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Fetzer vs. Fetzer: Battle Over Eagle Peak

Plus, a Canadian ice wine maker suffers the perils of publicity, and a Burgundy vigneron is fighting the government to keep his biodynamic vineyard pesticide free

Posted: December 5, 2013

• It's been two decades since the Fetzer family owned the major California winery they founded, but since Viña Concha y Toro acquired the company in 2011, the company has attempted to "bring the heritage back to their brand," according to Jake Fetzer, who now owns Masút Vineyards with his brother, Ben. Ironically, reviving that heritage has put Fetzer the company at odds with Fetzer the family. One of the old Fetzer bottlings, discontinued in 2004 but recently reintroduced, is called Eagle Peak Merlot, once grown on the Fetzer home ranch in view of said peak but now sourced from all over California. The return of Eagle Peak Merlot inconveniently coincided with a nearly-complete TTB petition for an "Eagle Peak, Mendocino County" AVA by Jake and Ben Fetzer along with Joe Golden of Golden Vineyards. The petition has been kicking around for four years now, but the comment period seemed to be going well and finally drawing to a close—in addition to grapegrowers, district Rep. Jared Huffman put in a good word—until the final day, when Concha y Toro lawyer Robert Kalik submitted a lengthy protest.

"No … historical tie exists between the name Eagle Peak and viticulture," wrote Kalik, adding that the AVA would force Fetzer to discontinue the Eagle Peak Merlot. In response, Jake wrote to the TTB, "We find Mr. Kalik's assertion that Fetzer would be forced to 'abandon its Eagle Peak brand' absurd. If anything, Fetzer would unduly benefit from the fine wine reputation of the Eagle Peak AVA." And, as he put it to Unfiltered, "The fact that they said there was no viticultural significance to that mountain in that area is so ridiculous, because that's where they came up with the name"—Eagle Peak Merlot originally being grown in the shadow of Eagle Peak. "It seems sort of ridiculous to name it a different area than really what it is." Jake, Ben and Golden met with Fetzer's general manager to try to iron out the differences after inviting them to view the proposed AVA ("They never decided to come out"), but feel that the company is just acting on the word of its lawyer. The petitioners hope to have a decision in a few months, in time to label their 2013s with the new AVA. "Is it in the best interest of the consumer, the TTB, and the wine industry to allow a misleading label like Eagle Peak Merlot in the marketplace?" asked Jake. "[Or] does it degrade the hard work many people put into defining real and honest appellations?"

• Apparently there is such a thing as bad publicity. British Columbia’s Hainle Estate, among North America’s oldest producers of ice wine, was the subject of a local news piece highlighting the winery’s multimillion-dollar inventory of vintage ice wine, some of which dates back to the early 1980s. The spot aired on Friday, and the following Sunday, Nov. 24, Walter Huber, owner of Hainle Estate, found that he had been the victim of a break-in. The thieves made off with $30,000 worth of his older vintages of ice wine (fortunately that sum only represents 17 bottles, tiny 200ml bottles at that) including some of Hainle's priciest bottles from 1984 and '83. Huber believes the thieves didn’t think this out, as the wine is highly sought-after, exceedingly rare, and will be near impossible to sell without raising a few red flags. Then again, they may have simply enjoyed a few exquisite food-and-wine pairings for the holidays. The two remaining bottles of the inaugural 1978 Riesling ice wine, estimated to be worth about $1.9 million at auction for the pair (both 750ml), were never in danger, as they are stored in a climate-controlled bank safe.

In a test of one’s devotion to a cause, Beaune winemaker Emmanuel Giboulot has approached martyr status in the biodynamic world by refusing a directive to fight against the spread of flavesence dorée (FD), an incurable and highly contagious vine disease that causes leaves to yellow and grapes to shrivel (but not in the sugar-concentrating good way, a la Sauternes). The edict calls for the use of a synthetic insecticide to eradicate the disease’s primary mode of infection, a leafhopper, specifically Scaphoideus titanus. Giboulot’s refusal to spray a non-biodynamic insecticide on a vineyard that isn’t currently suffering from the disease in question isn’t good enough for the French government. Now faced with a €30,000 fine and six months in prison, Giboulot stated that he isn’t being a radical, but that he simply wants more research and consideration as to how best handle this problem. Fortunately (ironically?) for Giboulot, the same country that seeks to punish him is also home to the INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research), which is undertaking exactly what Giboulot is asking for, namely a scientific consideration of the overall polluting effect of employing the costly insecticides (what good is saving the vines if we are ruining the soil?), the likelihood of resistance (are we creating a superbug with these insecticides?), as well as the greater effectiveness and benefit of alternative strategies in dealing with the spread of FD. What might those alternative strategies look like? In a May 2013 INRA study published by Pascal Mollier, et al, the paper outlines conclusive lab results with biodynamic and organically compliant practices such as scrambling the signals by which a leafhopper attracts a mate (via vibrations from strumming the vine—so you “jam” those signals by introducing artificial vibrations) or what the study calls “push-pull strategies”: the use of natural repellants like kaolin (a type of clay) in the vineyard, and attractants like extracts from other vine species to bring the leafhoppers out of the vineyard to a “kill site.” Everyone agrees FD is a threat, now it is up to Giboulot vs. DRAFF-SRAL (the enforcement arm of the government which is handing down this fine) to sort out what constitutes a best-practices policy.

Larry Kantrowitz
Atlanta Georgia USA —  December 5, 2013 4:41pm ET
$1.9 million for two bottles of a 36 year old ice wine? Not likely anyone will pay that much, these would be the most expensive wines on the planet. I am even questioning the average bottle that was stolen at $1765 per 200ml. The insurance company needs a legitimate estimate because the ones being supplied here seem bogus at best
David Fedonczak
Valparaiso, Florida USA —  December 7, 2013 10:48am ET
I tend to agree with Larry.

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