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In a Case of Old Wine in New Bottles, An Angry Author Takes Falcon Crest to Court

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The story has all the stuff of surefire melodrama: An Italian immigrant moves to remote Spring Mountain in California’s Napa Valley, establishes a thriving vineyard and dies, leaving some choice acreage to his son. As the yarn spins on, we meet the redheaded, free-spirited Victoria, granddaughter of the vineyard’s founder, who falls in love with a Mexican worker. Television viewers will recognize these plot twists and fillips: They have all appeared on Falcon Crest, the prime-time soap that brought Jane Wyman back to television—and gave CBS one of this season’s few hits. But these details also seemed all too familiar to a California author named Anita Clay Kornfeld, who claims that every one of them appeared in her novel Vintage, published in 1980. Kornfeld issuing Falcon Crest’s producer, Lorimar Productions, and CBS for $101 million. “These people who stole my book have not bothered to use their own creative juices,” she says angrily. “They have dared to use mine, and that’s the only thing I have in this world that’s mine alone.”

Before Falcon Crest was released, producer Earl Hamner, who also created The Waltons, said that he got the idea for the show from the life of one of his own ancestors, who came from Italy to grow grapes for Thomas Jefferson. Lorimar, which recently vowed to protect its trademark when three vintners announced separate plans to produce a Falcon Crest wine, will not comment on Kornfeld’s charges. A network spokesman says: “Both CBS and Lorimar feel the suit is without merit.” Kornfeld’s bombastic counsel, San Francisco superlawyer Melvin Belli, demurs: “I’ve never seen such a clear case of copying or infringement. They didn’t even cover themselves. They weren’t adroit or clever.”

Kornfeld, 54, says she was devastated when she discovered Falcon Crest. “I’m a middle-aged woman,” the Tennessee native says in a soft Southern accent. “I gave my sincere 100 percent heart, soul and body to writing Vintage. To have somebody cavalierly and callously rip it off hurts more than I can say.” The book did well enough for its publisher, Simon & Schuster, to put out two printings and sell paperback rights to Bantam (which will release it this fall). There was also talk of a TV show. But before Kornfeld could finalize what she says was a $1 million deal with producer Harry Sherman (Eleanor and Franklin), Lorimar announced plans to produce The Vintage Years. Kornfeld says the name was changed to Falcon Crest only after she filed suit.

A former psychiatric nurse trained at Vanderbilt University, Kornfeld was a Kansas City doctor’s wife and the mother of three when she sold her first short story in 1958. She followed her muse to New York, divorced her first husband, then married San Francisco arts impresario John Kornfeld in 1965. Her fiction languished as she helped out in his business. “I wrote up to 100 press releases a month,” she recalls. “I considered it a form of creative writing.” In 1973 John sold his business to take up sculpture, and Anita resumed her fiction, publishing In a Bluebird’s Eye, a novel about a young girl in a Tennessee mining town.

Kornfeld spent a year researching Vintage and two years writing and rewriting its 448 pages. She got the idea for the plot from a friend, Dawne Pelissa Dickenson, the daughter of a Napa Valley vineyard owner. “I knew nothing about wine,” Anita says. “I came from bourbon country.” The author threw herself into her work. “I think she interviewed everyone in the valley,” says winemaker Robert Mondavi. Her first subject was Dawne’s father, Andrew Pelissa. “I think my father is Adam in Anita’s book,” says Dawne. “When my mother read Vintage, she couldn’t believe it. She joked: ‘Anita must have slept with my husband to know him that well.’ ” Without going that far, Kornfeld still produced a book that made life in the quiet wine country seem as steamy as, well, a soap opera. Says one Napa resident: “Anita certainly has nerve. She described sexual encounters that really happened, including some between vineyard owners and their mistresses.”

Today, on a four-acre spread high over the valley she wrote about in Vintage, Anita is working on a third novel, about the Mississippi River. What with writing, riding horses, making clothes and cooking (her rum cake is the talk of the valley), she has little time for watching TV. But she has made it a point to switch on Falcon Crest, and she gives it a critical pan. “The characters are one-dimensional and are not true to the Napa Valley,” she says. “I don’t like the show.”