CALIFORNIA GRAPE MIX-UP
What a mess: One of California's most famous wineries is suing the biggest supplier of grapevines in Sonoma County, which in turn is suing one of the most beloved winemakers in the state. All in all, it's a legal entanglement that could end up bankrupting the losers.
Call it the "Case of the Misidentified Roussanne," a tale of intrigue, money and revenge, where the truth may only come out in the courtroom. The immediate news is that Caymus Vineyards, the celebrated Rutherford winery whose Cabernets are among the state's best and who also owns the Monterey-area Chardonnay-only winery called Mer Soleil, has filed suit against Sonoma Grapevines Inc. after learning that 6,400 grapevines it purchased in 1994 under the belief that they were Roussanne, are actually Viognier.
Both varieties are white grapes grown in the Rhône Valley region of France, and are often blended with other grapes into such wines as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Viognier, however, is bottled on its own under the very expensive Condrieu and Château-Grillet appellations, and has been a rising star in recent years in California.
Caymus president and winemaker Chuck Wagner offered a terse "no comment" to all questions related to the case, but Sonoma Grapevines owner Richard Kunde was more willing to talk. He says he bought the budwood for the "Roussanne" he sold to Caymus and many other wineries from Randall Grahm, the owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard and one of California's most colorful and innovative winemakers.
Kunde says he couldn't have been expected to know the vines weren't really Roussanne, especially since it was Grahm who vouched for their authenticity. "If you were looking for Rhône grapes in the early 1990s, what better person to talk to than Randall?"
Apparently that's not a good enough excuse for Caymus. According to Kunde, Wagner testified in his deposition that Caymus was planning on releasing a $75 Roussanne made from the mystery vines under the Mer Soleil label. Kunde says his lawyer told him that Caymus is suing Kunde for $7 million, apparently for lost future profits. According to reports, Wagner and Caymus began to question the vines in 1998, after Santa Barbara vintner and Rhône-style specialist John Alban visited Caymus and told Wagner that what he had wasn't Roussanne.
Grahm in turn says Kunde isn't telling the whole truth. "I would dispute that I sold [the Roussanne] to him. We think of it as giving it to him." Kunde says, however, that he has proof Grahm sold him the vines. "We went into our records and found 'BD' codes on everything. BD," Kunde says, "stands for Bonny Doon."
The plot thickened in late August when Zaca Mesa, a Santa Barbara-based winery, issued a press release stating it had discovered that its Roussanne wines were actually Viognier. Zaca Mesa, which has bottled a varietal Roussanne since 1995, announced it was recalling its 1999 Roussanne and would relabel it as Viognier, although the price of $16 will remain the same. Winery spokesman Jim Fiolek said former Zaca Mesa winemaker Daniel Gehrs had bought 400 cuttings of "Roussanne" back in 1993, from "a vineyard in Paso Robles," but he declined to name the source. Fiolek added that Zaca Mesa has no interest in suing anyone.
Grahm, in an interview, said that he had been the source of Zaca Mesa's misidentified Roussanne vines. Fiolek says that, in all the years Zaca Mesa has bottled a Roussanne, no consumer or wine critic ever questioned its authenticity, although the two varietals, in theory, are quite different from each other.
Authorities on grapes and wines generally describe Roussanne as being delicate, with great finesse, and possessing floral scents, especially iris. The same authorities describe Viognier as being high in alcohol, with aromas suggesting peach and apricot.
Both Caymus and Zaca Mesa confirmed the true identity of their "Roussanne" vines after sending them to the University of California at Davis for DNA testing by noted grape "fingerprinter" Carole Meredith. Meredith says there's probably more misidentified Roussanne planted in California than people know about. "I would suspect it's more widespread than just this couple of cases." According to state officials, there were just 152 acres of Roussanne planted in California in 1999, which is why it tends to be expensive when bottled varietally.
Now all eyes are on the courts. Kunde says if Caymus is awarded the $7 million, it would bankrupt him. Grahm, asked if a $7 million judgment against Bonny Doon would bankrupt him, replied, "Correct," adding that instead of suing Sonoma Grapevines, Caymus "should be happy to make great Viognier." —Steve Heimoff