Fred Furth, Founder of Sonoma’s Chalk Hill Winery, Dies at 84

Fred Furth, a founder of Sonoma’s Chalk Hill Winery and a high-powered San Francisco attorney known for his swagger and ever-present cigar, died May 12 after suffering a fall at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 84.

Furth, according to published reports, struck his head after falling in the bathroom on May 5. He never regained consciousness.

«Fred was a friend of the family and the industry,» Barbara Banke, chairman of Jackson Family Wines, told Wine Spectator. «He was larger than life and his presence will be missed.»

Frederick Paul Furth was born April 12, 1934, in West Harvey, Ill., an impoverished community on the outskirts of South Chicago. He graduated in 1956 from the University of Michigan, where he also received his law degree. Furth later served in the military and studied law at the University of Berlin and the University of Munich.

In 1966, after practicing in San Francisco for a few years, he opened his own firm. He built a career and his fortune as an antitrust attorney, often taking on large corporations over various abuses of consumers and employees. In 2005, Furth won a $172 million class-action judgment for more than 100,000 Walmart employees who said they had been illegally denied lunch breaks.

Furth and his second wife, Peggy, bought the undeveloped Chalk Hill property in the eastern hills of Sonoma County in 1972 and started producing wine about a decade later. They planted more than 270 acres of vines over the years. The winery built its early reputation on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and later received outstanding scores for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon blends, as well.

In 1997, Furth represented his friend and fellow vintner Jess Jackson in a suit against E. & J. Gallo Winery. Furth argued that Gallo’s Turning Leaf wine label and marketing techniques infringed on the trade rights for Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. A jury disagreed and the case was dismissed.

In 2009, Fred and Peggy divorced. Vintner Bill Foley of Foley Family Wines bought Chalk Hill a year later. «Fred was tenacious, focused and committed to his many interests, including law, philanthropy and the wine industry,» said Foley.

Furth remained active in law until recent months and was an avid pilot and devoted philanthropist. He moved to Florida two years ago, and lived there with his third wife, Maryann.

In addition to his wife, Furth is survived by daughter Darby Furth Bonomi of San Francisco, son Ben Anthony Furth of Las Cruces, N.M., and three grandchildren.

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