The Disappearing Family Winery

Entrance to Seghesio Family vineyards in Sonoma

2011 has seen an unprecedented wave of winery sales. These are not distress sales, and the trend has nothing to do with the economy. When wineries changed hands in past years, the transactions tended to be large-scale mergers and acquisitions, with the multinational beverage conglomerates putting another jewel in their crowns. This time around, it’s small family-owned wineries that are on the trading block.

In the past few weeks, the billionaire owner of Fiji water purchased Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma from Mike and Mary Colhoun. Cartilidge & Browne (not a family winery, but owned and managed by Tony Cartilidge) was sold to Vintage Wine Estates. About three months ago, Laurel Glen, a legendary Cabernet producer located on Sonoma Mountain, was acquired by a group of investors led by Bettina Sichel. Earlier this year we saw Gary Farrell change hands, as well as Macrostie, Saintsbury’s Garnet label, and the one family winery no one ever thought would be sold—Seghesio in Sonoma.

The usual pattern in these cases is that the winery founders are approaching retirement, either without children or lacking heirs who are interested in taking over the business. Someone comes along and offers them a breathtaking chunk of change, amounting to an offer they can’t refuse. After the sale, more often than not, production increases geometrically and the winery loses whatever distinction that made it worth buying in the first place.

The most distressing of these cases was Seghesio. A fourth-generation producer founded in 1895, they focused on Italian grape varieties and world-class red Zinfandel. The winery was sold to the Crimson Wine Group, and the reasons were unclear (or unstated). Crimson also owns Pine Ridge in Napa’s Stags Leap District and Oregon’s Archery Summit; both are intelligently managed, high-quality operations, so perhaps all is not lost. Ted and Pete Seghesio, the operating partners, will stay on and run the winery. Earl Martin, the CEO of Crimson, insists that he has no plans to change Seghesio or expand production, and vehemently denied that there will ever be a generic, California appellation Zinfandel (no one asked him this, of course). We’ll see.

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