An Unserene Scene

By Karl Klooster

Nicole Montesano’s article in the Oregon Wine Press news section this month outlines the statements and declarations made in connection with a lawsuit filed by Domaine Serene Winery of Dayton against Tony Rynders, its former winemaker.

The suit has sent shockwaves through the Oregon wine industry. It alleges that Rynders, who served 10 years as winemaker at Domaine Serene, revealed company trade secrets, stole proprietary information and violated company policy by making wine for himself or others.

Rynders unequivocally denies these allegations. He accuses Domaine Serene owners Ken and Grace Evenstad of acting out of spite, and has counter-filed for dismissal of all charges. A hearing is set for Sept. 30 in federal court in Portland.

The issues at stake extend well beyond Oregon. Insiders express grave concern about implications for the American wine industry should a ruling in this case create a precedent for the protection of so-called trade secrets involved in winemaking.

The trade secrets’ claim in this case centers around the production of Coeur Blanc, Domaine Serene’s name for a high-end white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes. It represents less than 1 percent of the winery’s 35,000-case annual production.

The Evenstads assert that Coeur Blanc is vinified in a unique manner. Rynders, and every other winemaker this writer has spoken to, maintains it is nothing more or less than carefully crafted Pinot Noir blanc.

The wine is made from the clarified, free-run juice of grapes that might otherwise be used to produce a top-tier red Pinot Noir. This white version has been a major component of most French Champagne for centuries.

Famed Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producer Caymus Vineyards introduced a successful Pinot Noir blanc, called Oeil de Perdrix or “eye of a partridge,” in the early 1970s. It was a round, flavorful wine accented by just a hint of pinkish-orange blush.

 As this writer was told time and time again, almost nothing is new and there are no mysterious secrets to winemaking. There are only variations on well-known viticultural and enological techniques.

Individual knowledge, experience and skill levels, however, do account for consistency of quality, and personal preference may result in slightly different styles or characteristics in a given variety or type of wine.

Additionally, every vintage has its own variables for which adjustments have to be made in the vineyard and the winery. As a consequence, applying an inflexible, exacting formula may work in manufacturing, but it’s no sure thing in winemaking.

Rynders said the procedure he followed was passed along to him by the winemaker at an Italian firm, Fattoria Mancini, and is described in detail on the Internet. In other words, it’s hardly hush hush.

The lawsuit has prompted reactions ranging from dismay to disbelief and indignation to outrage.

Noted winery owner Ken Wright, who made Domaine Serene’s wines on a contract basis before Rynders was hired as its full-time winemaker in 1998, expressed sadness over the situation.

“I find the whole thing to be really regrettable,” he said. “In the early days, the Evenstads were much more easygoing. They had a great winemaker in Tony and a great vineyard manager in Joel Myers.

“I was happy for them when their wines began winning recognition. I just don’t understand what happened as time went on. But I can say that this is not at all reflective of our industry as a whole. We are open, cooperative and giving.”

Linda Lindsay of Stone Wolf Winery agreed, saying, “We are collaborative. We share ideas and nurture one another. If that weren’t the case, the Oregon industry wouldn’t have become what it is today.”

Lindsay said the Evenstads should give Rynders a huge thank you for his contribution to their success, not try to destroy him.

“What they’re doing is reprehensible,” she said. “They have a big pocketbook and they’re using it vindictively.”

Others I’ve talked to in the industry share similar sentiments. Their consensus is that Domaine Serene owes its reputation for award-winning wines to the talents of Tony Rynders. He deserves praise for that, not disparagement.

Veteran winemakers say it is erroneous, even dangerous, to suggest that honing one’s professional skills and talents can be deemed an intellectual property with proprietary value.

The entire notion, they agree, is patently ridiculous and gives a wholly undeserved black eye to the Oregon industry. Some have suggested creating a fund to help Rynders cover the cost of his defense.

Obviously, the case will be closely watched. But whatever its outcome, there is far more to be lost than gained on both sides.

For Rynders, it’s a matter of reputation as well as a potentially ruinous financial burden. For Domaine Serene, it would seem no matter what may or may not be won in court, the winery has already incurred its greatest loss—Rynders’ services.

Reached through an intermediary, the Evenstads declined the opportunity to comment.

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