My heart sank when I got a text from a wine pal three years ago saying that Talbott Vineyards was being sold to Gallo. The crown jewel of the Santa Lucia Highlands being sold to a mega corporation? Heresy! How could Robb Talbott do such a thing? Simple answer: None of his children, even though he named wines after them, wanted anything to do with the business.
Similarly, when I learned of Calera being acquired by Duckhorn Wine Company, I felt a pang of sadness. Calera pioneer (and endlessly energetic promoter of Burgundian varietals in California) Josh Jensen was clearly doing the best thing for his brand, and for his own peace of mind. But what would it do to the Calera ethos?
It’s not just me. When The Wine Group purchased Livermore Valley icon Concannon back at the turn of this century, winemaker Tom Lane feared for the brand’s identity and survival in the hands of the corporate bean counters.
Turns out we needn’t have worried. Today, all three brands are thriving, thanks to infusions of new energy and capital. In the case of Concannon, it got a spacious new tasting center, complete with library room and history wall; the estate property is more magnificent than ever; and its processing equipment is state of the art.
Calera winemaker Mike Waller reports he now has significantly more resources, and major upgrades are being made to the tasting room and winery. He admits worrying when Josh told him of his intent to sell, fearing it might be to a mammoth company, but, “Josh told me he was committed to passing Calera on to someone who really cared about fine wine, and cared about preserving our reputation. Duckhorn Wine Company was the perfect fit.” Plus, he points to the vintage parallels: “In the early 1970s, when Josh was in Burgundy falling in love with Pinot Noir, Dan Duckhorn was having a similar experience with Merlot in Bordeaux.”
Talbott winemaker, David Coventry, who took over when Dan Karlsen left after the acquisition, says “Matt Gallo told me they bought us for the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, which they consider their crown jewel. They’re investing in all the right things to make the best wine this property has ever produced.”
Not all acquisitions are pretty, though. When Diageo bought Chalone Vineyard in 2004, it was game over for the once-vaunted brand. For years, it wallowed in mediocrity. The iconic vineyard, capable of producing Chardonnays as stunning as the views from its sandy slopes, was doomed to a Cinderella after-the-ball life of scullery maid misery. But, like the prince with the glass slipper, along came Bob Foley, who brought back former Chalone winemaker Michael Michaud, and added young talent Gianni Abate from Morgan, to restore this dusty jewel to its rightful shine. Foley is no fool.
Chris Benziger, of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, stood next to a lemon tree so loaded with fruit, it was drooping with surfeit. “When The Wine Group bought us, we worried about losing our identity. But they love the fact that we’re biodynamic.
“We have new freedom to make wines from really unique sites. It’s an exciting partnership.”
I love a happy ending.