Vine Cuttings: December 2000


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

Mission Hill owner Anthony von Mandi displays his new French bells with his mother Bedriska and sister Pat

The disco-era tune says, “You Can Ring My Bell,” but Mission Hill Winery of Canada will be ringing its own bells this holiday season.

Having purchased four custom brass bells from the Paccard Bell Foundry of Annecy, France, the Westbank, British Columbia, winery is preparing to literally ring in the holidays. It certainly has the right belfry. As part of a large-scale winery expansion project that includes blasting a pair of underground Bordeaux-style barrel caves out of granite, Mission Hill owner Anthony von Mandl and his family have built a 12-story, 140-foot bell tower in the middle of its Okanagan Valley vineyards. Beginning in mid December, the bells will chime each day as a signal of the season.

Mind you, these are not your average little bells. The biggest one, with its yoke attached, stands over seven feet tall and weighs more than 1,500 pounds. When rung as a group, the bells’ sound will spread across the Okanagan (pronounced Oka-noggin) Valley, British Columbia’s main winegrowing region and home to about 50 wineries. “These bells are part of my family’s legacy to the Okanagan. They’ll be around long after we’re gone,” says von Mandl, who bought the estate in 1981.

Adding to the allure of the sonal quartet is the fact that there is great history behind the foundry that made the bells. Paccard began making bells in 1796, and over the centuries it has cast more than 100,000 brass bells. Among the most notable bells cast by Paccard are those in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Sacré-Coeur
in Paris.

In addition to adding audible beauty to this area just across the border from Washington state, the bells are also a bit of self-tribute to von Mandl’s 20 years of owner- ship. Mission Hill is widely considered to make some of Canada’s better table wines. Its winemaker, John Simes, came to Mission Hill in 1992 from Montana wines of New Zealand. Over the years he has made a number of well-reviewed Chardonnays and Merlots from more than 700 acres of vineyards across the province.


Geyser Peak winemaker Daryl Groom poses with one of the few living cork trees in the United States. His winery is exploring alternative closures.

I love cork,” says Peak Wine International’s winemaker Daryl Groom, admiring a 100-year-old Quercus suber, one of the few living cork trees in North America, in the newly renovated courtyard of Geyser Peak Winery. “The look, the feel, the romance of natural cork—I just love it. If the cork producers could guarantee corks with no [contamination] and no leakage, I would not even be thinking about plastics.”

But thinking he is … and acting as well. With several long-term closure trials in process, Groom is “ready to take the step forward” to alternative corks for at least some of his Geyser Peak and Canyon Road wines. Earlier this year, Groom released 45,000 cases of floral whites and early-consumption reds stoppered with Neocork, an extruded polymer closure produced in Napa under the guidance and financing of five of California’s largest wine companies: Beringer, Clos du Bois, Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi and Sebastiani.

For Groom, the decision to switch from natural cork to an alternative had nothing to do with the bottom line, as some consumers believe. In fact, alternative closures were significantly more expensive than natural cork when they were first introduced five years ago. Today, synthetics are, on a price basis, competitive with natural corks, with both ranging from 10 to 25 cents per unit. What concerns Groom about natural cork is that “after putting all our pride and heart into making great wines, three out of 100 bottles will be tainted. This means there are people out there drinking a product that is not up to our standards.”

The culprit is 2,4,6-tri-chloroanisole (TCA). This invisible chemical compound forms when naturally occurring molds in the bark of cork-bearing oak trees combine with chlorine during the sanitation process. Once a TCA-afflicted cork is inserted into a wine bottle, TCA leaches into the wine, resulting in a “corked” or tainted wine. At very low levels, TCA simply mutes a wine’s aroma and flavor, sometimes so subtly that the average consumer may not even detect it. On the other hand, higher levels are impossible to miss, rendering a wine undrinkable, with odors as offensive as a musty basement or rotting newspapers.

By replacing chlorine washes with hydrogen peroxide, and improving quality control, cork producers have considerably reduced the incidence of TCA in recent years. But it still remains a $100 million-per-year headache for the wine industry. Estimates vary as to the extent of the problem. But no matter whether the taint rate is as low as 1 percent or as high as 7 percent, winemakers around the world are fed up with TCA and, much to the Portuguese cork producers’ chagrin, have begun experimenting in earnest with alternatives.

And choices abound. The marketplace is full of cork alternatives, ranging from twin-topped agglomerates to suberin-fused nonagglomerates to a variety of taint-free plastics and polymers to simple snap-locks, and even the humble screw-cap.

According to Miles Johnson, brand manager for Humphrey and Brown International Wine Marketers, the world’s largest user of synthetic corks, “Alternative closures are here to stay.” He should know: his company, which markets the Talus, Heritage, Vendange, Nathanson Creek, and La Terre labels that were recently sold by Sebastiani to The Wine Group, expects to release 7 million cases
of alternatively corked wines by year end.

And Peak Wines is finding that its alternative efforts are going over well in the marketplace. “We have had product on the market for eight months now, and have not yet received any negative feedback,” says Humberto Berlanga, Geyser Peak’s quality assurance manager. “Maybe consumers are not as against synthetics as we had thought.”

Published on December 1, 2000
Topics: Wine News