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California winemaker sued over failed ‘cult’ wine

The owner of Napa Valley's VGS Chateau Potelle is seeking at least $1.6m in compensation from a consultant winemaker who he blames for allowing a potential $200 wine to turn to 'vinegar'.

Jean-Noel Fourmeaux, owner of St Helena-based Potelle, hired Denis Malbec in mid-2012 to help him make a wine worth up to $200-a-bottle, but the project has ended with Fourmeaux accusing the consultant winemaker of negligence and breach of contract.

A Napa County court was scheduled to decide today (29 May) whether to send a lawsuit filed by Fourmeaux against Malbec to jury trial or arbitration. Malbec has denied wrongdoing.

According to the court filing by Fourmeaux’s lawyers, Malbec agreed in August 2012 to help Fourmeaux ‘make a cult wine’ in return for $120,000 paid in instalments over 10 months.

Malbec was to produce the wine at Medlock Ames Vineyards, where he made his own wine, but there were signs that things had gone badly wrong by mid-November.

‘Volatile acidity levels in the wine began to rise, indicating the growing presence of spoilage bacteria,’ said Fourmeaux’s lawyers in the lawsuit filing. ‘For all practical purposes, volatile acidity is vinegar.’

They alleged that laboratory reports from the time show a ‘lackadaisical response’ by Malbec.

They added that all hope of producing a fine wine was lost by early 2014 and, although Malbec then worked to ‘save the vintage’, an independent report in May 2013 deemed the wine unsellable. Malbec left the project in July 2013, according to the filing, which also accuses Medlock Ames Vintners of negligence.

Malbec’s lawyer, Paul G Carey of Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, told Decanter.com, ‘Because litigation is pending we cannot comment on the details of the case, but we can and do vigorously deny all claims of negligence or inattention to the Fourmeaux wine.’

Malbec and his team, he said, ‘at all times acted in accordance with the applicable standard of care’, and the team dealt appropriately with the issues that arose.

‘At this point, the wine is in fact marketable and could be used to make a quality blend,’ Carey said, adding that Malbec continued to help Fourmeaux even after he was no longer being paid.

Written by Chris Mercer

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