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Foley Family Wines Buys New Zealand's Mt. Difficulty Winery for $35 Million

Pinot Noir–focused winery gives owner Bill Foley a flagship estate in Central Otago
Mt. Difficulty's winery lies nestled in the hills of Central Otago on the South Island.
Photo by: Mike Wilkinson
Mt. Difficulty's winery lies nestled in the hills of Central Otago on the South Island.

Augustus Weed
Posted: February 11, 2019

Bill Foley is expanding his footprint in New Zealand. The owner of Foley Family Wines and the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, has purchased Mt. Difficulty, known for its Pinot Noir and Riesling. The deal includes the Central Otago winery, an onsite restaurant, more than 172 acres of vineyards and Mt. Difficulty's second label, Roaring Meg. The price tag was US$35 million.

Winemaker Matt Dicey’s family has sold its shares, but he will remain in his role.

Foley had been looking for a high-profile winery to add to his six New Zealand brands, which include Grove Mill, Goldwater and Te Kairanga. He was also interested in expanding into Central Otago, one of the country's premier Pinot Noir areas on the South Island, and Mt. Difficulty checked both of those boxes. "It's such an iconic producer in that region and highly regarded," Foley Family Wines president Hugh Reimers told Wine Spectator.

Mt. Difficulty was founded when the owners of five vineyards in Bannockburn, the warmest subregion of Central Otago, decided to produce wine under a single label. The winery is best-known for its Pinot Noir but also produces Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc from both estate and leased vineyards. The winery produces 80,000 cases of wine a year under both brands.

Foley Family wants to increase sales of Mt. Difficulty's Pinot Noirs in the U.S., including some of its single-vineyard wines. Reimers says the main goal is to make it a global brand, but to grow smartly. "It's all about maintaining the style and quality of the wine that has made this estate famous," said Reimers. They are also planning on expanding the winery restaurant to attract more visitors.

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The company entered the agreement to purchase Mt. Difficulty in November 2017, but the sale had to be approved by New Zealand's Overseas Investment Office (OIO). (Non-residents and companies with more than 25 percent overseas ownership must receive consent from the OIO to invest in New Zealand's significant business assets.) To raise capital, Foley Family Wines sold shares of its New Zealand division to Japanese beer giant Kirin Holding's Australia-based food-and-beverage subsidiary, Lion.

New Zealand has seen increasing attention from outside investors in recent years, including Foley's own buying spree, which started with purchasing the New Zealand Wine Trust Ltd. in 2009. In 2018, Aotearoa New Zealand Fine Wine Estates, cofounded by wine veteran Steve Smith and U.S.–based wildlife conservationist Brian Sheth, bought Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury. That same year, the owners of Australia's Torbreck winery bought Escarpment in Martinborough.

After working in finance for decades, Bill Foley started a second career in wine when he founded Lincourt in Santa Barbara in 1996. Over the following decades he amassed a wine empire that now includes two dozen wineries in California, Washington, Oregon and New Zealand. Foley Family Wine's total production exceeds 1.3 million cases of wine annually.

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