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New Direction for Diageo in Napa Valley

Michel Rolland and Paul Hobbs have been working with Beaulieu and Acacia
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Oct 5, 2009 1:19pm ET

What does the U.K-based alcoholic beverage giant Diageo have to do with superstar wine consultants Michel Rolland and Paul Hobbs?

Napa wineries Beaulieu Vineyard and Acacia have retained the two to fine-tune their winemaking, along with that of some other of Diageo's California wine interests. Bordeaux-based Rolland, arguably the world's best-known wine consultant, is working primarily with BV, and to a lesser extent Diageo's other California wineries, including Provenance and Sterling. Hobbs, a California winemaker who has branched out to projects around the world, is mentoring at Acacia.

Sandra LeDrew, the new president of U.S. wine sales for Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines Co., is taking a hard look at upgrading wine quality at all of Diageo's properties, which also include Chalone, Edna Valley and Rosenblum. Her mission is to evaluate each of the wineries' portfolios and determine how to make better wines, or in some instances, perhaps more dramatic changes.

With BV, the goal will be to restore its reputation as one of Napa's elite Cabernet producers. The winery struggled in the vintages from 1997 to 2002 with many of its wines being tainted by TCA, which was present in the winery itself. Since then BV has built a new winery within the winery for BV's flagship Cabernet, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Rolland has actually been onboard since 2007. "Rolland came on and had the most impact on the '07 and '08," LeDrew said. "We knew that we needed to make some changes. We built a reserve winery within a winery, changed our [grape and wine] processing and got some new equipment that we think will change quality."

The BV Private Reserve Cabernet is still anchored by the two famous vineyards in Rutherford known as BV No. 1 and BV No. 2. Jeffery Stambor is the new winemaker, replacing Joel Aiken, who departed earlier this year yet remains in a consulting role.

With Acacia, LeDrew is aiming to upgrade the winery's Carneros Pinot Noirs, which have been rather ordinary and uneven in quality of late. Hobbs' own label excels with Pinot and Chardonnay, the two main wines at Acacia. Hobbs, who has also been involved since 2007, is working with Acacia's winemaker, Matthew Glynn.

Provenance is on steady footing, under Tom Rinaldi's direction, while Sterling presents a bigger challenge. "This one's been harder for us," LeDrew said. "BV has the legacy and in the 1990s we made some great wines there. But Sterling hasn't had that halo effect."

Sterling's Napa Valley wines (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, SVR, a Reserve Cabernet and a Diamond Mountain bottling), for example, have underperformed for years, while Sterling's Vintner's Collection, an 850,000-case lineup of wines made from Central Coast grapes and priced at $10 to $15, has succeeded in winning fans seeking value, LeDrew said. Ditto for A by Acacia, Acacia's line of California appellation wines that sell for $20 or less. A by Acacia "isn't trying to be Carneros Pinot Noir," LeDrew said.

"Things like this take time," said LeDrew, who is based in Diageo's Napa office. "There's a huge amount of excitement. We're on a quality journey, walking the talk. We've made huge investments and given winemakers better tools and freedom to be creative."

But she added, "It's not all renovation. It's renewed excitement. Right now we're fighting being impatient." At least until the new wines come to market.

Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  October 7, 2009 8:27pm ET
James - thanks for the news. We had been fans of both BV cabs and Acacia pinots for many years and maybe we'll be back. In June of 2008 I opened a 1997 Georges de Latour for our anniversary that I had actually purchased at the winery. We had been fortunate to have a few bottles of it over the years since release in Vegas and New York restaurants and loved it. This bottle from the winery was corked! I immediately complained directly to Diageo and David Chu was amazing, sending me a new 1997 which was excellent and a 2004 which I am still cellaring. I had a similar experience with Freemark Abbey with multiple bottles the previous year and even though I sent the bottles back to prove the spoilage, they denied that they had a TCA problem and handled the situation like schmucks. Hats off to Diageo. Bigger might be better in some cases.

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