Martine Saunier, whose import and wholesale company Martine's Wines, Inc. specializes in French wineries, sold her business in December to partners Gregory Castells and Kate Laughlin for an undisclosed price. The deal includes the inventory, staff and a one-year lease on the warehouse. Saunier will sit on the board for the next two years to help the company transition.
"I wanted to sell for the past two years because if anything happened to me my people would be in limbo," said Saunier, 78, who founded Martine's 33 years ago. "I was looking for a buyer but didn't want to sell my name to a big company."
After selling wines in California for 10 years, Saunier formed her company in 1979, introducing American wine lovers to the wines of Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Henri Jayer and François Jobard from Burgundy. Though small, her list of French growers soon became staples on the wine lists of the best French restaurants in Los Angeles.
Financial difficulties in late 2008 forced her to sell some of her personal Jayer collection to keep the company afloat.
Castells, who was born in France, worked in hotels and restaurants in France, England and the U.S., including Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, Le Bastide in Los Angeles and the French Laundry before joining Napa-based retailer Soutirage. "I've known Gregory for a long time. He was a good client," said Saunier. "We met recently and he was thinking of starting an Internet wine company, so I said, 'You should run my company. You know my wines inside out.'"
It took six months to put the deal together. Saunier feels Castells is the ideal successor for her producers, who are mostly French, and that he understands the American market. "I wanted to leave my legacy to someone who would take care of it."
When it came time to tell her staff about the sale, Saunier got choked up. "After 33 years it was tough to announce. It was very emotional, but now I'm enjoying my freedom."
She has no plans to slow down. Her first film collaboration, A Year in Burgundy, is currently in distribution. The second, about Champagne, is nearly finished filming while a third film will begin shooting in March in Portugal.