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Ste. Michelle Buys Washington's Spring Valley Vineyard

State's wine powerhouse adds boutique producer of a top Bordeaux-style blend

Harvey Steiman
Posted: July 18, 2005

Washington's largest wine company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, has acquired Walla Walla producer Spring Valley Vineyard, whose flagship red wine, Uriah, has twice made it into Wine Spectator's Top 100 list, ranking as high as No. 13 for the 2001 vintage.

In a deal announced today, Ste. Michelle gets the Spring Valley brand, a 10-year lease on the 40-acre vineyard, the rudimentary winery on the property and the wine inventory, which includes all of the 2004 and 2003 vintages and the unsold 2002, the current vintage in the market. Spring Valley makes about 2,500 cases a year. The purchase price was not disclosed.

Devin Derby, Spring Valley's winemaker and the son of the property's owners, died on Dec. 13 from injuries suffered in a car accident on Nov. 28. His widow, Mary, is no longer involved in the winery. A former sommelier, she had been the "palate" of the winemaking partnership with Devin.

Dean and Shari Derby planted the vineyard on their 1,000-acre wheat farm northeast of Walla Walla in the early 1990s and made their first vintage in 1999. For the Derbys, the sale solves the problem of what to do with a successful small wine operation that they had no intention of running. "Maybe 20 years ago we might have taken it on, but we're 70 years old," said Dean Derby. "This takes a load off us."

For Ste. Michelle, the acquisition gives the company another arrow in its quiver of top-end wines, which include Northstar Merlot, based in Walla Walla; Eroica, the Riesling joint venture with Ernst Loosen of Germany; and Col Solare, the red blend made with Antinori of Italy in a new winery on Red Mountain.

"I am thrilled with [this] acquisition," said Ted Baseler, president of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "We think it complements the portfolio we have." Baseler added that Spring Valley will continue to make the same bottlings, including Uriah, and that all the wines will be made from grapes grown on the existing property.

"It's a real tribute to Devin to have Ste. Michelle be that interested," Derby said.

Ste. Michelle has been buying Merlot for its Northstar wine from 3 acres of the Spring Valley vineyard--the only grapes the Derby family has been selling since they started making their own wine. Ste. Michelle's viticulturists have been consulting on the vineyard management, so the company knows the site.

The Derbys continue to farm wheat on the remaining acreage. They have no plans to plant new vineyards, though Derby said, "You can't make any money on wheat. That's why we decided to put the grapes in 15 years ago."

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