Screaming Eagle Sold

Exclusive: Owner Jean Phillips discloses news in a letter to Wine Spectator; new owners discuss plans

Mar 21, 2006

Screaming Eagle, the darling of the Napa Valley cult Cabernets, has been sold by founder Jean Phillips to Santa Barbara-based money manager Charles Banks and his business partner, entrepreneur Stanley Kroenke. Financial details of the deal, which was concluded last week, were not disclosed.

Banks, 38, is the president of CSI Capital Management, based in San Francisco. Kroenke is a real-estate developer and the owner of the Denver Nuggets basketball team and the Colorado Avalanche hockey franchise, as well as part-owner of the St. Louis Rams in the National Football League. His wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, is one of the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, but Banks specified that this is his and Kroenke's investment and does not involve the Walton family.

Banks spoke with Wine Spectator by cell phone from the Oakville property this afternoon. "We won't be changing hardly anything," he said. "This is such a special place. What Jean Phillips has done here is absolutely incredible. I've been a fan for a long time."

Phillips, 60, who founded the winery in 1992, disclosed the sale in a letter to Wine Spectator, saying that she had received an offer she couldn't refuse.

In the handwritten letter, undated but postmarked March 17, Phillips said, "I have sold my beautiful ranch with my precious little winery. Someone made me an offer, and I thought it was time to slow down. As you know, the property deserves a real winery, house and vineyard redevelopment. I was right in the middle of that lengthy process when this option came along. A hard decision to make."

Attempts to contact Phillips by phone yesterday and today were unsuccessful. Earlier this year, in an interview discussing her plans for Screaming Eagle, Phillips said she was facing big decisions about replanting her 60-acre property, which is located near the Oakville Cross Road and Silverado Trail, north of Napa.

Banks, who is also part-owner of an 80-acre vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley that will release its first wine in a year, learned that Screaming Eagle might be for sale through a mutual friend of his and Phillips. He and Phillips then met to discuss the possibility in December and worked out the details without intermediaries. "Jean and I hit it off. We would sit at her coffee table and talk it through and got it done in a very short time," said Banks.

People familiar with land values in the heart of Oakville said that property of this kind could easily command prices as high as $300,000 an acre. The vineyard, with its rocky, well-drained soils, is located in a sweet spot for ripening Cabernet. The winery, inventory and, perhaps most important, the value of the brand would all add to the total. Wine Spectator estimates the deal could be worth $20 million to $30 million or more.

Much of the 60-acre property needs to be replanted. Renowned vineyard manager David Abreu has already been hired to oversee that effort, which will begin this year with about 10 to 20 acres. Banks added that they hope to retain current winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett and also to build a new gravity-flow winery, incorporating the current production facility on site.

Phillips, a former real estate agent, bought the vineyard in 1986 and said she was so strapped for cash at the time that she paid the closing costs with a credit card.

The vineyard then was a mix of varieties, most of which Phillips sold to Napa wineries. But in 1992, she decided to make a Cabernet from a tiny block of grapes, and she named the wine Screaming Eagle, which she said symbolized her passion for life. Roughly 500 cases of the wine were made in each vintage. Phillips sold the rest of the grapes to other wineries.

Released in 1996 for $50 a bottle, the 1992 Cabernet became an overnight sensation. It helped launch a new era of cult Cabernets and made a winemaking star of Barrett. Screaming Eagle quickly took its place among California's most celebrated and sought-after Cabernets.

Wine lovers wait months, if not years, to get on the winery's mailing list. A 750-ml bottle now fetches $300 upon release and can sell for much more soon after. Recent vintages have sold at auction for as much as $4,205 per bottle, the price earned by the 1997 vintage at a 2001 Christie's sale. A 6-liter bottle of the 1992 sold for $500,000 at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, a shocking amount even for the routinely sky-high prices at that charity fundraiser.

Banks is still stunned that he and Kroenke were able to acquire the property. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "I called my father to tell him, and he thought I was joking."

Additional reporting by Tim Fish

Winery Purchases and Sales Red Wines United States California Cabernet Sauvignon News

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