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Lawson's Dry Hills in Potential Sale

Venerable producer is one of three New Zealand wineries sought by the Saint James company

Augustus Weed
Posted: June 16, 2009

Lawson's Dry Hills, a pioneer among New Zealand's Marlborough wineries, is discussing a possible sale to the California-based Saint James company. Real-estate investment company Samson is the majority shareholder of Saint James and would acquire Lawson's if the sale goes through.

The proposed sale would include all of the winery's existing assets, including vineyards, winemaking facilities and stock. According to Richard Hurst, CEO of Saint James, the acquisition is conditional pending financial due diligence and approval by the New Zealand government. Terms of the sale are still being finalized.

Samson approached Lawson's Dry Hills founders Ross and Barbara Lawson with an offer in 2008 and they had been in discussions since that time. The couple had wanted to move on and was gradually passing the day-to-day management of the winery to its current staff. "The Lawson family wanted to get less involved with the business," said Sion Barnsley, manager at Lawson's Dry Hills. Ross Lawson passed away in January 2009 after a battle with lung cancer as negotiations were under way.

The Lawsons founded the winery in 1992 and bottled their first vintage in the same year. The couple had been growing wine grapes in the Marlborough region since 1980. Ross Lawson was known for his work in promoting the acceptance of screw cap closures in the New Zealand wine industry. In 2001, Lawson's Dry Hills bottled all of its wines under screw cap, and he claimed that the winery was the first in the world to do so.

What the long-term implications of the sale could mean for the winery is still unknown. Lawson's could expand its brands with funds generated by the sale. The winery's wine style and markets are expected to remain largely the same.

The winery is not the only New Zealand producer in sales talks with the Samson investment company. Nelson-based Waimea Estates and Gravitas in Marlborough have recently entered into separate talks to be acquired by the company. Hurst said that Saint James will become an independent operating corporation if the winery sales go through.

The company, which is focusing on New World wine brands, selected the three wineries because of the growing New Zealand market. "[They are] all profitable, healthy companies that have established export markets around the world," Hurst said. The company has signed an agreement to market Koala Blue Wines, an Australian brand founded by Olivia Newton-John and Pat Farrar, in the United States and Canada, and is also attempting to acquire Neqtar wines and its facilities in Australia.

The wine market is the latest venture for the Saint James company, which was originally founded in 1984 under the name Chem-Waste Corporation. The company produced equipment for contaminated-waste disposal but ceased operations in 1998 and has had no significant operations in recent years.

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