For several years running, The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper has chosen a California “Winemaker of the Year” and “Winemakers to Watch,” the latter a handful of rising stars who are doing dynamic things in the vineyard and cellar to make their marks in the wine world. Fellow WRO columnist Gerald Boyd and I are former Chronicle wine editors and we made these selections in the past; Jon Bonne has the pleasure now.
As I sink my teeth into 2012, I’ve begun my own “Ones to Watch” list. Yet it’s not open to newcomers or young mavericks, but rather to important California wineries and wine companies that changed hands in 2011. I’m eager to see how they fare under new ownership; whether wine quality is maintained, enhanced or drops; whether the already-polished gems retain their sparkle, and if the lackluster ones take on a vibrant shine.
No longer can anyone be surprised when iconic or beloved wineries are bought and sold, merged and acquired. With the economic tanking in 2008 and an agonizingly slow recovery, wine industry analysts predicted -- accurately -- that California wineries’ abilities to sell expensive bottles at the rapid rate to which they were accustomed would be at risk. Some producers sat on unsold inventory. Others discounted. And a few, whose business plans relied on selling every bottle direct to consumers, had no Plan B, and either sold or took on investors.
Increasing global competition, shrinking sales channels due to distributor consolidation, looming inheritance taxes and the predicament faced by many mid-sized wineries -- they’re too big to be viewed as boutique/cult/special, yet too small to have much clout with wholesalers and chain stores -- also add to the difficulty of staying in business.
In addition, the trailblazing vintners who opened wineries in the 1970s have, obviously, grown older and some are no longer alive. Many have seen their children and/or grandchildren continue their businesses without a hitch, yet others put their wineries on the market because the next generation wasn’t willing or able to carry on.
It’s difficult to blame them. I used to hope that a winery proprietor would adopt me and leave his or her business to me in the will. Now I know too much to want that, with sales pressures, marketing costs, constant travel to support the brand, mandatory attendance at wine club events, auctions, appellation group meetings, etc., dominating one’s life in a way it didn’t a decade ago. Only those whose wealth comes from means other than their wineries can sit back and wait out the economic storm, without panic.
With this in mind, here is my first installment of “Three to Watch” in 2012. The only things that happen quickly in the wine business are mistakes, so it will take a few years before any serious evaluations can be made on how the new owners are minding their stores and making their wines. That being said, here are three Sonoma County wineries on my radar:
Laurel Glen Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain
In March 2011, founder and winemaker Patrick Campbell sold his Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, brand and small winery to a group of investors headed by Bettina Sichel, former marketing director at Quintessa Winery in Napa Valley.
Campbell, a violinist who arrived on Sonoma Mountain in the 1970s to live at a Zen center and ended up staying, made Sonoma County mountain-grown Cabernet famous with his age-worthy Laurel Glen wines. He will continue to make wine for his Tierra Divina Vineyards company, which includes the brands REDS, ZaZin! and Terra Rosa, made predominantly from grapes grown in Lodi and Argentina. Campbell has said that these brands offer challenges that keep him invigorated; making Cabernet Sauvignon on Sonoma Mountain became a bit too rote.
Sichel, whose father, Peter M.F. Sichel, was chairman of H. Sichel Söhne in Mainz, Germany, the producer of Blue Nun wines, hired viticulturist Phil Coturri to convert the Laurel Glen Vineyard to organic farming, Randall Watkins as winemaker, and David Ramey as consultant. Campbell’s Cabernet Sauvignons remained subtle and moderate in alcohol over the years, despite the 1990s trend toward rich, powerful wines. Whether the Campbell style remains under Sichel & Co. won’t be known for a few more years.
Seghesio Family Vineyards, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley
As one of California’s iconic family-owned, pre-Prohibition wineries, Seghesio morphed from jug-wine producer that began in 1902, to a Zinfandel superstar, using old-vine grapes from its prime vineyards in the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys and supplementing with purchased fruit for its lower-tier wines. Napa-based Crimson Wine Group, a branch of the Leucadia National financial powerhouse, bought Seghesio in May 2011.
