Markham Vineyards, one of Napa Valley's finest producers of reasonably priced wines, jumped into the high-end market on Wednesday with the purchase of La Jota Vineyard Co., on Howell Mountain. Included in the deal are the La Jota winery, the brand name, current inventory and 28 acres of vineyards. The purchase price was not disclosed.
Bill and Joan Smith, who founded La Jota in 1982, decided to sell the winery in order to focus on their W.H. Smith brand of Pinot Noir, which is made from Sonoma Coast grapes. They will also begin production this year of an as-yet-unnamed Cabernet Sauvignon from seven acres planted at their Howell Mountain home.
"We have a lot of projects yet to do, and selling La Jota seemed the right thing," said Bill Smith. "I'm happy we're selling to Markham versus someone else. We got to sell to someone we wanted to sell to, and they're keeping [La Jota] as a whole entity."
La Jota is best known for two bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon -- its Howell Mountain Selection and its limited-production Howell Mountain Anniversary Release. The winery also makes Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah, all from the prestigious Howell Mountain appellation.
St. Helena-based Markham currently makes about 140,000 cases per year, the vast majority of which retails for between $12 and $26 per bottle. The winery focuses on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc made from purchased grapes and 330 acres of owned and leased vineyards on the Napa Valley floor.
Markham began exploring potential vineyard acquisitions in mid-1998 and first approached the Smiths through a third party last November, according to Markham president Bryan Del Bondio. "[Markham's Japanese parent company] Mercian Corporation said to pay attention to opportunities that may exist, especially ultra-premium producers," he said.
La Jota fit the profile, with a yearly output of about 3,500 cases and wines that retail for between $38 and $75 per bottle. "The wines are just stellar, and we're honored to have a little piece of one of the most coveted appellations in Napa," said Del Bondio.
While Bill Smith will continue to use the La Jota facilities to make his W.H. Smith wine, Markham winemaker Michael Beaulac and associate winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls will now oversee production of La Jota. Del Bondio said that the Howell Mountain grapes will not be used for any Markham wines.
"We're totally against making wine elsewhere and blending it in," said Del Bondio. "As far as business growth, we were looking for something at the top end. ... We're not going to be changing much up there, but there should [eventually] be some increased production from replanting of older, weaker areas [in the vineyard]."
Markham also plans to modernize the La Jota winery and build caves on the property.
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