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News Briefs for March 23, 2015

March 23, 2015

•A California federal judge has put a class action suit against Tito’s Handmade Vodka producer Fifth Generation Inc. on hold because of a technical issue, but has also rejected most of Fifth Generation’s arguments aimed at dismissing the suit, which maintains that Fifth Generation misled consumers with its “handmade” claim. U.S. district judge Jeffrey Miller partially granted Austin, Texas-based Fifth Generation’s motions to dismiss, on grounds that lead plaintiff Gary Hofmann omitted from his argument a claim that he wouldn’t have purchased the vodka if it hadn’t been labeled “handmade.” But Miller ruled against Fifth Generation’s argument that its label could deceive no reasonable consumer. He also rejected Tito’s other claims, writing, “The court is not persuaded that plaintiff must allege that Tito’s was defective, that he could have purchased comparable vodka for less or that it matters if the vodka he bought was worth, in strictly monetary terms, what he paid for it.” The judge added that Hofmann—whose suit contends that Tito’s handmade claim misleads consumers because the vodka is actually mass-produced—appears prepared to amend his complaint in order to proceed with the suit.

•Walt Wines, sister brand of Napa’s Hall Wines, has formed a long-term partnership with Santa Barbara-based vintners Stephen and Cathy Pepe in which Walt will lease the Pepes’ Clos Pepe Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. Walt Wines has been producing Pinot Noir from Clos Pepe for the last five vintages. The 29-acre vineyard is planted to 25 acres of Pinot Noir and four acres of Chardonnay. Under the agreement, the Pepes’ Clos Pepe brand will continue on (with the couple continuing to live on the property) and relationships with select buyers of grapes from the property will also remain active. Walt Wines specializes in small-lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Pacific Coast, Central Coast, Sonoma County, Anderson Valley and Willamette Valley.

•Darden Restaurants has reported revenue growth of 6.9% for its fiscal third quarter ended February 22 to $1.73 billion, up from $1.62 billion in the year-earlier period. Combined same-restaurant sales rose 3.6% in the quarter, driven primarily by the group’s Eddie V’s (+9.6%), The Capital Grille (+6.1%), LongHorn Steakhouse (+5.4%) and Yard House (+5.4%) concepts. Most notably, same-restaurant sales for the company’s Olive Garden franchise were significantly improved, up 2.2%, compared to a 1.3% decline in the fiscal first quarter of the year. Olive Garden grew total sales by 3%, to $957 million, concurrent with the addition of nine new restaurants and an increase in both operating profit and profit as a percentage of sales.

•Heineken USA is launching a new variety pack for its Newcastle brand that will feature equal amounts of new releases British Pale Ale and Session IPA along with the flagship Newcastle Brown Ale. The pale ale (5.8% abv) features hop bitterness and a citrus finish, while the session IPA (5.1% abv) is mid-strength with hop nuances, the company says. The Newcastle Variety Pack will be available by April in a 12-pack format. The brand collaborated with Scottish brewery Caledonian for the pale ale and session IPA, following last fall’s collaborative release of Newcastle Scotch Ale that marked the first offering in its Collaboration Series.

•Empire Merchants North, the upstate New York unit of Charmer Sunbelt Group, has named John Devin as president and CEO. Devin was previously vice president and executive general manager of Atlantic Wine and Spirits at Empire Merchants in New York City. A 27-year industry veteran, Devin held various roles on the supplier side—including with Brown-Forman and Schieffelin & Somerset—prior to joining Charmer. In his new post, Devin succeeds Jay Andretta, who passed away in December.

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