New Zealand's largest family-owned winery, Villa Maria, has bought small Marlborough producer Thornbury Wines. The two private companies, which are best known in the United States for their Sauvignon Blancs, declined to disclose the sale price.
"At this stage, we intend to keep Thornbury operating with the same staff and distributors as before," said Villa Maria managing director George Fistonich. "We're not envisioning any changes," except to expand Thornbury's presence in export markets such as the United States.
Founded in 1961, Villa Maria is New Zealand's second-largest winery, producing 700,000 cases to 800,000 cases a year. Its Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are available in the United States and have mostly received very good to outstanding ratings from Wine Spectator. Thornbury, by contrast, is only eight years old and produces about 30,000 cases a year, most of which is Sauvignon Blanc. It also makes small quantities of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Its wines have generally been rated very good to outstanding.
Thornbury's wines will now be made at Villa Maria's Marlborough winery, as the company did not have its own facility. For the past couple years, Thornbury had looked into building one, but eventually decided against it. "Could Thornbury and its current shareholders cover that sort of capital outlay? We would have struggled," said Bruce McCutcheon, who co-owned Thornbury with Steve Bird. While Bird will continue as Thornbury's winemaker, McCutcheon will not be staying on. "It would have been nice if somehow we could have gotten there all by ourselves, but with the Villa team, they have the financial and infrastructural horsepower to keep Thornbury going," he said.
Villa Maria has previously acquired other small New Zealand brands and let them operate independently under different winemakers. Among the other labels Villa Maria owns are Esk Valley and Vidal Estate, both in Hawkes Bay on the North Island.
Thornbury's three established vineyards, totaling approximately 240 acres, were the most attractive part of the deal, as they are in different parts of the region: an area near Wairau River referred to as the Golden Mile by local winemakers, the slightly cooler Waihopai Valley and the much cooler and drier Awatere Valley. "With vineyards in Marlborough, you can get fairly volatile weather patterns," Fistonich said, "so to maintain quality you actually need quite a few vineyards, which they've got. Over a year, you tend to blend slightly differently to take advantage of the weather or compensate for the weather." Villa Maria has also taken on Thornbury's contracts with 11 growers.
The acquisition will leave Villa Maria with a surplus of grapes since Thornbury only used about one-third of its crop and sold off the rest. Villa Maria could either use the grapes for its own label or expand Thornbury's volume over time. Fistonich estimated that Villa Maria could produce 85,000 cases to 90,000 cases from Thornbury's three vineyards.
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