Lawyers were consulted, but nobody could determine where a business’s trade name intersected with the trademark on the bottles of wine. The partners considered approaching Richard Cuneo and attempting to negotiate a settlement, but ultimately felt this amounted to waking the sleeping Sebastiani giant, Hall says. “They have more lawyers than we have partners.” Someone then proposed a drastic solution: change the business name from Cuneo Cellars to Cana’s Feast Winery, and with it, the entire brand.
Cuneo was stunned. Patrick Taylor remembers him saying, “I’m not giving up my label. I’m not giving up my name.” The atmosphere at the winery grew tense. “Things between him and Martin were not good,” Taylor says. “There were strained relationships.”
But Hall and the other partners, who saw the rebranding as the only safe course for their investments, leaned on Cuneo to go along with the plan. It was, in their opinion, the lesser of two evils. “Believe me, nobody wanted to do it,” says Hall. “We had so much equity built into the Cuneo Cellars brand. My wife still won’t speak to me about it.”
Cuneo’s opposition wasn’t purely manifested in his ego or pride: he had coined the name Cana’s Feast for the wine, but he thought it was a terrible name for a winery. It was too jarring, too likely to cause reluctance in consumers who were leery of being lectured by overenthusiastic Christians. “I thought it was wrongheaded,” he tells me. “We had a long theological discussion about it. This is a community business, and people expect a business to be run in a secular way. If you want to put a fish over the door, that’s fine.” As a compromise, he suggested changing the name to Cana Cellars. But Barrett was adamant.
Cuneo’s spirituality ultimately dictated his actions. He relented. “Martin and the others had put in a lot of money, and you had to respect that,” he says now. “There’s something to be said for the collective wisdom of the group. Nobody has perfect knowledge. I didn’t want to go against the wishes of my brothers. There’s a much greater dynamic than the group. God will do what He will.” At the beginning of 2006, Cana’s Feast Winery LLC became the legal name of the company. Cuneo Cellars was no more.
“It was such a shock,” says Jody Christensen. “We had built the whole foundation on the Cuneo name and Gino’s story…. Here you’ve been building a brand for five years, and then the rug is pulled out from under you.” Citing family commitments, but heartbroken over the changes to the business she had helped grow, Christensen resigned.
That wasn’t the last blow for Cuneo or the winery. In May 2007, the company received word they would be audited by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the US Treasury Department. The agency was created in 2003 to monitor and regulate winemakers, distillers, brewers and tobacco manufacturers. While Cuneo was in Italy leading a food-and-wine tour, a young Vancouver-based TTB investigator named Paul Haller began asking questions about everything from labels to the precise percentages in the blends. “He would ask us, ‘How did you configure this blend? How do I know that this is 23 percent merlot and not 22 percent?’” says Taylor, Cuneo’s assistant winemaker at the time. “‘This tank is supposed to hold 600 gallons and you’re claiming 588.’ And he was totally serious.”
Haller asked to see records that went back years. Violations involved documentation of labeling and the late payment of federal taxes; as more problems surfaced, Haller threatened to shut down the winery. Cuneo admits that record keeping under his watch had been scattered. A succession of employees had been tasked with different record-keeping duties, but the final responsibility, he says, was his. After consulting lawyers, the partners came up with an option: because Cuneo had been in charge of record keeping, they could offer the government his resignation as evidence of their intention to reorganize the company.
Cuneo learned of the audit by phone while in Italy. One of the new partners called him. “He was really serious,” says Cuneo. “He asked me, ‘Gino, what do you have to say for all this? Why did this happen?’ The answer was expediency: there was too much to do in too short a time.”