Linda Murphy Column

  • Friday 29 June 2007

The end of the family line

The end of the family line

Whose wine is it, anyway? It’s difficult to tell in California these days, as fewer and fewer family-named wineries are still operated by the families who founded them.

Robert Mondavi Winery is no longer owned by Mondavis. There are no Fetzers at Fetzer Vineyards. The only connection Brice Jones has to the chic Chardonnay-producing Sonoma-Cutrer winery he started in 1973 is his mother’s maiden name, Cutrer. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem sold Williams Selyem Winery, (at the time the premier Pinot Noir producer in California) in 1998 and walked away wealthy.

An increasing number of California winemakers are moving on, selling out or cashing in – some happily, some not. E&J Gallo bought Louis M Martini Winery in 2002, put the historic brand’s house back in order and made major improvements in the vineyards and the winery; Mike Martini is one contented guy. Richard Sanford, on the other hand, the pioneering grower of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the chilly Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, went through a rancorous divorce with his corporate partner, Terlato Wine Group, and departed his eponymous winery in 2005.

And that’s just the top end of a long list. Punters may not care that the family whose name is on the label no longer makes the wine, but those with a reverence for and devotion to iconic, individualistic brands can’t help but feel sad when yet another trailblazing vintner sells to a corporation.

Business-wise, it can make sense: wineries not large enough to have distribution clout, and not boutique enough to be perceived as special, get absorbed by companies whose size and reach can keep a mid-sized brand going. While some wineries go down kicking and screaming, others gladly take the cash and retire; those who haven’t lost their taste for winemaking reinvent, going back to small and hands-on.

The latest reinventor is Gary Farrell, the first winemaker at Rochioli Vineyards, longtime winemaker at Davis Bynum, and, in 1982, founder of Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery in the Russian River Valley. He sold his company to Allied Domecq in 2004 after becoming overburdened with the non-winemaking aspects of growing the business. He remained as winemaker, and the elegant, minerally Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs – already very good – got even better. Farrell seemed to thrive.

But in 2005, Fortune Brands’ Beam Wine Estates bought Gary Farrell, and the winemaker became frustrated by meetings, middle managers and a slow decision-making process. Entrepreneurs abhor such a vacuum, and Farrell resigned in February 2007, to start again with a yet-to-be-named Russian River Valley winery.

Beam insists the style won’t change under Susan Reed, Farrell’s assistant winemaker who was promoted to the top job, but no matter how good her wines are, the brand won’t be the same without Gary Farrell behind, as well as on the label.

Another Sonoma County winemaker, Richard Arrowood, hasn’t been as fortunate as Farrell. He sold Arrowood Vineyards & Winery to Mondavi Corp in 2000 so that, like Farrell, he could get off the brand-building treadmill and focus on winemaking.

It was a happy marriage, Arrowood says, until Constellation Brands purchased Mondavi Corp in 2004, and shuttled the Arrowood winery to overly ambitious, under-capitalised Legacy Estate Group.

Legacy, which also acquired the Freemark Abbey and Byron wineries, went bankrupt, and Jess Jackson’s Jackson Family Wines took over all three in 2006. Through four sales in six years, Arrowood has continued to make the wines in an attempt to protect his good label name, but the battle has been draining.

So where are they now? Arrowood remains at his namesake winery, though he and his wife, Alis, will launch their own Amapola Creek brand in 2008. Richard will stay with Arrowood ‘for as long as Jess Jackson will have me and for as long as it’s fun,’ he says.

Sanford grows and makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for his new Alma Rosa brand in Santa Rita Hills (see p127). Brice Jones introduced his Emeritus Pinot Noirs in April, from Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast vineyards. Individually, the Fetzers have started their own wineries, as have Robert Mondavi’s children. Williams and Selyem have lived a low-key life since selling, though each reportedly has new wines in barrel.

What Linda's been drinking this month

Nervy whites

The flinty Château La Morinière Muscadet 2005 shines with raw shellfish and ceviche; there’s riveting acidity (and an un-Napa-like 12.7% alcohol) in the lean, lemony Frog’s Leap

Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc 2006; and the Falesco Ferentano IGT Lazio 2004, made from the Roscetto grape by the Cotarella brothers, crackles with life, yet also has rewarding depth and richness.

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