Couple of years ago there was a restaurant in Pioneer Square called Tinello, the Italian word for "dinette." Before long, they got a cease-and-desist letter from the owners of Il Tinello on West 56th St. in Manhattan, two blocks off Central Park, where tuxedoed waiters serve $30 platters of linguine with clams and $40 veal chops. Me, I would told the Noo Yawk swells, va fancul. But Rudy La Valle went on Kickstarter and raised almost 20 grand to rebrand as Radici. Doing fine, it seems, and none the worse for having dodged the wrath of a bully 3,000 miles away.
Now flip to Perlage Systems, a gizmo from local inventor, beverage connoisseur, and tango master Evan Wallace. A physicist and former software exec, he lives in a condo at the Market and spends a lot time in his "living room" downstairs, the Zig Zag Café. He's also a tinker and inventor with a fondness for bubbles and abhorrence of flat Champagne.
How to keep the sparkle in a sparkling wine? Icy cold temperature helps; an airtight stopper helps, but really, once the bottle has been opened, the only way to keep the contents perfectly fresh is to exactly recreate the conditions in the bottle before the cork was popped. Wallace's solution, patented as the Perlage system, is to encase the entire bottle in a clear safety enclosure, and then re-pressurize the head space of the bottle to its original state. For the first three years, Perlage was licensed to a single customer (Dom Perignon), but it's now available for home use.
There's another product from Wallace's company, Applied Fizzics, that will add sparkle to your bar: it's called Perlini, a $200 kit (in a Mafia-style metal attaché case) that includes a shaker, a pressurizer, and a dozen CO2cartridges. Starbucks was looking at Perlini to carbonate its Tazo iced tea. Barkeeps around the country are using large-scale Perlini devices to add fizz to their cocktails. (Canon, on Capitol Hill, serves a sparkling Negroni, among others.)
And wait, yes, there's more. It's a device called Fizz-Iq that will carbonate anything. It's the size of a giant microwave and connects via tubes, hoses, gas canisters and mixing valves to kegs of premixed cocktails.
Wallace doesn't outsource the manufacturing, he does it himself, at a workbench in a space he rents from a friend who happens to own the condo unit across the hall from his own. Yes, circuit boards and all. "I had to learn how to do this," he points out. Sometimes he has people come in and help him with the assembly. Production of the Fizz-Iq: about one unit a month. Sales price: between five and ten grand, which Wallace sometimes takes in trade.
Two years ago, a bottled water producer in Norway called Voss sued, claiming that the Perlini system cocktail shaker (clear, cylindrical) violates the Voss trademark bottle (clear, cylindrical). Now, Voss water is sold in grocery stores worldwide, while the Perlage system costs hundreds and is distributed by the company directly to restaurants and bars. Yet Voss claimed that the Perlini shaker violated their trademark on the bottle that Voss water is packaged in, which is also clear and cylindrical in shape.
"Trademark disputes hinge on handful of surprisingly common-sense legal principles," said Wallace from his Seattle office. "For Voss to make a case, the company would have had to have shown - at the very least - that Perlini and Voss water are in overlapping product categories and sold through overlapping trade channels to overlapping markets.
"It's ridiculous that Voss thinks it can continue to protect a trademark on a cylinder, one of the most common geometrical shapes in the universe," Wallace said two years ago. "It is beyond absurd that Voss thinks there could be any confusion in the customers' mind as to whether they are buying a $3 bottle of water or a $600 restaurant appliance for carbonating cocktails."
Now there's a new challenge to the Perlage/Perlini name, this time from a California outfit called Enartis. Originally known as Vinquiry Wine Lab, it's now part of Esseco, a global supplier of products, equipment, and technical services to the wine industry. You've never heard of them, but the process engineers who make everything from Mondavi to Gallo, red, white, sparkling, domestic, imported, bottled, boxed, and canned, all use the same outside consultants and suppliers, and Enartis is a major player. (Just as grape growers everywhere use the same brand of tractors and pesticides.)
According to a press release dated January 17th, "Enartis USA is pleased to announce the introduction of the Perlage range in our product portfolio - a dedicated range of premium quality winemaking products for sparkling wine production." Except nobody checked with Wallace. And here, there's definitely cause for confusion. "Direct trademark infringement," Wallace believes.
But intellectual property attorneys and trademark lawsuits are extraordinarily expensive. "You can't even recover attorney's expenses in federal court," Wallace points out. "And unlike, say, a juicy personal injury suit, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow--you can get the defendant to cease and desist, and get small monetary damages for lost revenue if you can prove it, but the real payoff is to get them to stop. So unless they are truly hurting your bottom line, or diluting your brand, there's not much point."
"The more money you have, and the more recognized your brand, the more you have to fight--because not protecting your trademark in court can cause it to be invalidated. So Coke and McDonalds fight EVERYTHING, even if there is no possible chance of confusion with their product. They have to fight even if they know they won't win."
Gulp again. We'll let you know how this turns out.