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I Can’t Keep Up, Can You?

by David on August 3, 2007

So, I’m reading as I walk back into the house with my Wednesday morning SF Chronicle and is the headline about Iraq? Something about health care? Maybe the stock market? Nope. We bay-area folk certainly have our priorities straight. ;-) The blaring headline on the front-page article was, of course, about the acquisition of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars by St. Michelle and Antinori. The world and its problems be damned, this is important stuff. I’ll bet Jon Bonné, the Chron wine editor, never expected to see his byline on the front-page!

Read on to find out that Duckhorn, another icon, has sold controlling interest to GI Partners, a private equity firm whose investments include pubs and nursing homes (???).

And with it came the gloom and doom predictions about the consolidation and corporatization of the romantic wine industry. Scroll down to the bottom of the article to see a list of recent transactions. I know if I try to explain any of this this to someone 6 months from now my memory will be completely garbled and I’ll get it all wrong (GI Partners??).

But, low and behold, William Hill and Canyon Road, which have been corporate owned, have also been sold – to family-owned and operated Gallo. Perhaps, correctly, you don’t think of Gallo as small family winery – well – the family is small. ;-) But they ain’t IBM either.

That’s my Wednesday story.

My Tuesday story is that yet another visitor asked me how to find some little winery I’d never heard of. A quick search reveals that it’s practically in my back yard in St. Helena. Happens all the time… I check out the wine selection at a local shop and there are Napa Valley brands that are complete strangers to me. I can’t keep up, and I live here. New wineries with great spirit and ambition, nearly always family run, continue to spring up like wildflowers in the spring around here and all over the state. Maybe this obscure little place will turn out to be the next Duckhorn!

Sure, some consolidation and changing of the guard happens. Sure, corporate ownership can spell the end of the artisan approach. But, it depends on the corporation. Coca Cola got in and out of the wine business in a flash, presumably because you can’t turn around a wine “product” like you can a bottle of coke. St. Michelle is a wine corporation that appears to be doing a bang-up job and has been a key player, if not THE key player in putting Washington wine on the map (2nd biggest producer in the US!). Can’t vouch for GI partners…

So, who can keep up with all these acquisitions and new brands? I guess my point is that it’s hard for me to see the tragedy in Warren Winiarski making a decision to retire and selling his beloved winery to a responsible organization in the absence of an heir to carry the torch. To paraphrase him, it’s kind of like seeing your daughter get married. There are mixed emotions, but it’s inevitable.

We’re a long way from becoming a buttoned-down bunch of suits here in the valley. So, happy retirement to Mr. Winiarski, and well deserved! And, for the rest of us – not to worry.

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