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Sonoma Pinot Noir Icon Gary Farrell to Start New Venture

Farrell has left his eponymous winery, now owned by Beam Wine Estates, but will continue to advise new winemaker Susan Reed

Eric Arnold, Tim Fish
Posted: February 22, 2007

Winemaker Gary Farrell's foray into corporate winemaking came to an end shortly after it began. Farrell, who has been one of Sonoma County's most-respected winemakers since the early 1980s, has decided to leave the winery bearing his name. He and business partner William Hambrecht, who once held a stake in the Gary Farrell winery, have announced plans to build a new winery in the Russian River Valley, specializing in small-lot Pinot Noir production. They have yet to name their new project, but expect to produce about 6,000 cases a year.

"Bill and I view this project as an opportunity to make one final, significant and meaningful contribution to the Russian River Valley wine industry," said Farrell. "Our goal is to construct what we hope will be the finest Pinot Noir facility in the state."

While they wait out the two-year construction of their gravity-fed and temperature-controlled winery, Farrell and Hambrecht are leasing another facility, of which they'll be the sole occupants. The grapes will be sourced from Farrell's and Hambrecht's own Sonoma vineyards, as well as from growers who'd sold grapes to Gary Farrell in the past.

Farrell sold his winery to spirits giant Allied Domecq in 2004 (though not the two vineyards he owns with his wife, Debbie), and today it's owned by Fortune Brands' wine division, Beam Wine Estates. Farrell had agreed to stay on as winemaker for one year after the initial sale, then he hoped to retire. "When he sold the winery, the plan was for him to step away, even from the beginning," said Beam public relations manager Tony Lombardi. "In August he wanted to step away completely. We promoted his assistant, Susan Reed, who'd been with him for the last four years, and Gary stayed on through the '06 harvest."

Farrell, 54, did say that he felt he didn't adapt fully to corporate life, but insisted that he still has a strong relationship with his former employers. "They have always respected promises made to me (prior to and after the date of sale), and it is comforting to see that they remain fully committed to deliver precisely what our cherished customers have come to expect from the Gary Farrell brand," he said. "I will always support them [and winemaker Susan Reed] in their efforts to do so."

As part of his contract, Farrell will continue to advise Reed through the 2007 harvest while he works on his new project. "Presently, he's on contract as a consultant for the '07 year for different visits to the winery at blending, bottling, and harvest," said Lombardi. He noted, too, that while the growers who have supplied grapes for the vineyard-designated Gary Farrell wines in the past, such as Allen and Rochioli, have agreed to work with Farrell on his new project, they have enough vineyards to supply both Beam and Farrell. The biggest source of grapes for the Gary Farrell wines, said Lombardi, will continue to be the two vineyards--Cresta Ridge and Starr--that the Farrells still own.

Farrell moved to Sonoma County in the early 1970s and worked in the cellars of Pinot pioneers such as Tom Dehlinger and Robert Stemmler. In 1978, he took his first winemaking job with Davis Bynum, and in 1982 he launched his own label and used grapes from Rochioli Vineyards in exchange for making their wine. When he decided to sell his label three years ago, Farrell said he thought he was ready to take it easy.

"Once the opportunity to run off to some tropical island and play golf every day arrived, I realized my love for wine and winemaking was not something I could easily walk away from," said Farrell. "I needed to pass the baton at Gary Farrell and return to my roots as a small-scale, artisan winemaker."

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