Napa’s Bialla Vineyards, a decade-old boutique Cabernet producer that made a 95-point wine from the 2009 vintage, has been sold for $3.2 million to a Chinese business executive whose name has not yet been disclosed.
The purchase—the latest in a string of Chinese investments in Napa—includes the winery on Atlas Peak, its 22 acres of vineyards planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the wine from the 2010 and 2011 vintages. The 2009 vintage is the final one being sold by founders Vito Bialla, owner of global executive recruiter Bialla & Associates, and his wife, Linda.
Since starting with their first vintage in 2003, the Biallas accomplished what they set out to do, establishing a small winery on Atlas Peak, focusing on two lines of mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignons and demonstrating the success possible in an area known as a cool climate for Cabernet. Production totaled about 500 cases a year. The 2009 Napa Valley Proprietor’s Limited Reserve (95 points, $150) was Bialla’s best effort. Four other wines earned outstanding scores, including the second Cabernet from 2009 (91, $125). (See all Wine Spectator reviews of Bialla wines.)
Bialla said he sold the winery because of the difficult business climate and the layers of red tape facing small-winery owners. “Without getting into politics, it gets frustrating for a little guy to do business,” he explained. The layers of bureaucracy “just drive me nuts.” He said the winery deserves an owner who is willing to spend more time on small details. “If you want to be in the [wine] business, you need to do it full time, not be half-assed. It’s a nice little hobby, a nice little business, but you need to monitor your wine weekly, and I’m not able to do that to take it to the next level.”
Since listing the property for sale two months ago, Bialla said some 20 prospective buyers expressed serious interest. Most of them were from China, he said. He believes the new owners will create a new brand to be sold in China, which he sees as a positive for Napa vintners. “It’s one less thorn in the domestic market,” he commented, referring to the proliferation of small wine labels in an increasingly crowded, competitive field.
In November 2011, former NBA star Yao Ming began releasing his own Napa Cabernet, with his Yao Family Reserve wine being sold exclusively in China for $625. Earlier in 2011, Stuart Sloan sold his namesake winery—a small Cabernet producer in Rutherford that made about 600 cases a year and sold its wines for up to $600 a bottle—to Hong Kong investors, for a price rumored to be as much as $40 million.
In announcing the sale to his winery’s customers, Bialla described the buyers as “the nicest people you'd ever meet. A young couple with kids and he’s a very high-profile technology executive.”
“We kept all current employees who are committed to continue producing high-quality wine together with the new management team and are excited for the growth opportunity,” the buyer’s representative, Julie Xiu, said in a written note to Wine Spectator. “The winery, with a new brand, will be managed by two seasoned and well-connected professionals who have both U.S. and China background.
“This move signifies the ambitions for Californians to tap into the increasing demand for high-end wine in the Chinese market,” the note continued. “Napa Valley definitely can rival the French success in the Chinese market. What Napa wines need to push, and what we aim to stress here, is to really show the quality, prestige status, the rarity and the Napa story to the Chinese consumers.”