Business & Real Estate

All is not bucolic at Apple Hill, where a legal fight is now brewing

Boa Vista Orchards in Placerville on Friday, December 1, 2017 in Placerville, Calif. Boa Vista’s owners are being sued by the Apple Hill Growers in a trademark dispute over the term “Apple Hill.”
Boa Vista Orchards in Placerville on Friday, December 1, 2017 in Placerville, Calif. Boa Vista’s owners are being sued by the Apple Hill Growers in a trademark dispute over the term “Apple Hill.” hamezcua@sacbee.com

Apple Hill has been an autumn destination for decades for Northern California families in search of fresh fruits, Halloween pumpkins, Christmas trees and wine tasting.

Now, it is at the center of a legal fight over who can use the name “Apple Hill” to hawk their farm goods.

The dispute is between the Apple Hill Growers Association, which adopted the name “Apple Hill” in 1964, and the family that runs Boa Vista Orchards, one of the largest farm stand operations in the area just east of Placerville along Highway 50.

Brad Visman, whose family runs Boa Vista through a company called El Dorado Orchards Inc., declined to comment on the trademark infringement lawsuit the growers have filed. Both sides are due in Sacramento federal court for the first time on Thursday in the case.

The dispute has been brewing for about five years, court documents say, with the Visman family becoming disenchanted with the growers association and withdrawing from it. Brad Visman’s son, Mason, then built a website “to promote the Apple Hill growing area because he believed that the growers’ association’s efforts were ineffective,” according to a court filing by the Visman family lawyers.

The growers saw that as a “lack of loyalty,” their lawyers say, removed them from the association in early 2014 and went to Boa Vista to pick up the “Apple Hill Grower” logo signs used by members of the group.

That settled nothing.

Since then, the growers claim, the Vismans created websites purporting to represent the “official site of Apple Hill, and touted an address for an “Apple Hill Visitor Center” that turned out to be the same address as Boa Vista. The sites don’t currently make such a claim, and one of them – www.applehillca.com – offers a link to the Apple Hill growers site, www.applehill.com.

The growers also claim the Visman family has paid Google for advertising and that potential customers who search for “Apple Hill” in Google are directed to Boa Vista’s address.

Over the summer, the growers note in court filings, a large billboard went up outside Placerville advertising Boa Vista and declaring “Apple Hill Open.” That drove some customers to stop in at some Apple Hill businesses and be turned away, the growers claim, because many of the farm stands operate only during the fall and early winter. (Boa Vista, conversely, is open all year round.)

The billboard apparently was the last straw; the growers filed suit in October alleging trademark infringement and unfair business competition and seeking a jury trial.

The Vismans’ attorneys responded with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that their web efforts promote Apple Hill growers in general.

“Mr. Visman has a directory website that provides information about the growers in the Apple Hill growing area,” Paul Reidl wrote in a court filing Thursday. “The site contains links to the growers and information about them.

“In other words, it promotes goods and services of third parties in the Apple Hill growing area.”

How far the matter will go in federal court depends on whether the case is dismissed at the hearing Thursday, and the level of vitriol generated in the dispute. In the Visman family’s filing Thursday, their attorney noted the growers association takes their conduct “personally” and “freely tosses around inflammatory terms like ‘false,’ ‘misleading, ‘specious’” and others.

“While these might make good pull quotes for a Sacramento Bee reporter, they are not persuasive legal argument,” Reidl asserted.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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