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Sonoma-Cutrer Founder Ousted by Owner


Tim Fish
Posted: July 24, 2001

Brice Cutrer Jones admits he was shocked when he was fired last week by the majority owner of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, a winery that Jones built into one of California's best-known Chardonnay brands.

"I had no warning," said Jones, 61, who had more than two years remaining on a five-year contract with Brown-Forman Corporation.

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.

Jones' exit was announced on July 20 as Brown-Forman merged Sonoma-Cutrer and its other wineries into a single division. While the company said the dismissal was because of "policy disagreements" over the merger, Jones said he was never consulted about the change.

"I probably would have been against it if they had asked me," Jones said. "But I think I could have improved on the ultimate structure [of the merger] if they had included me in the loop."

Phil Lynch, vice president of communications for Brown-Forman, said consolidation was always the plan. "But Brice resisted that. 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 superpremium and ultrapremium 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, Brown-Forman Wines president Thomas 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, in retrospect, said he was "surprised it took them so long" to make the change. While he doesn't know of any plans to expand production, Jones said, "I think they wanted to figure out how to improve the profitability, and my only concern has been keeping the standard of excellence and quality."

Despite his abrupt departure, Jones still has faith that his decision to sell to Brown-Forman was the right one. "I chose Brown-Forman even though they were by far not the highest bidder," said Jones, who was convinced by the company that it would "preserve the jewel."

Jones will now concentrate on a new Pinot Noir vineyard he is planting in Sonoma County. He and two former partners from Sonoma-Cutrer paid $5 million for the historic 140-acre Hallberg Apple Farm near Sebastopol. That was a record price for undeveloped vineyard land in Sonoma County.

"'Red wine by '09' is our motto," said Jones. "The vineyard would also be good for Chardonnay, but it will make stellar Pinot Noir. The competitive advantage of west Sonoma County is Pinot Noir."

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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