Sat 14 Jun 2008
Beverage mega-giant Constellation Brands has been in such a buying mode since purchasing the Robert Mondavi Winery in November 2004 (for $1.03 billion) that it’s almost stupefying to learn that the company has actually gotten rid of some California estates, purchased as recently as December 2007. In that month, to refresh your memories, Constellation bought, from Fortune Brands’ Beam Wine Estates, for $885 million, Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell Winery, XYZin and Clos du Bois. Four of those wineries (or brands) — Atlas Peak, Buena Vista, Gary Farrell and Clos du Bois — had been owned by Allied Domecq, from which Fortune had acquired them in 2005.
In the recent transaction, announced Tuesday, Constellation retained Clos du Bois and Wild Horse (also a former Beam property) while selling, for $209 million to the newly organized Ascentia Wine Estates, these properties: Geyser Peak, Atlas Peak, Buena Vista Carneros, Gary Farrell, XYZin, the Washington State wineries Columbia Winery and Covey Run and Idaho’s Ste. Chappell. Together, these wineries produce about a million cases of wine annually. Ascentia is headquartered in Healdsburg, Sonoma County. The company was launched by Jim DeBonis, who was chief operating officer of Beam Wine Estates, with major investment from William and Peter Deutsch, whose W.J. Deustch & Sons is one of the country’s best-known wine importers (Yellowtail, Georges Duboeuf), and GESD Capital Partners of San Francisco.
That’s the succinct version of these mergers and acquisitions. Things get really complicated if we trace them back 10 or 15 years; some of these wineries have had more owners than Lindsay Lohan has had mug-shots.
Anyway, these maneuverings seem aimed at one result: To give Constellation the power, using Clos du Bois’ ubiquitous inexpensive chardonnay, to complete against equally ubiquitous Kendall-Jackson in the all-important $12 chardonnay niche, both in retail and in restaurant by-the-glass and bottle sales. Besides that factor, Clos du Bois has been an under-achiever for decades. Will Constellation put the money into Clos du Bois to return its flagship cabernet sauvignon-based Marlstone and Briarcrest wines to the glory days of the late 1970s and early ’80s? The fact that Clos du Bois is not grouped with Constellation’s top-brand Icon Estates properties would imply that we shouldn’t bet on it.
The properties that Ascentia acquired make an interesting and slightly difficult roster. Buena Vista Carneros — the original winery was founded in 1857 — has lately been turning out excellent cool microclimate pinot noirs and syrahs. Gary Farrell Winery produces highly regarded pinot noirs in the Russian River Valley, but the winery’s eponymous founder left after selling to Allied Domecq in 2004. Atlas Peak, which has undergone many shifts in ownership, is now a brand, making primarily cabernet sauvignon wines from purchased grapes; the former Atlas Peak vineyards are owned by Tuscany’s Piero Antinori, who was always a partner in the deal. Columbia Winery and Covey Run are two of Washington’s best-known labels and are fairly familiar to American wine consumers as producers of a variety of popularly priced products, especially riesling. Geyser Peak makes a widely appreciated sauvignon blanc as well as focusing on regional and vineyard designated merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines; however, the Australian winemaker Darryl Groom, who brought Geyser Peak to an acme of recognition in the 1990s, is no longer with the label.
My point is that most of these wineries are in a state of transition or are simply not well-known, and Ascentia will have to work hard to bring some order to the arrangement and to find niches for a dizzying array of products. As production costs go up and wine sales flatten, it will be a challenge to present some of these labels as fresh and meaningful and as compelling choices for consumers inundated by brands at every price point. Deutsch’s established national distribution network should help.
Meanwhile, we’ll wait breathlessly for Constellation’s next move. More acquisitions? More divesting? More consolidation? Remember, readers, the wine industry is all about markets and marketing and what American wine consumers can be persuaded that they need to drink.