The three-man partnership behind well-known Napa Valley Cabernet producer Cornerstone Cellars has crumbled. While the dispute has yet to be definitively resolved, winemaker Bruce Scotland, who still owns one-third of the winery, will now focus on other projects in Napa Valley and Oregon.
Co-founders Mike Dragutsky and David Sloas, who are both doctors in Memphis, Tenn., weren't happy with Scotland's management of Cornerstone or his goals for the business. "We wanted to concentrate on Howell Mountain premium wines," said Dragutsky, who financed the company along with Sloas. "Bruce wanted to focus more on Cal-Itals, which we thought wasn't the best [idea]."
Sloas and Dragutsky will continue to operate Cornerstone Cellars. They have hired consulting winemaker Celia Masyczek, who makes the wines for Hartwell Vineyards in Napa's Stags Leap District, to oversee production. She will oversee the blends for the 1999 and the 2000 vintages and make the 2001 wines.
Cornerstone began in 1991 when Dragutsky, Sloas and Scotland obtained Cabernet grapes from the Beatty Ranch on Howell Mountain. In the 2000 vintage, the winery made a total of 1,800 cases of Cabernet from three Howell Mountain sites: Cornerstone, Beatty Ranch and Black Sears vineyards; it also produced 650 cases of Howell Mountain Zinfandel.
Scotland also makes two other labels, which had been loosely affiliated with Cornerstone: Tay, a Napa Valley Cabernet blend and L'Ecosse, which allows him to explore a range of varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
In the 2001 vintage, Cornerstone Cellars will bottle only one Cabernet, from the Cornerstone Vineyard, which the winery bought in 1996. Scotland will bottle the purchased grapes from Beatty Ranch and Black Sears under his new label, Highlands.
Scotland expects to make about 1,700 cases of Zinfandel and 1,100 of Cabernet this year, along with 300 cases of Syrah from the Hozhoni Vineyard in the hills above St. Helena. "The whole idea of Highlands is for it to be from high lands," said Scotland, noting that he is choosing hillside sites that will result in stressed vines and small, concentrated berries. He will release the first Highlands wines in late 2003 and 2004.
He is also focusing on Oregon Pinot Noir. Last December, Scotland and four partners started Utopia Wines in the Willamette Valley. They purchased 20 acres, 11 of which will be planted this fall to four Pinot Noir clones.
Dragutsky says that earlier this year he and Sloas rejected a $5 million buyout offer from Scotland and The Legacy Estates Group, which purchased Freemark Abbey Winery in Napa last February. The offered price would have included rights to the Cornerstone brand name, the 6-acre Cornerstone Vineyard (of which 4 acres are planted to Cabernet) and inventory from the 1998, 1999 and 2000 vintages.
"We would have made some profit [on our initial investment]," said Dragutsky. "But I like being in the wine business, even from afar."
Cornerstone Cellars, which currently uses the winemaking facilities at Laird Family Estate north of Napa, will explore other potential Howell Mountain grape sources. As of the 1998 vintage, Dragutsky and Sloas are also starting a second label, called Stepping Stone, which will be made with non-Howell Mountain grapes and lots of wine excluded from the Cornerstone label. In 1998, there were 750 cases of Stepping Stone Cabernet Sauvignon produced from the Mill Race Vineyard in Yountville. Prices are expected to be around $30 a bottle.
Check our recent ratings of Cornerstone wines.