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Vine Mix-Up Lands California Winemaker and Grower in Court

Lynn Alley
Posted: August 31, 2000

It was a grapegrower's nightmare come true: Caymus Vineyards, based in Napa Valley, had purchased 6,400 vines of Roussanne and used them to propagate several thousand more vines of the white Rhtne variety -- enough to plant 31 acres in California's Salinas Valley. Then, one day, a visiting vintner remarked that the vines didn't really look like Roussanne. Samples were shipped off for DNA testing, and when the results came in, Caymus turned out to be the owner of a vineyard full of Viognier.

Now Caymus is pursuing a $4 million lawsuit against Sonoma Grapevines, one of the state's largest and most respected grapevine nurseries, for selling it the misidentified vines in 1994. The lawsuit has led other vintners and growers around California to take a close look at whether their Roussanne is really Viognier, and at least two wineries have recalled and relabeled their wines.

The owner and president of Sonoma Grapevines, Richard Kunde, admits that a mistake was made. But he has filed his own suit against Bonny Doon Vineyard, claiming that the ultimate responsibility lies with Bonny Doon president Randall Grahm, who, Kunde said, sold him the cuttings in 1994.

Grahm said that he acquired the vines 15 years ago, while he was visiting a vineyard in Chbteauneuf-du-Pape, where a grower offered him some cuttings labeled as Roussanne. Grahm carted his prize home to the Santa Cruz Mountains and never questioned the vines' identity. (Imported vines that are properly quarantined are tested for disease and examined by experts to verify that the variety has been correctly identified.)

Kunde, in turn, said that because the vines were bare canes at the time and Grahm was considered to be the father of the Rhtne varietal movement, he had neither means nor reason to check to be sure the vines were really Roussanne.

"The irony of it all," said Grahm, "is that this clone appears, in my estimation, to be the very best clone of Viognier in California today. ... [The buyers] wanted X, and they got Y, and Y, by all appearances, may be far more interesting and suitable for producing fine wine in California." He quipped, "I was out mining for rubies and I got diamonds."

Roussanne is still a somewhat esoteric variety in California, while Viognier is probably the best-known of the white Rhtne varieties planted in the state. Chuck Wagner of Caymus declined to comment on the case, the winery's plans for bottling Roussanne or what it is currently doing with the grapes. But Kunde's lawyer, Pat Emery, said, "It is our understanding of the records that they have produced that they are currently selling these grapes as Viognier at a higher price than they were getting when they sold them as Roussanne."

Kunde has contacted all the wineries and growers who may have purchased vines from his misidentified lot and offered to compensate them with either a cash settlement or true Roussanne vines. He believes that fewer than 10 of his customers were affected.

Among those who received a letter from Kunde in June was Tim Spencer, owner of St. Amant Winery in Lodi, which had purchased 950 "Roussanne" vines in 1995. Unfortunately, the notice came after he had shipped 70 cases of the wine to wholesalers and after he had entered his Roussanne in competition at the California State Fair -- where it won Best of Class in his region.

Spencer initially recalled his wine from retailers, saying that he wanted his customers to get what they expected. Also, he didn't want to take the chance that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates wine labels, would fine him for misrepresenting his wines.

But now, Spencer said, "People are beating a path to the winery door wanting to buy what they consider a collector's item. My son and I are planning to relabel the wine 'Mystere' [French for 'mystery'] and sell it as a proprietary wine here at the winery." He joked, "This is the most publicity I've had in 20 years of winemaking."

The misidentified vines seem to be making their way around the state through other routes besides Kunde's nursery. On Aug. 24, Zaca Mesa Winery, in Santa Barbara County, released the results of a DNA test showing that its Roussanne was none other than Viognier. These vines were purchased in 1993 from a small Central Coast vineyard, but their original source has not been confirmed.

Zaca Mesa has taken a collegial approach to the mix-up as well, despite having to recall and relabel any of its remaining 1999 Roussanne as Viognier. "We're not pulling the vines out. We see this as an opportunity," said Jim Fiolek, Zaca Mesa's vice president of marketing. "The story, as we see it, is not who did what to whom but that we've got a unique and valuable Viognier clone here in our possession, and we're planning to make the most of it."

Fiolek added, "We've already had at least one person call to order several cases of what he believes will be a true collector's item."

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