In a corporate restructuring, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp., which owns Fetzer, Sonoma-Cutrer and Jekel wineries in California, has reassigned several top executives to new positions or new responsibilities. As a part of the shuffle, Fetzer president Paul Dolan -- an icon in the organic viticulture movement -- will switch his focus to developing new products for Brown-Forman's wineries.
Some industry observers have questioned whether the move signals a change in the company's strong commitment to leadership in the realm of sustainable and organic viticulture.
While Dolan will retain the title of president of Fetzer, the day-to-day responsibilities of running the winery will be assumed by Pat Voss, who has been senior vice president at Fetzer for the past 10 years. In addition, Steve Dorfman, currently managing director of Sonoma-Cutrer, takes on the new position of chief winery officer, overseeing operations at all of Brown-Forman's winery holdings.
Phil Lynch, vice president and director of communications at Brown-Forman, said the company felt it would be more efficient and cost-effective to consolidate all of its wineries under one head.
Dolan, who has run Fetzer for the past 11 years, helped pioneer the organic movement in California, along with members of the Fetzer family, who sold their winery to Brown-Forman in 1993. He currently heads Wine Institute's California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, and he has written a book on Fetzer's sustainable business principles, called True to Our Roots--Fermenting a Business Revolution, which is due out in November.
"Our decision [to reassign Dolan] was based on Paul's great success at Fetzer with Sundial Chardonnay, Eagle Peak Merlot, Bonterra and Five Rivers Ranch," said Lynch. "Each of the brands has been highly successful. Paul's been telling us for years that we needed to develop new wines and flavor profiles."
Dolan, who is a founder of WineVision, a trade organization promoting wine in the United States, spoke with enthusiasm about his new role in product development. "One of my goals," Dolan said, "has been to make wine drinking a part of mainstream American culture." However, he says he hasn't given up his eco-friendly focus: "My day-to-day job will be new product development, but my primary responsibility with Fetzer will be to carry the torch of sustainability, and to achieve the stated organic goal of 2010. Team Fetzer is completely commited to the organic goal."
Currently, all of Fetzer's estate vineyards and the Jekel vineyards are farmed organically, and the Bonterra label is 100 percent organic, while Sonoma-Cutrer is working on organic and biodynamic grapegrowing, according to Dolan.
"There's no suggestion that our environmental orientation is going to change," said Ann Thrupp, who was hired in January as Fetzer's new manager of organic development. "Fetzer already has 2,000 acres of certified organic wine grapes. We also buy from nearly 200 growers. … Fetzer is committed to having all our growers go organic by 2010. I was hired to facilitate that effort."
Fetzer's organic grapegrowing workshop, held in July for growers interested in making the transition from conventional to organic farming, was sold out, Thrupp said. Sixty-five growers were put on a waiting list for another workshop in November.
But when asked about Brown-Forman's commitment to organic farming, Lynch offered a more cautious perspective. As a publicly traded company, Brown-Forman "needs to be smart about this," he said. In its effort to encourage all of its growers to invest the time and effort to be certified organic, the company has offered them long-term contracts. "And our commitment to long-term grower contracts has meant that we couldn't take advantage of the lower grape prices in the current market," Lynch explained. "We're looking for the right balance so that we can continue with our plans for organic transition while still maintaining a reasonable margin of profit."
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