At times, the Napa Valley wine scene seems like a real-life soap opera with its plot twists and its changing cast of characters. In the latest episode, the folding of Quail Ridge Winery, and its parent company, Rutherford Benchmarks, last August has rippled through the industry, spawning lawsuits, fire sales and new brands.
California bulk-wine magnate Fred Franzia, who owns Bronco Wine Co., has purchased the Quail Ridge label, brand and more than 35,000 cases worth of inventory in finished bottles, unlabeled bottles and barrels. According to spokesman Harvey Posert, Bronco plans to market a bargain-priced Napa wine under the Quail Ridge label.
Bronco, the maker of the hot-selling Two-Buck Chuck, is also the company that has incurred the wrath of the Napa wine establishment by buying grapes and wines from less-prestigious appellations and bottling them at a plant near the Napa airport under brand names such as Napa Ridge, Napa Creek and Rutherford Vintners.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed against Quail Ridge, Rutherford Benchmarks and Wells Fargo bank by a Napa-based payroll firm and several Quail Ridge employees who were left without jobs or compensation when the company closed abruptly. In their suit, the employees charge that their last paychecks were withdrawn eight days after having been direct deposited into their bank accounts. (The lawyer handling the case has not returned calls to confirm other details of the suit.)
The owner of a Napa wine storage facility also placed a lien against more than 200 barrels of Quail Ridge wine stored at the facility, but later bought the barrels herself for a bargain-basement price when no one else showed up at an auction of the wines.
And Napa grower Michel Perret, who owns the winery and vineyard property formerly occupied by Quail Ridge, recently launched his own new winery venture. "What else was I to do? Quail Ridge had flown away," said Perret.
Oddly enough, Perret had created the Domaine Napa brand in 1985, which he sold to none other than Bronco in 1995, and then rented the winery and vineyards to Quail Ridge.
Perret's new winery is called Esquisse, a French word for a sketch from an artist's notebook. Perret has purchased wines and will be selling Napa Valley Chardonnay, Napa Zinfandel and Paso Robles Syrah out of the former Quail Ridge tasting room, at 1155 Mee Lane in St. Helena, which he reopened as the Esquisse tasting room in late June.
This fall, Perret plans to crush Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Malbec from the 10.5 acres of vineyards acres surrounding the winery. He estimates that his Esquisse wines will be priced at $25 to $30 a bottle.
Meanwhile, former Quail Ridge winemaker Tom Foster has turned his attention to making a vineyard-designated Syrah, a Syrah rosé and a Napa Valley Cabernet under his new label, Thomas Michael (his first and middle name). His first crush was 2002.
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