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james laube's wine flights

A Right Time and a Wrong Time to Sell a Winery

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 8, 2009 3:55pm ET

Two of the most recent winery deals involving changes in ownership offer keen insights into the business.

The partnership between the owners of Flowers Vineyard & Winery and Huneeus Vintners, announced Tuesday, makes perfect sense.

Joan and Walt Flowers are in their 70s, retired, or hoping to be. After 20 some years of hard work as vintners they're ready to ease up a bit. Keeping a portion of their business eases financial pressures but allows them to live a lifestyle they’re accustomed to, while still pursuing the same passion that got them into wine in the first place: a love of the land, farming and winemaking.

Taking on a partner such as the Huneeuses is probably a good fit for both sides. The Hueeuses are wine people. Agustin Huneeus brings a strong background of business experience to the table. His wife, Valeria, oversees the family’s Quintessa vineyard, and while she isn’t as well known as her husband, she too has lots of experience.

Their son, Agustin Huneeus Jr., is earning his stripes and appreciates perhaps better now than ever the opportunities afforded him with a family business. Buying into Flowers and its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir business makes perfect sense for him as well.

The recent sale of Sebastiani Vineyards is another matter altogether. This has to be one of the worst times in decades to sell a business, and Sebastiani has been one of the hottest wineries in California for the past decade. Its wine quality across the board has been high and its wines have been fairly priced, offering wine lovers the kinds of wines that are complex, appealing and affordable.

One can only speculate about why the family decided to sell now. It was owned by siblings Sam Sebastiani, Mary Ann (Sebastiani) Cuneo and Don Sebastiani, and when two of them wanted out, that didn’t leave much of an option to the lone hold-out vote.

I can imagine there are dozens of wineries in California who would welcome an arrangement similar to what the Flowers and Huneeus families have worked out. It should be a blue print other winery owners without successors in line should study.

I doubt many winery owners would look upon the deal the Sebastiani’s cut with envy.

Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  January 9, 2009 1:37am ET
I agree. That Sebastiani sale is puzzling. Seems like they should be worth at least double the price. By the time the deal is finalized (the montelena sale fiasco has me all confused) I bet they will all wish they had waited just a bit longer.
Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  January 9, 2009 1:56pm ET
I'll bit and play a bit of devil's advocate here - always fun to keep a conversation going!

Based on your reports and others I've read, there was a LOT of internal unhappiness within the Sebastiani clan - and it may have only been a matter of time before that 'spilled out' in the form of either a) lower quality wines or b) a disintegration of the company from the inside out.

Therefore, had they not sold now, they may have seen the intrinsic 'brand' quality and value decrease over time, making the entity worth LESS money in the future . . .

Just a different take on things . . .

Cheers!
Tom Selfridge
The Hess Collection, Napa, CA —  January 13, 2009 7:54pm ET
Jim, I found this blog to be a very interesting read. I have always felt that the way a family winery deals with generational issues will determine how long they can stay in existence as a family-owned business. As President of The Hess Collection Winery, I appreciate the benefits of being family-owned in terms of the ability to focus on quality for the long-term without having to adjust our basic strategy because of short-term market issues. Donald Hess did something that very few entrepreneurs have been able to do. He has put all of the Hess Family Estate wineries into a family trust that is run by an independent board of directors, and each winery in the group is run independently by the President of that winery. This setup preserves assets for the long-term, and it means that there are no generational issues. I think that this could be a good model for other family wineries as well.

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