The Vintner

James C. Peterson has balance, clarity and a great finish

Published in 2010 West Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine

James Peterson is the type of guy you’d like to share a glass of wine with.

As one of the top civil trial lawyers in the state, he certainly has a lot to talk about; but rather than detailed descriptions of the class action cases he’s settled for hundreds of millions, he’ll just as soon give you an education in the viniculture of that pinot noir you’re sipping. He may even extend an invitation to his winery in Napa Valley, which he co-owns with partner Michael Bee.

A co-founder of Hill, Peterson, Carper, Bee & Deitzler in Charleston, Peterson was raised in Rochester, Minn., where he’d often watch his father harvest vegetables from the garden to ferment. “My dad made wine from anything, from corn to beets to carrots to dandelions,” says Peterson, 60. “Anything that has sugar in it you can make wine from.”

During law school at William Mitchell College of Law, Peterson began annual pilgrimages to Napa Valley. When Bee joined Hill, Peterson in the early 1990s, he and Peterson discovered their shared love of wine and friends in Napa, and an idea blossomed. “We decided to make a little wine just for ourselves,” says Peterson. To be exact: 192 cases of chardonnay. “As the saying goes,” says Peterson: “We gave away five cases, we sold five cases and we drank the rest.”

Today Peterson and Bee’s 12,000 square-foot winery, named Falcor Wine Cellars, sits between two pastoral hillsides in Napa Valley and produces eight varietals of wine each year—including Peterson’s favorite, Cabernet Franc, a bright sophisticated pale red. Wine Spectator has rated some of their wines as high as 94 out of 100.

Peterson is obviously highly rated himself. He litigates some of the largest mass tort lawsuits in the state, and his handling of the complex DuPont case prompted the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice to name him a Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2005.

C-8 is a carbon acid, used in the production process for making Teflon, that’s been known to cause cancer in animals; and by the time residents along the water system in Parkersburg, near where the DuPont factory is located, sought Peterson’s help, they’d been exposed to the chemical from the air and ground water for years. The $100 million partial settlement Peterson helped secure went to create a community health project in which most of the 80,000 members of the suit are monitored for probable links between exposure to C-8 and potential cancers. If one is found, DuPont will pay close to $230 million to fund a lifelong medical monitoring process for the individuals. “It sends a message to DuPont and other companies that you just don’t do this,” says Peterson. “You just don’t pollute.”

Peterson is honored to be one of 50 life members, out of the 50,000 members nationwide, of the American Association for Justice, and he relishes the “everyday challenge of the unknown” in his practice. “There’s never a dull moment,” he says. “You’re always on a learning curve. That’s what I enjoy. I don’t like monotony.”

Which leads us back to the wine. “You never know from year to year how your wine is going to turn out because every year is different in terms of sun and water and climate,” Peterson says. That’s why he visits his winery at each stage of the winemaking process. He walks the vineyard, trims the vines, helps during the “crush.” “I’m really proud of the fact that at the end of the day I made that wine. I followed it from the bud break in April all the way through the time you bottle it and can really call it your own.”

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