Bill Foley is at it again. The financial industry executive, who has built a portfolio of more than a dozen wineries on the West Coast and in New Zealand in the past 16 years, is adding two more wine estates to his growing company—one in Napa Valley and another in New Zealand's Marlborough region.
Foley, 65, is closing a deal to purchase Sawyer Cellars in Napa Valley, buying the property from owner Charlie Sawyer, who has owned the winery since 1994 and whose children are not interested in the business. The estate, located on Highway 29 in Rutherford, includes 40 acres planted with Bordeaux varieties. The price is undisclosed. "Charlie thinks he's selling for too little, and I think I'm way, way overpaying," Foley told Wine Spectator.
Based in Jacksonville, Fla., Foley is chairman of Fidelity National Financial, the nation's largest title insurance company. In 1996, he took the plunge into wine, establishing Lincourt Vineyards in Santa Barbara. Since 2007, he's been rapidly expanding, buying or taking a majority stake in multiple wineries, including well-known Santa Barbara property Firestone Vineyard, Napa boutique Cabernet brand Merus and the New Zealand Wine Fund, a company with multiple Kiwi brands. In 2009, Foley bought Sonoma's historic Sebastiani Winery and a year later he acquired Chalk Hill.
Foley has always said he wanted to focus on high-quality properties, but that the key to success in today's wine industry is to build up enough volume to attract the attention of distributors. At many of his wineries, he has invested in the business but not made major changes. At Sawyer, however, he has something more dramatic in mind. With its prime location, Foley wants the property to be a showplace for all his wineries. "Napa is the heart and soul of wine in America," he said. "Napa is where it starts in terms of tourists and people in the industry."
Foley is renaming the winery Foley Johnson (his wife's maiden name is Johnson). He'll continue to make Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends from estate grapes, but he's also asking the winemakers from each of his properties to pick 100 cases worth of their best wines and bottle them under the Foley Johnson label.
In New Zealand, Foley is putting the finishing touches on merging his firm there, which includes the brands Goldwater and Clifford Bay, with the New Zealand Wine Company. Pending government approval, the deal will put 80 percent of the combined, $46.5 million company in Foley's hands. New Zealand Wine Company owns 250 acres in Marlborough, mostly Sauvignon Blanc, and produces 300,000 cases a year. The merger will double Foley's volume in New Zealand.
New Zealand Wine Company has suffered extensive losses in the past year, evidence, some analysts say, that there is a glut of wine being made in the country. But Foley claims the problem is effective exporting of all that wine. "When I bought Clifford Bay, it didn't have distribution in the United States," he said. "This year we'll bring 75,000 cases to the U.S. The small New Zealand brands have trouble getting attention here."
Despite his latest acquisitions, Foley said he has not yet reached a size he feels will make his business efficient. With Foley Johnson, he'll produce 750,000 cases a year in America. He thinks 1 million is necessary to obtain good distribution and maximize sales. To that extent, he said he is already in active negotiations on another deal.
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