MY "WINDS OF CHANGE AT BV" column (Oct. 15) failed to forecast this new front: Beaulieu Vineyard president Richard Walton is jumping ship Dec. 31 after three years of what seemed to be a very happy association at the famous Napa Valley winery. . . .
The official line, straight from Walton, is that he's taking an early retirement at age 58 after 25 years with Heublein, BV's owner, and no one could blame him for seeking a change of corporate scenery. . . .
In several meetings with Walton the past three years, I got the distinct impression that he loved working at BV and not only looked forward to the challenges of reviving its market presence and making better wines, but expected to be there long enough to make sure things stayed on track. . . .
According to Walton, Heublein in Connecticut and its owner, Grand Met, in England, have had management changes and want to change the way they do business in California. They own brands such as Glen Ellen, M.G. Vallejo and Blossom Hill. All three have higher profit margins than BV, which has struggled with many of its wines for years. . . .
THE IMMEDIATE QUESTION is that if Walton wasn't the man to run BV, then who is, as he seemed a perfect match for BV with his sharp mind, legal background, long association with Heublein and fast grasp of the fact that BV needed to modernize its style of wines to be more competitive and attractive to consumers. . . .
Other speculation is that Heublein, after selling Inglenook and dismantling The Christian Brothers, two historic Napa Valley properties it once owned, has now decided to unload BV at a time when BV has an inventory of great wines, California wine is more popular than ever and real estate is bringing high prices. . . .
Walton insists a sale isn't in the works, telling me, "Heublein's owned BV since 1969 and we've received one offer a month since then to sell and haven't"but even the sale of Beringer looked like a long shot the first time that rumor swept through Napa Valley. . . .
Others signs are less reassuring: BV recently told Wine Institute, the California wine trade association, that it was resigning from that group next year and it came close this year to dropping out of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, of which it was a founding member. . . .
The list of prospective buyers could include just about anyone with enough cash, with names such as Brown Forman (Fetzer), Kendall-Jackson and Gallo being tossed about, but either way, a lot of Napa vintners would like to see Heublein out of the wine business and would be happy to see BV sold. . . .
ANOTHER STARTLING MOVE is winemaker Don Van Staaveren's departure from Sonoma's Chateau St. Jean, where he's worked for two decades as a winemaker, to join Codorniu Napa in what is essentially a start-up for Codorniu's entry into the table wine business. . . .
No doubt Van Staaveren is talented. He not only upgraded the St. Jean whites but brought new respectability to its red wine program with some dazzling Merlots and Cabernets, all of which means Codorniu has acquired a skilled winemaker for its new venture and St. Jean faces the challenge of replacing him. . . .
Van Staaveren will spend the next year setting things up for the table wine program, ordering barrels and tanks, but one of the first things Codorniu must decide is what to call its new line of wines. "Codorniu Napa" stands for sparkling wine and is a link to its Spanish cava heritage. A lot of people have trouble pronouncing Codorniu as it is, so expect the table wines to carry a different brand name. . . .
JAYSON PAHLMEYER MAY SOON be the owner of his first vineyard propertyhe's in escrow after offering $1 million to buy a 220-acre parcel of land high above Atlas Peak Vineyard in east Napa Valley, where he could eventually plant up to 100 acres in vines. . . .
Pahlmeyer was still working out details on the deal, but indicated that his consulting winemaker, Helen Turley, and her husband, John Wetlaufer, might somehow fit into his plans beyond making the wines, as they might have a part interest in some of the grapes he intends to plant. "I wouldn't be doing this without Helen and John," says Pahlmeyer. "We'll be working hand in glove together". . . .
The property is steep, four-wheeler territory, at the 2,000-foot elevation, running along the eastern hills of the valley, which makes access and planting a challenge, but the feeling is among wine growers that this is an excellent site for grapes. No plans yet for a winery at the site, which is within the Atlas Peak appellation. . . .
Pahlmeyer is best known for his red table wine and for years has bottled his wine from grapes grown at Caldwell Vineyard in the Coombsville area, east of Napa. His last vintage from there came in 1993 and of late his Merlot has been brilliant too. . . .
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