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Constellation silent about supposedly losing 19K gallons of “smoke-tainted” Mendo wine.

See also: related article.

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Dorothy Vassar spent 53 years growing wine grapes in the Redwood Valley area of Mendocino County, and loved working with some of the state’s well-known brands.


But her experience with Constellation Brands has been so traumatic that she’s throwing in the towel on her lifetime passion and selling her vineyard.


“I’m the widow at the end of the line and I can’t take it anymore,” she told Wine Industry Insight.


In 1965, she started a two-acre vineyard with her husband (who died in 2008), and gradually grew it to 18 acres of Zinfandel and 6 of Petite Sirah.


Not only did Constellation’s Ravenswood brand reject 19,205 gallons of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah (worth a contract value of $150,882), but that loss has made it impossible for her to salvage the income from having it distilled into alcohol.


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Constellation/Ravenswood stonewalls all inquiries

Constellation records confirm that it once had the wine. But now they refuse to answer any questions about what happened to it, leaving it open to speculation that they simply don’t have any idea how they lost it.


Vassar has asked Constellation for the disposition of her contracted wine, but neither her Constellation representatives or others up the management chain will respond.


In addition to stonewalling Mrs. Vassar, none of Constellation’s grower executives have returned Wine Industry Insight’s multiple emails and questions about what happened to the wine.  The same wall of silence holds for top executives of the Ciatti Company whose help had been requested by Vassar and  her Constellation grower representative.


Mrs. Vassar said she has exhausted all of her means to try and find out what happened to her wine. She has not yet retained a lawyer.

Smoke taint? Or smoke and mirrors?

Constellation rejected the wine on smoke taint allegations, but Mrs. Vassar contends that it was an excuse because they already had too much wine on hand.


The smoke taint issue and the lack of industry standards will be the subject of a future WII article because the range of tests Constellation describes are not validated by any recognized national or international laboratory accrediting organization. In addition, the validity of its sensory evaluation method is impossible to validate because Constellation provided no details.


That those lack of details makes it impossible to re-test the wine samples Mrs. Vassar retained in order to to verify whether Constellation’s data is accurate.

Growing grapes was wonderful … until Constellation bought Ravenswood

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Photo courtesy of MLS and listing real estate agents.

Mrs. Vassar said she and her husband enjoyed growing wine grapes for decades.


“We had a wonderful time! We sold to Parducci, Weibel, K-J and others. But the best times were with Joel Peterson and Ravenswood! He was perfect!  a joy to work with!”


She said the joy began to diminish — then later vanished — after Ravenswood was sold to Constellation in 2001. However, she noted that one significant bright spot, was a good relationship with Constellation’s Grower Relations Director Scott Warren and Grower Representative Karen Dennison.


Because she had grown to trust Warren and Denison, Vassar said she continued to sign grape contracts with Ravenswood.

2018: The year grape growing became intolerable

September 17 & 25, 2018, letters from Ollie Davidson, Vice President – Vineyards Operations noted that “Due to the impact of excessive heat, ash and smoke caused by the Mendocino Complex fires and after careful analysis and a visit to the vineyard, we have determined that the Grapes have been exposed to smoke and do not meet the applicable Quality Standards and other requirements as set forth in our Contract.”


Grapes rejected, but Constellation/Ravenswood offers to crush

The Constellation letter went on to hold out hopes for the possibility of acceptance:


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“Of course, I agreed,” Mrs. Vassar said. “After all, we weren’t very much affected by the fires. And, my goodness,  I didn’t have much choice but to go ahead and see what would happen.”

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Grower Representatives Visit With Vassar

According to Mrs. Vassar, Constellation’s Grower Relations Director Scott Warren and Grower Representative Karen Dennison paid her a visit on Jan. 19, 2019.


“Karen and Scott arrived with a box full of small bottles of my wine,” Mrs. Vassar told Wine Industry Insight. “They said that  they would help me market it. Scott said that he was friends with John Ciatti and Glenn Proctor and that he would get the bottles to them.”


Mrs. Vassar said that Warren and Dennision left with all but three bottles of the wine.


