Mondavi's secret meeting, Rocco DiSpirito's new line of work, a dispute over winery names and a new approach to college drinking
Posted: December 22, 2004
Well, so much for corporate transparency. While the Sarbanes-Oxley Act didn't exactly cover disclosure to financial journalists, the authors might not approve of the bait-and-switch pulled on the press at the Robert Mondavi Corp. shareholder meeting this morning, held at the Omni Hotel in San Francisco's financial district. Mondavi stockholders had their proxy vote, approving Constellation Brands' much-reported-on $1.3-billion buyout offer for the famous Napa wine company. Not only were journalists forbidden entry, burly security men escorted representatives of the fourth estate away from the meeting down to a press room, with the promise that a briefing would follow the conclusion of the vote. But the briefing never took place, and officials from both Mondavi and Constellation apparently took the back door. Said one exasperated scribe, "There wasn't even any coffee. That really got me."
Speaking of Mondavi, the company has finally managed to sell the old Byron winery facility that it put up for sale back in 2002. The buyer is veteran Central Coast vintner Ken Volk, who last year sold his 200,000-case Wild Horse Winery to the company that owns Geyser Peak. Although Volk said he wanted to reduce his stress (with his spare time, he's been booking chartered fishing trips), he's now back in business, but on a much smaller scale, with plans to produce about 15,000 cases a year of vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. His non-compete agreement allows him to introduce new brands as of Aug. 1, 2005, and the former Byron will house those. The $2.3-million purchase price gets Volk an 11-acre property in the Santa Maria Valley, four acres of Chardonnay, several winemaking buildings and a tasting room, complete with use permit. But the facility, which was built in 1983 (Mondavi had replaced it with a new Byron winery, now also up for sale), will need some work, Volk said. "This is a winery fixer-upper."
Under threat of legal action by California's Sullivan Vineyards, Washington's Owen Sullivan Winery has changed its name to O.S. It's a tough break for the no-nonsense producer that only got started in 1997, but has made a name for its Cabernets, Merlots and Bordeaux blends. The 3,000-case winery occupies a small warehouse space in a business park near the Seattle airport, buys grapes in eastern Washington and trucks them over the Cascade Mountains to make wine. It's a far cry from the pretty Sullivan estate in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa Valley. "We considered defending ourselves against this, but in the end we decided we would rather put the money into grapes and barrels," sighed Bill Owen, who co-owns O.S. with Rob Sullivan. "We thought of lots of possibilities for a new name, but the initials seemed to keep the same feeling." Sullivan Vineyards, which produced its first vintage in 1981, also makes Cabernet, Merlot and blends, so there was certainly reason for it to be concerned that consumers could confuse the names. But considering that O.S.'s reds have consistently scored outstanding, would an occasional mix-up have been that bad?
An educated approach to college drinking: Some people might be shocked to see alcohol served in a college dining hall. But last month, Colby College in Maine began teaching students about responsible, moderate alcohol consumption with meals--instead of sticking only with the standard (and often unheeded) lectures about the evils of excessive drinking or telling them not to drink at all. The college now allows students 21 and older to enjoy tastings of wine and beer in the dining hall on some Friday evenings. The program, which has brought in local wine distributors and microbrewers to answer questions, gives students a chance to learn about different types of wine, food pairings and how to taste properly. The idea was broached by students who had studied or lived abroad in cultures where having a glass of alcohol with dinner was part of everyday life, and the administration endorsed it as one more component of its policies to prevent alcohol abuse. Student government president Catherine Welch sees it as just another aspect of the educational experience: "They're not just preparing us within our major. They're preparing us for a successful life after Colby." We'll toast to that.