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Wineries lost in insurance loopholes after warehouse fire

Wineries lost in insurance loopholes after warehouse fire

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When Allan Christensen first heard that all 200 cases of his 2004 vintage had burned in the mid-October Wine Central warehouse blaze, his immediate reaction was: "At least we have insurance."

But the novice vintner's initial relief soon turned to panic, then frustration, after his insurance company informed him they will not reimburse him for any of his ruined vintage.

Christensen recalled his and his wife's initial decision to purchase insurance after hand-picking their first harvest in August 2004. The couple had poured their "life savings" into the Viognier white wine venture, which they named Amazon Ranch after the Napa country home where his wife and her four sisters were raised.

They figured the wine probably wouldn't travel too far beyond their own circles of family and friends. But since then the start-up Viognier has been welcomed onto the wine lists of some premier restaurants and winebars like Bay Leaf in Napa and Cork in Sausalito. Now Christensen said, he and his wife's entrepreneurial work and newfound success all seems for naught.

"We paid the insurance and now they're finding little tiny loopholes to get out of paying us the money. If we don't get paid at all, we'll be out of business," said Christensen, explaining that any future profit from this year's vintage is already spent. It will pay their outstanding bills of making the now-extinct 2004 vintage.

Christensen insists his insurance is balking at reimbursing them, "based on a technicality."

Though the couple paid a premium to insure all of their wine, their policy specified the location where the wine was to be stored — the Christensen's home, not a warehouse in Vallejo, Christensen explained.

The "site-specific" policy would have covered the couple's wine at a different location, had the couple merely notified the insurance company of the change.

But of course that's not what happened. Instead a fire happened. Followed by a heated and ongoing dispute.

After arguing his point unsuccessfully to unsympathetic insurers, Christensen said he's hired an attorney.

"My wife and myself we're not like this. We don't want to go to court. I got into this business because I like people. It's all about friends family and having fun," said Christensen whose self-designed Amazon Ranch Web site brims with casual snapshots of family and friends hanging out drinking wine.

But Christensen is hardly the only fire-damaged winery struggling with a reluctant-to-pay insurer.

Joe Whalen, an attorney with Farella Braun & Martel who specializes in insurance matters said he's encountered several wineries wrangling with insurance companies over similar "site-specific" clauses. Like the Christensens, some of Whalen's clients paid premium costs to insure all of their wine, but their policies locked them into specifying how much wine would be kept in their winery and how much in the storage facility. Whalen argues such policies are inconvenient for wine businesses who move product between their winery and storage all year long.

"What I'm seeing happening is even though they have all the value on their policy, they don't have the exact right amounts of wine at Wine Central and at the winery," Whalen said.

Some insurance companies are starting to take the hard-line stance that they will only reimburse clients for the quantity of wine that was, according to the fine print, designated for the warehouse.

"To a lot of people this is very unfair and it doesn't make sense to them when they paid a premium. They're asking what does it matter if I have a little more in the warehouse than last year?"

Some such vintners are also saying their brokers did not inform them of any obligation to report the transfer of wine between facilities. Not until after the fire.

Meanwhile, several insurers are still mulling over how they will handle the "site-specific" conundrum.

"From what I've seen they're thinking it over. And they're saying we have a problem," Whalen said.

And while insurers mull, fire victims like Delia Viader of Viader Vineyard wait.

Viader said her insurance company's initial reimbursement offer wouldn't have covered even a third of the retail value of 6,000 cases of red wine, which she estimates to be $3.5 million.

"We're still negotiating. It's very frustrating. It's the wrong time of the year that's for sure. It's the time that should be our highest sales value and right now we have no sales because we have no wine," she said, adding that she still needs to pay for the bottling, corking and other wine-making expenses incurred this fall.

"Right now, it's tight," she said.

Since the fire, Viader says, she's called her insurance agent at least seven times asking when she might expect her reimbursement check.

"They always say 'Soon, soon.' But soon hasn't happened."

Recently they brought in a second adjuster to replace the first adjuster and reevaluate the value of her lost 2003 inventory, she said.

"They are just playing run-around games," she said.

According to longtime insurance watchdog and attorney Ray Bourhis such "run-around games" are simply business as usual for most insurance companies.

"Insurance companies slip out the back, Jack, every single time," Bourhis said, making a reference to Paul Simon's 1975 hit "50 Ways to Leave your Lover."

"The one thing that's predictable about insurance is they're always looking for an excuse not to pay or pay less than they owe."

Bourhis said it's standard practice for some insurance companies to misrepresent their policies, first when they're selling a policy and especially once a disaster strikes.

"They write their policies in gobbledy-gook so people don't understand it and they can tell people what it means," he said, adding "There are no consequences if people are stupid enough to accept what their insurance tells them. If they lie and say you're not covered there's no consequences if people just say 'Gee whiz, I guess I'm stuck.'"

Bourhis points to "ineffective regulations, lax enforcement and nonexistent policyholder protections" as a few reasons insurance companies consistently fail to insure customers during their time of need. By law insurance companies have an obligation of "good faith and fair dealing" to their clients.

And there are fire-affected winemakers who say so far their insurers seem to be abiding by this golden rule of insurance.

Brett de Leuze of ZD Wines said his staff has stayed in constant communication with insurance representatives who continue to reassure them they will be reimbursed 100 percent for their lost library wines.

De Leuze said the insurance claim process has been lengthy and extremely time-consuming, especially for his brother Robert. For six weeks the chief executive officer gathered and organized records to prove the value of the lost vintages.

"It's moved as smoothly as possible and we're optimistic it will continue to," Brett de Leuze said. "I've been told multiple times we are covered. So we'll see."

Because the insurance company has only had two weeks so far to review their claim, Brett de Leuze said he's not expecting the check in the mail just yet.

Meanwhile, St. Helena Insurance is preparing to send reimbursement checks to three fire-affected wineries within days, according to vice president Gary Delucchi.

"It takes about a month for something of this scale to get all the information, to make all the contacts, to verify all the figures and then the check can go out fairly quick," Delucchi said. "I was hoping this didn't take long and it hasn't."

Delucchi said some of the recovery money is coming from his insurance company, but a portion, due to the enormity of the losses — is trickling down from the reinsurance company — basically an insurer's insurer.

Jim Flamson of Calistoga Insurance said when he finally confirmed that none of his Napa Valley wine clients had wine stored at Wine Central, he breathed easier.

"I dodged a major bullet there," Flamson said.

But it's only a matter of time before the cumulative effect of two major wine warehouse fires within the short span of five years hits everyone in the wine industry, according to Delucchi.

"The reinsurers are working with insurance companies to raise the rates and that will be passed along," he said. "Two major fires in five years is very unusual. In both cases, we are dealing with buildings that were not sprinklered. I think the reinsurance companies are going to look hard at those kind of risks with those concentrations of values."

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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