Officials for Crimson, which also owns Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa Valley, Chamisal Vineyards in Edna Valley and Archery Summit in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, have said that they took over a well-oiled machine in Seghesio, although the winery will likely improve its bottom line, based on the economies of scale and easier access to market that a larger company provides.
Pete Seghesio, the CEO at the time of the sale (his cousin, Ted, remains the winemaker) said it was a difficult decision for the Seghesios to make, yet the timing and offer were right, giving the family time to catch its breath and explore other avenues. Seghesios retained ownership of their San Lorenzo and Cortina vineyards, so don’t be surprised if they emerge later with a smaller, more manageable new brand.
For now, Pete is exploring the possibility of building a salumeria in Healdsburg, where local chefs can produce their own cured meats. As for the Seghesio wines, I trust Crimson meant it when it said that the winery was running on all four cylinders. May it continue that way.
Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma
Also in May 2011, Burgundy-based Boisset Family Estates, led by energetic president Jean-Charles Boisset and also owner of DeLoach Vineyards in Russian River Valley and Raymond Winery in Napa Valley, added Buena Vista Carneros to its fold.
Buena Vista, famously founded by Agoston Haraszthy near Sonoma in 1857, was sold by Ascentia Wine Estates to Boisset as part of Ascentia’s attempt to reduce debt. Boisset acquired the Buena Vista brand, inventory and the historic Sonoma tasting room, in what was the original Haraszthy winery. The modern Buena Vista winery on Ramal Road in Carneros, near the Napa County line, is now Ramal Estate Winery, a custom-crush facility not owned by Boisset.
Already, Jean-Charles has made changes to Buena Vista, dropping “Carneros” from its name, redesigning the labels for a more historical look, and adding a red blend called The Count (for “Count” Haraszthy) and a small-lot line of wines under the Viniculture Society label. Buena Vista continues to produce Carneros Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah, from grapes grown in the Ramal vineyard.
Boissett also emphasizes Buena Vista’s early winemaking days at the Sonoma tasting room. Beginning this spring, visitors can catch the “The Count of Buena Vista” play performed in front of the stone winery building, and “Taste with the Count.” Subtle changes, these aren’t, so I can’t wait to see what else Boissett has up his sleeve.
Acquisitions can have both positive and negative outcomes. For the latter, just look at Ascentia, which also had to unload Gary Farrell Winery last year (to Vincraft, the company that also purchased Kosta Browne) in order to stay afloat. Because of its troubles, Ascentia could not focus on the needs of the Buena Vista and Gary Farrell brands and the people who produce and market them.
Yet the plus side of a winery sale has been demonstrated at Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley, after it was purchased by E. & J. Gallo in 2002. The wines have never been better, thanks to attentive grape growing and the latest in cellar equipment. Gallo’s giant sales force is far more effective than the one Mike Martini could afford before the sale, and Gallo spruced up the tasting room and grounds to offer a more pleasant visitor experience. And it smartly let Mike keep his job as the face of Louis M. Martini Winery.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, purchased from Warren Winiarski in 2007 by a partnership of Washington state’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Italian wine king Piero Antinori, is in caring, well-funded hands. Constellation’s purchase of Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004 hasn’t seemed to have negatively impacted the top-of-the-line Mondavi wines; its 2008 Reserve, Oakville and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are stellar, as good as ever, under winemaker Genevieve Janssens.
I worried -- needlessly, it turns out, from a wine quality standpoint -- when Constellation took over Zinfandel specialist Ravenswood Winery in 2001. Winemaker Joel Peterson’s single-vineyard Zins -- Barricia (Sonoma Valley), Belloni (Russian River Valley) Big River (Alexander Valley), Dickerson (Napa Valley) Old Hill (Sonoma Valley) and Teldeschi (Dry Creek Valley) -- remain remarkable for their balance and ability to capture the personality of each vineyard in the bottle.
Peterson, a founder of Ravenswood, stayed on after the sale, and remains in place a decade later, ensuring that the vineyard designates, as well as the lower-tier Vintners Blend and County Series bottlings, stay on track.
If a winery is broken, new owners can fix it. If it’s not broken, smart new owners leave it alone.