Approximately two weeks passed with no word from Warren, Mrs. Vassar said she called John Ciatti who told her he was “working on it.”

Then, in mid-February, Constellation letters arrived demanding that Mrs. Vassar remove her wine by March 1 or “we will consider the wine abandoned and will take steps to have it destroyed.”


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Last communication from Grower Representative Warren

After receiving the Feb. 12 letters, Mrs. Vassar said she called Warren. “He told me on about  Feb 25 that he was working on marketing the wine and not to worry.” She said that she had a final conversation with Warren during the middle of March. “He said not to worry because the wine was still good and that he was working with John Ciatti and Glenn [Proctor].”


Mrs. Vassar said that after several weeks of not hearing from Warren, she began calling him and Ciatti but her calls were not returned. Then, according to Mrs. Vassar, her last conversation with anyone was a short call from Warren in mid-March: “He just said I needed to get my wine or they would destroy it. That’s all.


“But how do you destroy wine” She added. “You can’t just pour it down the sewer.”


Constellation failed to respond to repeated questions about the fate of the wine.

The failure to Communicate

With no responses coming from Constellation or Ciatti, Mrs. Vassar said she began calling other growers seeking advice. They referred her to other wineries and possible homes for her wine. But to no avail.


However, those calls resulted in industry sources who contacted Wine Industry Insight who had no better luck getting phone calls and emails returned than she did.


Wine Industry Insight emailed Warren and Davidson on July 16, 19, and 28 with no reply. Emails were sent to John Ciatti and Glenn Proctor on Aug 19. After getting no response, followups were sent to them on Aug 19 and 20.


As of the writing of this article, Wine Industry Insight has received no response.

“Wine just doesn’t get lost!” TTB says records must be kept.

Screen Shot 2019-08-28 at 7.16.21 AMWine Industry Insight spoke with more than a dozen industry experts including attorneys, compliance specialists, and brokers and to a person they said, “Wine just doesn’t get lost.”


Thomas K. Hogue, who is with the TTB’s Congressional and Public Affairs Office said:


“Bonded wineries and bonded wine cellars are required file a Report of Wine Premises Operations with TTB on a recurring basis.  However, TTB is prohibited by statute from disclosing the information contained on this form because it contains tax return or tax information protected by 26 USC 6103.”


Hogue added that “TTB does not have a role here, so there’s no regulatory relief in that sense.  I cannot advise on any possible private right of action.”

Unclear whether the lost wine is a legal issue or compliance issue.

As far as private legal action goes, the devil is in the details with attorneys unwlling to be quoted by name because of potential client conflicts and the need for more detailed information.


However, one nationally ranked California attorney promised to look further into the case and speculated that “the grower may have some recourse under CA law, and potentially could exercise a statutory lien on any wine produced by Constellation from her grapes.  Cal. Dept of Food and Ag (CDFA), not TTB, is the agency that may be able to provide relief.”


Another prominent attorney noted that it was unclear whether this was a compliance or a legal issue. “Hard to say, but a lawyer would get their attention I suspect.”

State grower’s lien a possibility?

Wine Industry Insight has contacted the Market Enforcement Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and is awaiting word on the possibility of placing a grower’s lien on Rasvenswood wine.

Did Constellation lose the Vassar’s wine in the confusion of selling Ravenswood to Gallo?

Mrs. Vassar said she is at a loss to explain how a winery could simply lose wine and wondered if the confusion might have been a result of the 2018 Gallo acquisition of Ravenswood from Constellation.


However, Gallo and the decision process at the Federal Trade Commission indicate that is not the case.


“Ravenswood is currently owned by Constellation and Gallo is in no way involved in the operations of the Ravenswood business.  The FTC is still reviewing the transaction and the date of close is still to be determined,” said Lon H. Gallagher, Trade, Media, & Community Relations for E& J. Gallo Winery.”


Constellation’s SEC filings confirm that the process has been delayed by the FTC. However, that snag has put growers in a hard place as crush begins.


Related article: 26-acre family vineyard with top quality Petite Sirah and Zinfandel grapes listed at $775K. Home site possible.