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A Cork on Chatter : Court Ruling Could Chill Free Flow of Winemaking Data

July 08, 1992|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Two winemakers were talking. One said he was using Montrachet yeast to ferment his Chardonnay grapes. The other said he was using Prise de Mousse to ferment the juice into wine. The conversation then wandered off into arcane microbiological chat that was lost to the non-science majors present at the dinner table.

Idle chatter, perhaps, but this sort of conversation--innocuous but crucial give-and-take among winemakers--is a key reason that California now makes some of the best wines in the world. But such interaction was torpedoed recently by a Lake County judge, who ruled that "trade secrets" existed in winemaking and could be protected.

The effect of the recent decision could be chilling, winemakers say. The free exchange of information that has rapidly rocketed California into the forefront of the world's top wine producers now seems in jeopardy. Some winemakers believe that the ruling will stifle the vital sharing of data.

In Europe, where fine wine has been made for three centuries, vintners are close-lipped. Tradition carries more weight than science. But with such major institutions as UC Davis and Fresno State University leading the way with research, California has, within about the last three decades, become a world leader in top-rate wine.

California jug wine sales are escalating in France, for instance, because low-end U.S. wine is cleaner, fresher and more appealing than the plonk of Europe--thanks in large part to technological advances developed here.

The court decision--which shocked winemakers who routinely chat among each other about their procedures--came in a lawsuit in Lake County involving two high-profile men: Jess Jackson, owner of Kendall-Jackson Winery in Lake County, and his former winemaker, Jed Steele, who resigned from the winery in 1990 to pursue greater recognition and remuneration.

Part of a severance package called for Steele to receive $400,000. After $125,000 was paid, Jackson terminated payments, accusing Steele of stealing trade secrets from Kendall-Jackson and using them elsewhere.

Steele, who had become a consultant for other wineries, sued for the remaining $275,000; Jackson, a savvy San Francisco attorney, countersued. Two weeks ago, Lake County Judge John Golden ruled, in part, that Steele had absconded with a trade secret--which wasn't revealed in court. Nor was it revealed whether Steele had actually used the technique at one of the wineries for which he consults.

But the ruling sent shock waves through the wine industry.

Craig Williams, winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley, said he knew little about the lawsuit, but said the potential chilling effect of the "trade secrets" ruling was disturbing.

"If we couldn't talk to our neighbors about what we know, about the experience we have gained in experimentation, we'd be a lot worse off," Williams said. "Sharing information has really meant a lot to the quality that we see in our wines.

"Sure, there is competition, which has been a great thing, but I also think that the fact we have worked together as an industry has been a very positive factor for the world-class wines that we are now producing in this country."

Ted Bennett, owner of Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County, said: "I think the ruling is absurd, as do most winemakers I've spoken to. The reason all our wines keep improving is that we all talk and share things, so I don't know to what degree this ruling is going to screw things up."

It is difficult to pinpoint specific products that have come directly from winemakers' give-and-take. But Bennett recalls a day a decade ago when he decided to make dessert wines, a tricky process.

"So I called (veteran winemaker) Walter Schug, who knows about as much as anyone about these kind of wines, and he spent half an hour on the phone giving me a blow-by-blow on how to make them," Bennett said. "And we had never met before!"

Kendall-Jackson, which has grown from producing 35,000 cases a year in 1982 to more than 700,000 cases last year, has become successful with a line of Chardonnay called Vintner's Reserve, which is slightly sweet. No big deal; a lot of Chardonnay, most of it cheap, has 1% to 1.5% residual sugar, and it's possible to get to that sugar level in many ways.

Some wineries stop the fermentation, usually by chilling the tank, before it goes completely dry. However, that is less precise than the way most industry observers believe that it's done at Kendall-Jackson.

Kendall-Jackson, they say, allows the fermentation to complete, so the wine is dry, and then grape juice--called mute or sweet reserve--is added back. Some winemakers say the juice that is used is not from Chardonnay grapes, but from Muscat, which gives the wine a spicier aroma. Addition of grape juice lowers the alcohol a bit and sweetens the Chardonnay, to about 1% in Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay.

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