Mark West wine brand sold for $160 million
Published: Friday, June 29, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 7:46 a.m.
A Graton wine company announced an agreement Friday to sell its fast-growing Mark West pinot noir brand for $160 million to beverage giant Constellation Brands.
The deal, one of the largest local wine label sales in recent history, marks the second time wine entrepreneur Derek Benham has built a small Sonoma County wine brand into a national powerhouse and sold it. In 2001, Benham and his brother, Courtney Benham, sold their Blackstone merlot wine brand for $140 million to a partnership created by Constellation and BRL Hardy.
“It's pretty impressive that Derek Benham could do it twice,” said Joe Ciatti, partner at Zepponi & Co., a Santa Rosa wine industry brokerage firm. “You normally get the brass ring only once, but he's done it twice with Constellation. He builds great brands.”
The 600,000-case Mark West brand, produced by Benham's Purple Wine Company, is the nation's best-selling pinot noir, Constellation said.
The transaction includes the Mark West trademark and inventories of wines from three California appellations: California, Russian River and Santa Lucia. Grapes from the Russian River appellation make up a small fraction, less than 1 percent, of the pinot noir produced by Mark West.
Purple Wine Company was founded in 2001 by Derek Benham. The company sold just under 1 million cases of wine last year, said Lisa Ehrlich, vice president of marketing.
The company, which invests its money in marketing wine rather than acquiring vineyards, sources grapes under long-term contracts with a network of growers.
Its campaign, “Pinot for the People,” aimed to make affordable pinot noir available to a broad audience. And it worked. The brand won the Impact Hot Brand Award in 2010 and 2011, an award that recognizes sales growth, and was named one of Symphony IRI's Top 30 Momentum Table Wine Brands in food and drug stores for 2011.
“Derek Benham is the all-time master of creating brands and selling them at very nice prices,” said Jon Fredrikson, president of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine industry consulting firm based in Woodside. “For history to repeat itself after Blackstone ... is remarkable.”
The brand's meteoric sales growth has continued this year, jumping 35 percent in the last 12 weeks, Constellation said. Now, Purple Wine Company has annual revenues that are “well north of $100 million,” Benham said.
“We go at this with a sort of guile and cunning that starts in the marketplace, and then work back to production, and the right product and taste profile,” Benham said. “I'm not saying there isn't luck involved, especially on an exit like this.”
Although Benham sold a major brand to Constellation before, he wasn't expecting the offer. In fact, his company was working on an expansion strategy to land national chain accounts to increase sales to more than 1 million cases per year when Constellation came knocking.
“It was a total surprise to me. I didn't know they were back in M&A mode,” Benham said. “They're poised to take it. They've got the infrastructure in place, they've got global reach, they've got a 55 million case portfolio.”
Its a major transformation for a brand that had ceased production when Benham acquired it a decade ago. Benham obtained the brand almost by accident when he purchased a production facility, now his Sonoma Wine Company. Mark West had suffered through a series of ownership disruptions, Benham said. But he saw a brand name that had recognition in a region known for pinot noir.
“I thought, ‘OK, I'll go for it, and see what happens here,'” Benham recalled.
And then, the magic happened. Benham employed a strategy to build a focused brand that was in tune with what distributors, retailers and restaurants were seeking. His brands focus tightly on a single varietal and are simple to understand, resulting in efficient transactions through the supply chain, he said.
“I think the distributors respond to that, especially in this day and age in consolidation,” Benham said. “These are very large distributors, with very large books, and literally thousand of brands to manage, so the question is how do we distinguish ourselves ... because you're only going to get so much mind-share.”
The Mark West brand has pinot noirs priced in a sweet spot in the market. The California pinot noir sells for $10 to $12, a fast-growing price segment. The Santa Lucia pinot noir sells for around $19 while the Russian River pinot noir sells for $25, according to Ehrlich.
The purchase “fills a gap in our portfolio of pinot noir brands,” Constellation CEO Rob Sands said in a statement. “We have a successful track record of integrating high-growth brands into our portfolio and maintaining their strong marketplace momentum.”
The sale is expected to close in mid July, Benham said.
Constellation is one of the largest wine companies in the world, with 4,400 employees and sales in 125 countries. It manages more than 100 wine, beer and spirit brands, including Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois, Simi and Estancia.
It reported $635 million in first-quarter net sales on Friday, unchanged from a year ago. But its stock jumped 24 percent Friday, rising to $27.06 on the New York Stock Exchange, after it announced a $1.85 billion deal to buy out its partner in Crown Imports, the nation's largest beer importer. Last year, the joint venture with Anheuser-Busch InBev NV sold $2.5 billion of Corona, Modelo and other beers from Mexico.
“Constellation can take the brand to the next level, because they have better access to resources and distribution,” said Robert Nicholson, principal at International Wine Associates, a winery and vineyard brokerage.
Purple Wine has 28 employees and sister Sonoma Wine Company, a custom-crush operation with three wineries and a storage facility, employs 165. None of the employees will be moving over to Constellation, Ehrlich said.
Purple Wine, which still owns three wine brands, remains one of the larger wine companies in Sonoma County. Its biggest remaining brand, Avalon, focuses on cabernet sauvignon and is projected to sell 225,000 cases this year. Four Vines, a zinfandel brand, is projected to sell 175,000 cases, up from about 60,000 just two years ago, Ehrlich said. And Beck's, the company's imported reisling, is expected to sell 25,000 cases.
The company plans to launch another brand in August, but details are not yet being released, Benham said.
“With the sale, we have the resources to do what we love to do, which is brand-building and marketing and innovation,” Ehrlich said. “We're on to what's next.”
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