With buyers snapping up leading California wineries Qupé, Araujo, Clos Pegase and Mayacamas in recent months, and other players investing in Oregon and Washington, it may seem like the market for wineries is suddenly hot again on the West Coast. But it's an under-the-radar market. Plenty of wineries, faced with tough finances or generational change, are looking for buyers. But they're not advertising the fact.
According to the people doing the buying, there are plenty of places for sale. “I must get two or three calls a week asking if I’m interested in a winery,” said Bill Foley, who in the past decade has actively expanded his Foley Family Wines portfolio, which includes Sebastiani, Chalk Hill and Merus.
That sounds right to Charles Banks, who through investment groups such as Terroir Selections purchased Santa Barbara Syrah specialist Qupé in October and Napa veteran Mayacamas Vineyards in April. “I’ve never seen more wineries for sale in California than there are today,” said Banks, who estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of California wineries are either in financial difficulty or aren’t as profitable as they could be. “And everyone is trying to be quiet because they’re not broke and their name may be on the winery.”
Many West Coast vintners who started in the boom of the 1980s and 1990s are ready to retire, and the next generation is either unable or unwilling to continue. “It’s a rare family that can go three or four, or even two generations in the business,” said Sam Bronfman, managing partner of Bacchus Capital Management.
Cash flow is another reason for the sales. While small wineries can succeed by selling most of their inventory direct to consumers and large producers have muscle with wholesalers, those in the middle—annual production of 5,000 to 15,000 cases, for example—can’t get much attention from distributors unless the brand is hot.
That, combined with the recession of 2008, put some wineries in a bind, leaving them overleveraged with lenders and backed up on inventory. “There are a lot of people who got in over their heads,” Banks said.
With the economy recovering and wine sales on the uptick, some big investors see an opportunity. Some have made money in other fields, while others own multiple wineries, which gives them scale and efficiency that small winery owners lack. The Pinault family, which owns Bordeaux's Château Latour, bought Araujo Estate in Napa in July. Sonoma’s Vintage Wine Estates purchased Napa's Clos Pegase in August, and
Wealthy Chinese investors continue to scout for potential acquisitions in various wine regions. “I get a lot of calls—‘I represent a Chinese investor,’” said Pat Roney, managing partner of Vintage Wine Estates.
How can this new wave succeed when the pioneering generation is fighting to stay above water? Consolidation is one approach: a winery struggling on its own can become profitable when combined with other wineries. Foley, for example, looks for a good brand with its own winery facility and vineyards, and he retains the winemaker, cellar master and vineyard manager. Eliminating sales and finance positions, Foley can save money by folding those tasks into his parent company. His portfolio has an easier time grabbing distributors' attention too.
Banks' approach is slightly different. “It may seem like we’re snapping up a lot of brands,” he said, “but we haven’t.” He invests in wineries that he believes are “authentic” and that have stories to tell. “If they’re just in the wine business to earn a buck, I think this is a bad business to be in,” Banks said. “The consumers will sniff you out.” That’s what drew him to investing in Qupé and Mayacamas. He keeps each winery fairly separate, but offers expert management to try and improve quality and profitability.
Investors expect winery sales to continue. Napa remains a hot market, but only for prestige investors who are looking for a trophy. Big profits are too hard to come by considering the cost of buying and operating a winery there. Paso Robles in Central California and Willamette Valley in Oregon are the regions most frequently mentioned on the wish lists of investors.
Whether the wave of sales becomes a flood may depend on how the latest vintages sell. California wineries are anxious for their 2012 wines to hit the market. Quality and quantity were high across the board. The 2013 vintage could be a repeat. But while Americans continue to drink more wine, per capita, potential dark clouds lie ahead.
No one is sure how quickly and strongly the global economy will recover. And there's also a coming generational change in consumers. Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division in St. Helena, said that while the millennial generation is large and passionate about wine, it can’t compare to baby boomers. “There are more boomers retiring right now than there are millennials,” McMillan said. “And the millennials don’t have the wealth of the boomers.” At least not yet, which means the future is uncertain.
It's not easy predicting the future of any industry, particularly an industry like wine in which nature and ego are often at odds with profitability. But that doesn’t stop the current crop of investors from trying.