Making great wine and selling it at high price points isn’t always a guarantee for success. That’s just one of the story lines in the most recent shakeup at Merus.
Mark Herold’s departure as winemaker seemed inevitable once he and his former wife, Erika Gottl, sold the wine company last year, leaving him in charge of winemaking, but also reporting to her as general manager. That may have been an untenable relationship and despite the timing—a few weeks before harvest—it signaled a new tenor for this winery.
Merus’ new owner, Bill Foley, is intent on building a diversified wine company, and he has the financial wherewithal and big-picture business acumen to do so. With a company anchored by a strong Napa Valley Cabernet label and wineries in Santa Barbara, he is in the position to succeed.
But Foley decided it would be best to move forward without Herold, despite Herold’s ability to make sensational wines—his tenure at Merus was impeccable, with a string of great Cabernets. Herold also makes wines for a handful of other wineries. For someone like Foley, that too may have been an issue.
Many small wineries are in a similar position. That is, they have a winemaker (occasionally one with "celebrity" status) who also has his own label (and maybe a competing wine) and may consult for others, which further complicates matters.
In fact, wineries that ride on a winemaker’s reputation, or promote them at the expense of the wine itself, run the risk of having that strategy backfire once the winemaker departs. And that’s usually the case, since the winemaker’s best interests are in promoting his own brand.
The case of Herold was somewhat unique, since he made his own reputation, and that of Merus’, on the strength of his wines. I’m sure he’ll succeed in his new endeavor. He knows how to make great wines.
I’m just as sure Merus will continue to excel. Two more vintages are either in barrel or bottle and it will be several years before the first wine made under the new team will be up for evaluation. Moreover, Foley has retained Paul Hobbs as a consultant as perhaps an insurance policy. Hobbs is one of the most respected winemakers in California and while he is perhaps spread thin, he is probably a better fit for the new Merus regime.
As the wine market fragments into smaller, tinier niches of small-production wines, it is allowing many entrepreneurial types the opportunity for success.
But it’s also a concern for those who employ high-profile winemakers with many irons in the fire. Sometimes those relationships work. But they often run into conflicts, whether it’s about the core business, personalities, money, or all three.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — August 19, 2008 5:06pm ET
Jim Mccusker — Okemos, MI — August 19, 2008 6:32pm ET
Gene Keenan — san francisco — August 19, 2008 7:23pm ET
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Colin Haggerty — La Jolla, California — August 19, 2008 9:22pm ET
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John Skupny — St. Helena — August 20, 2008 7:59pm ET
David Legh-page — Houston,Texas — August 20, 2008 9:19pm ET
Kasey A Carpenter — Fort Worth, Texas — August 20, 2008 9:27pm ET
Steve Dunn — phila, PA USA — August 20, 2008 10:00pm ET
Steven M Ruths M D — Santa Barbara, CA — August 20, 2008 11:14pm ET
Chris Kolodziej — Reno,NV — August 21, 2008 4:05am ET
Don R Wagner — Illinois — August 21, 2008 11:57pm ET
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