St. Helena wine consultant sued for $1.6 million

2014-05-25T15:00:00Z 2014-05-27T12:53:05Z St. Helena wine consultant sued for $1.6 millionKERANA TODOROV Napa Valley Register

A vintner is suing a wine consultant for $1.6 million, alleging he was negligent when he failed to produce a new top-quality “cult” wine, according to court records filed in Napa County Superior Court.

In 2012, Chateau Potelle Holdings LLC hired St. Helena wine consultant Denis Malbec to create a new wine that would sell for up to $200 per bottle for the company’s new tasting room in St. Helena, according to owner Jean-Noel Fourmeaux du Sartel, who goes by Fourmeaux.

The new wine was to be made at a winery in Sonoma County that has a crush facility, using grapes from a vineyard on Mount Veeder. It was to be sold under a new label, “Fourmeaux.”

“I wanted to make a strong statement with the opening of my new tasting room,” said Fourmeaux, whose business is based in Napa.

Instead, the wine spoiled and had to be filtered five times, losing the complexity of a top-quality wine, Fourmeaux said. The 4,000 gallons of wine are in the process of being sold on the bulk market, Fourmeaux said Friday. “The wine is not of quality that I can use,” he said.

Malbec did not take “appropriate action” when the level of volatile acidity — or vinegar — from bacteria began to rise in November 2012, Fourmeaux alleges in court document. Instead, Malbec took steps that unintentionally accelerated VA formation, according to a court filing from Fourmeaux’s attorney, Kevin Block of Block, DeVincenzi & Zelazny LLP in Napa. Malbec then left for a 10-day vacation, the suit alleges.

“By the time he returned in January 2013, the wine was irreparably compromised,” according to the complaint.

In February, Chateau Potelle sued Malbec, as well as Malbec & Malbec USA LLC of St. Helena, alleging breach of contract and negligence, according to the complaint. Chateau Potelle also named in the complaint Medlock Ames Vintners LLC, a Healdsburg winery where the grapes were crushed, and two of its winemakers, alleging negligence, according to the filing.

Malbec, through his attorney, denies the allegations. It’s an inflated demand for a claim of loss of profits for a business that has never been operational, said Malbec’s attorney, Paul Carey of Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, referring to the $1.6 million.

“Mr. Malbec was very vigilant and diligent in his work,” Carey said. But Formeaux stopped paying his client. “Then Mr. Formeaux didn’t take steps to make a good blend he could sell without having to bulk the wine out,” Carey said. “For whatever reason, he chose not do to that.”

“Instead of taking responsibility, he chose to lay blame,” Carey said. “The wine is very marketable and is in good condition at this point.”

As of July 2013, Fourmeaux had paid Malbec about $25,000 in consulting fees, leaving a balance of about $75,000, according to a court filing.

Malbec, who had an oral contract with Chateau Potelle, and the other defendants want to compel Chateau Potelle into arbitration, a less formal process used to settle a legal dispute, according to court filings. Chateau Potelle opposes the motion. A hearing is set for Thursday.

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(10) Comments

  1. glenroy
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    glenroy - May 26, 2014 6:03 am
    Maybe they should have tasted it before they bought it....if they did it's not the wine makers fault they can't run a business profitably.
    Of course always two sides if they were promised sales….
  2. Theo
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    Theo - May 26, 2014 8:30 am
    @Glenroy: Most contracts are arranged far prior to tasting the wine. For example, if you pre-pay me to build a bridge that collapses the first week it's open then we have a problem.
  3. Lenny Pepperidge
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    Lenny Pepperidge - May 26, 2014 12:00 pm
    This story represents absolutely everything wrong and dysfunctional about Napa Valley: Consultant made, score chasing wine from bought fruit and contracted space to be sold for $200 even though there would have been over 1500 cases produced. It's why Napa is failing in the market. It may not be talked about in the Napa Bubble, but in the more sophisticated markets around the country, NOBODY is interested in it anymore. There's a saying going around the wine industry: "Having a wine list full of cult Napa wine is like having a closet full of leisure suits."
  4. wineguy999
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    wineguy999 - May 26, 2014 3:08 pm
    Four thousand gallons is over 1,600 cases. Doesn't sound like much of a cult wine.
  5. HoKoJoJo
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    HoKoJoJo - May 26, 2014 9:31 pm
    Chateau Dream on...
  6. glenroy
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    glenroy - May 27, 2014 7:01 am

    Thanks Theo...I understand that side...we're in the middle of launching some labels ...but tell me how a consultant can contract a cult wine? Could be the way it’s written in the NVR.
    Never read a contract that included a covenant of success…we’ve done some very difficult contracts with pages of specs, Mylar coating, color inks etc…. Creating a market and or customer base is the label owner’s responsibility, after they accepted the product, as in taste...
  7. Lenny Pepperidge
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    Lenny Pepperidge - May 27, 2014 9:47 am
    Damn it, Jean-Noel, I'm a consulting oenologist not a magician! Now get me an ozone machine and a tub of megapurple STAT! We can still save this patient.
  8. tommerle
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    tommerle - May 27, 2014 10:35 pm
    What a fascinating case. Of course the contract doesn't promise cult wine pricing, just high quality which of course is in the mouth of the taster. However Jean Noel points to defiiciencies in the specs which probably can be subject to a law suit. Winemaking is both an art/craft but it is also a technical process which is why wineries have labs. I would bet Mr. Malbec loses and has to settle at something below 1.6 million dollars.
  9. Lenny Pepperidge
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    Lenny Pepperidge - May 28, 2014 8:42 am
    Hahahaha. Parker has long been notorious for favoring wines with elevated VA levels. It's clear that these clowns were trying to get an aggressive level of VA in the aroma profile but lost control of the process. Whether Mr. Malbec is to blame for this or not, this episode speaks volumes to the rampant gimmicky wine making and huckster marketing occurring in Napa. Sure, Parker's influence has been widespread, but the European regions at least have longstanding tradition, terroir and history on which to fall back as they pull themselves back from the wine world's two decade experiment in international style nonsense. For Napa, it was the core of its very identity. Benediction from Parker was the raison d'etre for their relevance, pricing and comical sense of self-importance, and it's going to be very interesting to see if they can "reinvent" themselves to meet a rapidly changing and maturing American palate.
  10. glenroy
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    glenroy - May 28, 2014 10:24 am
    Excellent Lenny....everything that goes up comes done sooner or later.
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