Are Wine Corporations People Too?

A recent article on Forbes.com caught my attention: ”How Wineries are Getting Sold and Still Keeping their Soul.”  Unfortunately,  The author tip-toes around this timely subject by asking what two sommeliers think of the subject and then turning to the CEO of Jackson Family Wines for the company’s talking points and a stock photo.

Since many online wine merchants pitch their sales through narratives and background stories, what happens when a family winery is bought by a large company or multi-national corporation is a crucial piece of information.  The subject merits more than a puff piece from Forbes.

After being sold, does the winery remain true to the original philosophy, vision or whatever, or does it increase its production to become a totally different, unrecognizable winery?

Or, as often happens, does it simply morph into a brand.

For wine consumers, the distinction between a real winery and a brand or virtual winery is key. Brand building is the way the business world works…just ask Trump. But in the wine business, there is a clear distinction to be made between brand building for a wine producer and a brand that is nothing but a brand.

Charles Shaw is a brand.  The original Chuck Shaw, the Annapolis graduate who founded the Napa winery which no longer exists, has nothing to do with “two buck chuck”wines. Similarly, Lyeth today is another brand whose current wines have no connection to the founding family, the winery and vineyards which are now part of Silver Oak.

A few weeks ago www.wineexpress.com went through the Lyeth history to sell a new Lyeth wine which, incidentally was cheaper at Trader Joe’s. And www.wineaccess.com often goes way out of its way trying to tie in irrelevant history to a current brand.

Now back to the Forbes piece.  As Bill McIver, who founded Matanzas Creek in 1977, posted on the Forbes Forum: “I seriously doubt that the style of any wine from a winery sold to a large company remains the same.  In my opinion it is totally absurd to believe that any multi-million gallon producer would continue the cost required to make superior wine. Today Matanzas Creek wine is not even made in our 50,000 case facility. It is made in a 500,000 manufacturing plant in Alexander Valley. Meanwhile the expensive stainless steel tanks and winemaking facility is idle and Matanzas Creek Winery building is used only as a tasting room that consumer believe is a real operating winery.”

Clearly, Matanzas Creek which was bought by Jackson Family bears little resemblance to the original,. Now with production greatly expanded, and the winemakers dismissed after the sale, one could say it has lost its soul. Few would argue that Arrowood Winery without Dick Arrowood, and Murphy-Goode without a Murphy or a Goode on the scene have also changed since being purchased by Jackson Family.

Other companies  go to extremes to alter the winery’s image after buying it. Anyone who ever met Walt and Roy Raymond, kind and down-to-earth founders of Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley, must wonder what they now think of Raymond Vineyards under the ownership of J.C. Boisset. Production has expanded, and the tasting room has been redesigned so that one room seems more like the interior of a bordello (see the accompanying photo).  Sure Raymond is now pet friendly… but does seem to have lost its soul.

To be fair, today’s Arrowood Cabernets are fine, the Murphy-Goode Fume is a good by the glass restaurant wine, and the Matanzas Creek Sauvignon is okay at Costco’s current price.

In the Forbes article, the author concludes, “But when these business marriages are done right, the potential for both parties to benefit, as well as consumers, is tremendous.”  The question that should be raised is: “have these so-called marriages ever actually resulted in real benefits all-around?”

Maybe. But not often. The Louis Martini winery, in my mind anyway, seems to be on the upswing under Gallo ownership. Is that because Michael Martini is still involved and now has the tools he needs?

And across the board, I’m happy to say that Sebastiani wines are doing well under Foley ownership. The recent vintage of Sebastiani Barbera, the pride of the Sebastianis, is absolutely terrific.

But most morph into brands cranking out more wines that line the shelves of supermarkets and chain stores.

Author: robywine, norm roby

My career as a wine journalist/critic began in 1975 when my article about California Petite Sirah was published. My focus remained on California as I edited a monthly wine magazine and then moved on to The Wine Spectator in 1981. Over the following years, my column appeared under the banner of “Stormin’ Norman, and I also wrote articles about wine collectors and wine auctions. Without getting into a year by year bio, let me try to summarize here. During my time with The Spectator which I enjoyed immensely, I taught wine classes at a culinary school and at other venues in San Francisco. Before venturing into wine, teaching was my thing, English Lit and Rhetoric. After The Spectator I was the U.S. Contributor to Decanter Magazine, writing mostly about California, but also expanding into Washington State and Oregon. My Decanter years began in 1992 and after buying a summer home in France in 2000, I traveled throughout France and eventually published articles about St. Emilion, Castillon, Bergerac, Minervois, Roussillon, Luberon, Provence, and Alsace. Also, around 2000, my wife began working for Cousino-Macul in Chile, so we tasted and traveled our way through Chile and, of course, managed to fly over the Andes and explore and taste our way through Argentina. As travel lovers, we have also spent many interesting days visiting the wine regions of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sicily, Greece, and New Zealand. And to come to a close, I was Director of a Charity Wine Auction for 20 years, 1992-2000 that benefitted a local hospital. That brought me in contact with wine collectors and to the auction scene. And finally, I co-authored a book, The Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine published by Alfred A. Knopf. It went through 4 editions and sold over 500.000 copies.

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