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Sonoma-Cutrer Founder Departs in Dispute with Owner


Tim Fish
Posted: July 20, 2001

Brice Cutrer Jones, who built Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards into one of California's best-known Chardonnay brands, is leaving the winery after disagreements with majority owner Brown-Forman Corporation.

Jones' exit was announced today as part of a reorganization of Brown-Forman's wine division. Jones and Brown-Forman Wines president Thomas Burnet were not available for comment.

Brown-Forman, the Kentucky-based drinks giant whose holdings include Fetzer Vineyards in California, paid $125 million for an 80 percent interest in Sonoma-Cutrer in April 1999. Jones, who planted the winery's first vineyards in 1973, kept a small equity stake in the winery. He retained his position as president and CEO, and the winery continued to operate independently from the parent company.

In a statement, Brown-Forman said Jones, 61, is leaving because of "policy disagreements regarding the decision to merge the Sonoma-Cutrer and Brown-Forman Estates Group organizations."

"Our intention all along has been to consolidate, but Brice resisted that," said Phil Lynch, vice president of communications for Brown-Forman. "Finally it came to a point where we had to have a parting of the ways." Lynch explained that Brown-Forman has acquired the remaining stake in Sonoma-Cutrer and now has full ownership.

The company's new Brown-Forman Wine Estates organization will oversee vineyards, production, sales and marketing for all the super-premium and ultra-premium wines in the company's portfolio: Sonoma-Cutrer, Bonterra, Jekel and Mariah from California and Owen's Estate, Geoff Merrill Reserves and Tahbilk from Australia. Steven Dorfman, 41, who joined Fetzer in 1983 as a winemaker and has since held numerous positions at Brown-Forman, will serve as managing director of Brown-Forman Wine Estates.

In a corporate statement, Burnet called the move a "natural next step in the development of our fine wine business. ?We can take better advantage of the strengths of both organizations by combining them."

Jones is a West Point graduate and former Vietnam pilot who became interested in wine while still in the Air Force. After graduating from Harvard Business School, he began planting vineyards in Sonoma County near Windsor, fortuitously concentrating on Chardonnay just before the wine's popularity soared.

Sonoma-Cutrer's most highly regarded wines are its vineyard-designated Chardonnays, including the Les Pierres and Cutrer Vineyards, which make up about 10 percent of its production. The Russian River Ranches bottling, from the Sonoma Coast appellation, accounts for the other 90 percent.

Brown-Forman is a publicly traded company that had $2.1 billion in sales in 2000. It owns Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County and Jekel Vineyards in Monterey County and liquor brands such as Jack Daniel's, Canadian Mist and Southern Comfort. It also imports, distributes and markets numerous other alcohol brands.

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Check our recent ratings of Sonoma-Cutrer wines.

Read past news articles about Sonoma-Cutrer and Brown-Forman:

  • June 6, 2001
    Jim Fetzer Sets Up Biodynamic Vineyard in California's Lake County

  • Nov. 4, 1999
    Sonoma-Cutrer Head Turns His Attention to Reds

  • Feb. 11, 1999
    California's Sonoma-Cutrer Sells Majority Stake To Brown-Forman
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