In a deal that unites grit with glamour, Kip Bedell, one of Long Island's pioneering vintners, has sold Bedell Cellars, his North Fork winery, to an investment group led by Michael Lynne, president of New Line Cinema, a New York production company.
The purchase price of $5 million is the highest ever paid for a Long Island winery. The deal includes a 50-acre farm, of which 32 acres are currently planted to grapes; the winery, located on Main Road in Cutchogue; and several thousand cases of inventory. Bedell, 55, has also signed a contract to stay on and run the business for five more years.
"It's a win-win situation," Bedell said. "It's the only way I would do it and the only way Michael Lynne would do it. He said he's not interested in increasing production; he wants to make the best wines he can. And that's what I want to do. This is going to relieve me from the day-to-day worries of running my own business, which I've been doing for 30 years. We have been profitable the last few years, but sometimes I may have made decisions that I rather would not have made. Now quality is my only criterion."
Bedell was running a fuel-oil business and making wine in his basement when he and his wife, Susan, established Bedell Cellars in 1980, only seven years after Alex and Louisa Hargrave founded Long Island's wine industry. Bedell, a self-taught winemaker, quickly focused on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which have become the region's dominant red grapes. Over the years, he established his winery as Long Island's best red wine producer.
A slight, soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor, Bedell kept a low profile as the region's wine industry expanded. He maintained a hands-on approach, and any visitor to the modest winery was likely to find either Kip or Susan in the tasting room pouring wines.
Twenty years ago, Lynne was one of those visitors who was treated to a tour by the winemaker, and he never forgot the encounter. "That visit was more important to me than to him," Lynne recounted. "Kip's an icon. Last fall, I visited him and brought up the idea of a deal. I told him that my interest was to give him an opportunity to do his best without some of the headaches that an individual entrepreneur has in any business. We're going to have a dialogue, because he knows I'm interested, but he's the expert. I want to learn from him; I'm not going to be telling him what to do. We already agree on the big questions. I think the results will make both of us happy."
The acquisition is Lynne's second on Long Island. Last year, he bought Corey Creek Vineyards from founders Joel and Peggy Lauber for $2 million. He has contracted with Lenz Vineyard to make Corey Creek wines and intends to continue that relationship.
"The two wineries work well with each other," Lynne said. "Corey Creek, which also has about 30 acres under vine, makes more Chardonnay than Merlot, while Kip's vineyard is concentrated in red. That's a perfect combination."
Lynne is not the only outside investor to stake a recent claim in Long Island wine country. A group of Chilean investors paid $2 million for Laurel Lake Vineyards last year; Leslie Alexander, owner of the NBA's Houston Rockets, has bought vineyard land; and Marco and Anne-Marie Borghese paid a reported $4 million for Hargrave Vineyards last October.
The deals mark what may be a significant transition in the life of Long Island's young wine industry, as it moves from a home-grown enterprise run by former hobbyists and dreamers to a more ambitious industry driven by serious capital and professional managers. And while something may be lost in terms of a close-knit community in balance with a long agricultural tradition, something may be gained in terms of wine quality and worldwide visibility.
Lynne, a serious wine collector who works in Manhattan and summers in East Hampton on Long Island's South Fork, searched for a winery to buy for five years. Although he looked everywhere from California to France, he sees a bright future closer to home.
"I'm just learning, but I think I know this much: The climate and the soil are suitable to making fine wines," Lynne said. "Now what needs to happen is to provide the financial wherewithal to focus entirely on quality and not so much on the day-to-day business return. I don't need to make my living from the industry; I want to help create something special. It's exciting. Kip and I are going to be a good marriage. I think we represent the beginning of something that's going to happen across the whole North Fork."
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