Filmmaking legend Francis Ford Coppola is buying the landmark Chateau Souverain winery from Foster's Wine Estates to gain a Sonoma County foothold as he rolls out a new brand, company officials said Tuesday.
Foster's will retain the Chateau Souverain brand and move production to its historic Asti Winery near Cloverdale. The deal is expected to close in February, but terms were not disclosed.
"We have decided that Sonoma is the place for us to be. We're very excited to own a facility there. We think it's beautiful," said Jay Shoemaker, chief executive officer for The Coppola Companies, which includes the Niebaum-Coppola winery in Rutherford.
Foster's is selling the Geyserville winery, bottling facility, restaurant and tasting room shop because the Australian-based beverage giant is combining most of its California bottling operations at a new Napa plant and won't need the Geyserville facility.
"When we were looking at our longer term needs as a company, it was just clear that we didn't need all that capacity. We were just very pleased that such a great buyer presented itself around the same time," said Allison Simpson, spokeswoman for Foster's Wine Estates in Napa. "The key to staying with the brand is the vineyards, and the terroir will continue to be the core of that brand. Stylistically the wines won't change."
Coppola's purchase bodes well for the Sonoma County wine industry because Coppola will produce higher-end wines at the Geyserville site, enhancing the county's reputation as a premium wine region, said industry analyst Vic Motto.
Further, Coppola's wine quality is backed by a savvy marketing and public relations machine.
"Coppola just does a great job. There's no better managed wine company in the North Coast," Motto said.
The Geyserville winery will be renamed Francis Coppola Winery after the sale is completed next year.
Coppola also plans to release his first Sonoma County wine brand next year after beginning to buy grapes from growers this year, Shoemaker said.
Niebaum-Coppola has been expanding, and total annual production tops 750,000 cases, according to Wine Business Monthly, a trade publication. Shoemaker would not disclose the company's case production.
With the purchase comes a fully staffed winery and bottling facility, as well as a popular Wine Country restaurant and special event setting with 127 workers, Simpson said.
"We hope to employ every one of them," Shoemaker said.
Coppola has been looking to expand into Sonoma County, and about a dozen wineries were considered over nearly two years, Shoemaker said.
Chateau Souverain was a "spectacular" property, Shoemaker said.
"This is the one he loved," he said. "We were looking for a very special place and we found it. We were an ardent suitor."
Foster's was the latest in a succession of owners for Chateau Souverain, founded in the early days of Sonoma County's emergence as a top wine grape growing region.
Pillsbury, the Minneapolis food company, founded Chateau Souverain in 1972. Like many other giant corporations in the early 1970s, Pillsbury was eager to invest in the California wine industry because of reports indicating huge profits in wine.
Pillsbury spared no expense, building an architecturally stunning winery and restaurant with twin towers reminiscent of the hop kilns once spread throughout the region.
But within two years of its opening in 1974, Pillsbury tired of its financial losses and put Chateau Souverain up for sale. It was purchased in 1976 by North Coast Cellars, a group of more than 300 growers in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties seeking a market outlet.