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If you think selling a house in this market is tough, try selling a $22 million winery.

That's what Larry Kirkland has been trying to do for more than a year to no avail.

The Napa rancher turned winery owner has been looking for a buyer for his Western-themed Kirkland Ranch Winery in southern Napa County ever since it emerged from bankruptcy in the summer of 2007.

That was right about the time the economy began to falter. His hopes for a quick sale faded further as the mortgage meltdown turned into a full-blown credit crisis, making it tougher for buyers to borrow money.

Now he's resorting to that last-ditch sales tactic becoming increasingly common in the battered housing market -- the real estate auction.

Running out of time to meet his goal of selling the winery by the end of the year, Kirkland and his advisers opted for a sealed-bid auction to drum up some interest in the property.

Buyers have until Wednesday to submit bids for one of two options.

Bidding starts at $22 million for the 69-acre winery property, including 45 acres of vineyards. Buyers also have the option to purchase an additional 186 acres of land, 110 planted in vineyards. The opening bid for the combined properties is $26 million.

The $22 million reserve price is less than half what the winery was valued at when it entered bankruptcy in 2006. A lot has changed since then, said Robert Nicholson with International Wine Associates, a Healdsburg firm that has been marketing the winery to prospective buyers.

"The volatility of the financial markets has made it really difficult for buyers to determine what the real value of things are," Nicholson said. "They are looking very hard at valuations, and they are looking particularly hard at cash flows."

Kirkland Ranch isn't the only Wine Country sale to run aground in the current market. Last month, a deal to sell the historic Chateau Montelena winery in Calistoga to wealthy French vintner Michel Reybier fell apart. The deal collapsed in part because the value of the Euro weakened significantly and the global credit crunch stemmed the flow of investment funding.

Marketing woes

Built in 1998, Kirkland Ranch never achieved the commercial success of many of its neighbors to the north in Napa Valley.

Kirkland designed it as both a production facility and destination winery, considering the location to be ideal for drawing in large numbers of tourists.

The timber-framed building sits on a scenic knoll and features a large tasting room complete with stone fireplaces, a mounted black bear head, wide porches and ample parking for tour buses.

But the winery, in the southeast corner of Napa County, sits east of key arteries into the Napa Valley, such as Highway 29 from American Canyon and Highway 121 from the Sonoma Valley.

"People just drove right past it," said Simon Inman, an attorney specializing in wine industry acquisitions with the firm Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross.

That's partly because Kirkland didn't follow up the construction with a viable marketing plan for his wines, according to Martin Jones, a turnaround specialist who became general manager of the winery last year.

"People are attracted by the romance of the wine business, but often really don't have the marketing plan or management resolve to develop the business and sustain the years of losses before something starts to stick," Jones said.

Bad partner

Kirkland Ranch's marketing woes were compounded by its name. Costco, the largest seller of wine in the nation, launched its private label wines in 2004 under the name Kirkland Signature. The big retailer's move effectively pre-empted the winery from earning wide distribution for its wines, Jones said. Instead, it emphasized a second label, called Jamieson Canyon wines, he said.

Short on cash and looking for a marketing partner, the winery made the mistake of teaming up with an untested penny-stock company headed by a Connecticut investment banker with no wine industry experience.

360 Global Wine Co. formed a joint venture in 2003 with Kirkland, then acquired Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace from the children of Sam and Vicki Sebastiani with $34.5 million borrowed from a hedge fund. The company's efforts to integrate the two wineries, launch new brands and make massive debt payments all failed.

Filing bankruptcy allowed Kirkland to cut itself loose from the grip of 360 Global, which also ultimately went bankrupt. The Kirkland family emerged from bankruptcy with 100 percent ownership of the winery, but still deep in debt.

The new lender is Madison Capital, a New York-based hedge fund. Jones declined to say how much the Kirklands owe, but said the $22 million sale price is approximately the amount needed to retire debt and pay closing costs on the sale.

As part of the deal, Kirkland was required to sell about 2,300 acres of land, which was purchased by Silverado Partners earlier this year, Jones said, declining to disclose the price.

One of the winery's great strengths is the size of its production capacity. The 57,000-square-foot building has a 3,000-barrel cellar, a permit to process 200,000 gallons of wine per year, and a bottling line capable of corking 500,000 cases a year.

The decision to hold an auction has generated a significant amount of buzz, and potential buyers have been touring the facility regularly in recent weeks, said Sally Nicholson, a principal in International Wine Associates.

"It has certainly struck a chord in the market," she said.

Bidders' identities are secret, but the winery would make a good fit for an existing wine company looking to strengthen its Napa presence, Nicholson said.

Being a new winery, the facility doesn't need much additional investment. Nevertheless, some buyers might want to change the business model, she said.

"There's a lot of creative thinking going on on the part of prospective buyers," she said.

Decor not to everyone's taste

Some think the Western style of the winery -- with its timber columns, caribou-hide couches and a deer antler chandelier -- just doesn't resonate with Napa wine tourists.

"He spent millions and millions of dollars building something that would have looked better in Wyoming than Napa, quite frankly," Inman said.

But Sally Nicholson said Kirkland was just a man ahead of his time.

"He had a very large dream in the buoyant '90s and created something quite extraordinary," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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