard thinking? Was it just a brain fade or something more sinister?
Pernod Ricard is one of those big bad corporations we all love to hate, but it employs some great people, some of whom I reckon would have cringed when their marketing colleagues came up with the idea of using Signature.
The Australian wine community is upset, but of course consumers won’t care less and they’ll buy plenty of Barossa Signature.
Having said all this, I don’t think The Signature’s reputation – or sales – will be affected at all because of Pernod Ricard’s arrogance. The Signature is strong and constant with a reputation beyond reproach. There’s no mistaking it for the interloper. It’s awkward because Pernod Ricard staff sit with small producers and family businesses on numerous wine industry boards and committees. I hope they’re reminded of their low act.
Yalumba is one of our most admired wine businesses. When I think of Yalumba I think of integrity, trust, humour and a sense of fair play. It strikes me as one that would accept the umpire’s decision and move on. As it has done here.
In late January, Yalumba released this statement: “Yalumba today decided not to pursue an appeal to the Full Bench of the Federal Court in its case against Pernod Ricard, winemakers of Jacob’s Creek. The case involved a perceived trade mark infringement of their registered mark, ‘The Signature’, which has been produced by Yalumba since 1962. It is an iconic red wine and was deemed worthy of legal protection in spite of the heavy cost of litigation. The case was dismissed on 14 December 2016 but in making the determination Judge Charlesworth acknowledged Yalumba’s rights in its trade mark for The Signature and found trade mark usage by Pernod Ricard.
“Robert Hill-Smith, the proprietor of Yalumba, remarked again of his disappointment at the judgement and also at poor etiquette and market behaviour of the French company. ‘There has been overwhelming support from the wine community, not just trade and media but also consumers. It’s testament to the importance of history and provenance in our industry,’ Mr Hill-Smith said. ‘Whilst we have to move on, we will work doubly hard at making the label and wine even more famous and valued by discerning wine drinkers and widening the gap between ourselves and others borrowing from us at the fringe’.”
Meanwhile I’d put three cases of Yalumba Octavius on two things happening: Jacob’s Creek Barossa Signature ($20) not seeing the decade out, and The Signature ($60) living to a ripe old age with grace and dignity.
Yalumba has seen off numerous bad days including a near-death experience; Hill-Smith saved it. I think even Robert himself would acknowledge that as far as setbacks go, this bad day in court was merely a flesh wound compared with all the challenges that go with a company founded in 1849.
Anthony Madigan is the editor of WBM – Australia’s Wine Business Magazine. A version of this column first appeared in the January/February WBM. To read the online edition for free, visit wbmonline.com.au/read-wbm-online