During that enchanted evening in the Grand Ballroom of the U.S. Grant Hotel, no one could have sensed the impending split between two of the most popular couples to grace La Jolla society.
Wealthy, powerful John M. and Sally B. Thornton were hosting one of the elite private parties of the social season: a sumptuous dinner, followed by the San Francisco Ballet's production of "Sleeping Beauty"--a presentation underwritten by the Thorntons--at the Civic Theatre.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 5, 1992 San Diego County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Diving company--A Feb. 16 article about the legal battle over Temecula-based Culbertson Winery Corp. reported that John Culbertson was, in the 1970s, owner of a commercial diving company called Martech.
Culbertson sold his shares in the company in 1987 and no longer is associated with it.
This, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary with 280 of their dearest friends on Oct. 2, 1990.
Even the most hardened socialites found the evening irresistible as they ate plate-size ravioli stuffed with forest mushrooms, roast veal chops, wild-rice pancakes, chocolate parfait.
For champagne, the Thorntons offered one label, the logical choice. Already 75% owners of the respected Culbertson Winery in Temecula, John Thornton asked his dear friends and vintners, John and Martha Culbertson, for four of their most prized vintages.
Among them, the Culbertsons provided a rare, 1986 sparkling wine, "Wedding Bouquet," to complement the evening's romantic theme.
Life didn't get much better than this.
Yet five months later, the Thorntons would beckon the Culbertsons to their La Jolla mansion for what the Fallbrook couple expected to be a pro forma meeting of the board of directors of the Culbertson Winery Corp.
In short order, the Thorntons wielded their majority ownership of the winery in guillotine fashion. John Culbertson was summarily fired as president and director of the winery that bears his name. Wife Martha was fired as vice president and director.
The Culbertsons reeled at the notion that they could be kicked out of their own winery. But Thornton, who has a reputation as a man who cans chief executive officers with the ease of someone cutting in for a dance, was ever firm.
"I am taking over," John Thornton pronounced, Sally at his side.
With that, one of San Diego's most curious social and business relationships, an odd-couple kind of pairing between the high-finance, highbrow Thorntons and the dream-struck, dirt-under-your-fingernails Culbertsons, turned from champagne to vinegar.
The Culbertsons called it a case of conniving manipulation, of a gluttonously rich investor weaseling his way into the family winery so he could ultimately wrest control of it, claiming the Culbertson name and prestige for himself.
The Thorntons countered that it was a necessarily urgent and prudent move to salvage a business investment. They no longer were willing to stand by and watch winery funds--Thornton funds--ransacked by business partners for their personal use, they maintained.
And La Jolla's social and philanthropic circle cringed in embarrassment, wary of taking sides as two of its favorite couples lunged for each other's throats.
It has been a nasty, dirty, vindictive war, as grimy as the most bitter divorce.
Last month, both sides were ordered by a San Diego judge to resolve their differences through a court-sponsored mediation service. Like a divorce judge hoping the warring spouses would somehow reconcile, Superior Court Judge Robert J. O'Neill ordered a "cooling off" period to salvage a relationship trashed by lawsuits. And both couples are now uncharacteristically quiet, wary of the judge's wrath.
A financial matchmaker brought the two couples together in 1986. The Culbertsons were looking for investors to expand their family business, and the Thorntons were among San Diego's most successful venture capitalists.
The two couples previously had attended the same social and charity affairs. The affable Culbertsons were much in demand because of John's champagne and Martha's culinary skills, the more-proper Thorntons because of their social standing and checkbook. But until 1986, the local networking hadn't yet linked them in a business venture.
"John Culbertson asked me if I could help him find maybe 10 or 20 people who would make an investment in his company," recalled Bill Otterson, a retired executive who, as director of the Connect program at UC San Diego, was frequently marrying entrepreneurs to investors.
"A friend of mine wanted money, and here was a guy who's got it," Otterson recalled. "And John Thornton said, 'Why don't I do the whole thing?' "
It was Thornton's preference, say those who know him, to dominate in any business affair, rather than serve as a rank-and-file investor.
At the time, the Culbertsons had established themselves as vintners of premier sparkling wines, which had won accolades and gold medals around the country and had already been poured at presidential inaugurals and state dinners at the White House. John Culbertson was, wine reviewers have noted, a consistent and accomplished artist when it came to blending Pinot noirs, Chardonnays and Pinot blancs.
His love affair with wine began as a hobby as he traveled the world.