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$234 million deal with wine giant includes 646 acres of vineyards


Three prominent Sonoma County wineries are returning to local ownership in a $234 million wine deal that overnight creates a powerful new wine company based in Healdsburg.

Constellation Brands Inc., the largest wine company in the world, announced Tuesday it has sold seven wine properties in California, Washington and Idaho to the newly formed Ascentia Wine Estates.

Constellation, which has been aggressively buying wineries for several years, said it was selling the wineries in an effort to streamline its overflowing wine portfolio.

The deal includes 646 acres of vineyards and wine brands producing more than 1 million cases a year, instantly making Ascentia one of the top Sonoma County-based wine groups.

"This creates a major new wine company that has strong distribution clout in the marketplace," said Robert Nicholson, principal of International Wine Associates, a Healdsburg firm that served as adviser to Constellation on the deal.

The new company takes its name from an Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon vineyard owned by Geyser Peak winery in Geyserville, one of the Sonoma County wineries included in the sale.

The others are Buena Vista Carneros in the Sonoma Valley, the oldest winery in California, and Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, a famed producer of high-end Russian River pinot noir and chardonnay. A small zinfandel brand called XYZin produced at Geyser Peak is also part of the deal.

The new company will be headed by Jim DeBonis, a former executive at Beam Wine Estates, the former wine division of Fortune Brands. Peter Ekman, the former chief executive officer of Wine.com, will be chief sales and marketing officer.

The company has financial backing from a number of investors, including the San Francisco-based private equity firm GESD Capital Partners and W. J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd., a wine sales and marketing firm based in White Plains, N.Y.

The sale includes three of the four Sonoma County wineries Constellation acquired in December when the Fairport, N.Y., company bought Beam Wine Estates from conglomerate Fortune Brands for $885 million.

Constellation decided to keep the 2 million-case Clos du Bois winery in Geyserville, the best-selling U.S. wine from $9 to $12, and the 200,000-case pinot noir specialist Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards on the Central Coast.

But the purchase left Constellation's massive portfolio brimming with North Coast brands and wineries it didn't need. There was particular overlap between Geyser Peak and existing Constellation sauvignon blanc brands like Nobilo and Monkey Bay from New Zealand, said Chris Fehrnstrom, president of Constellation's VineOne division.

"We're already very strong in the sauvignon blanc segment, and it's kind of difficult to have another sauvignon blanc like Geyser Peak without starting to compete against ourselves," Fehrnstrom said.

Also included in the deal is Atlas Peak, a high-end Napa wine brand made from mountain vineyards. The deal does not include the Atlas Peak vineyards or winery. Those properties, located in a valley high in the mountains east of Napa, are under lease but will revert later this year to famed Italian vintner Marchese Piero Antinori.

DeBonis, who was chief operating officer at Beam Wine Estates when Constellation bought it, was deeply involved in the development of the California brands, particularly Atlas Peak and Buena Vista Carneros, he said.

"This really lets me finish what I started," said DeBonis, who visited the Pacific Northwest wineries yesterday.

Those properties include Columbia Winery, in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville; Covey Run, a winery in Sunnyside, Wash., on the east side of the Cascade Mountains; and Ste. Chapelle winery, perched high above the Snake River in Southwest Idaho.

The Pacific Northwest is an exciting winegrowing region whose reputation for quality wines, particularly riesling, made the deal attractive, said Bill Deutsch, whose company also markets French wines and imports the blockbuster Australian brand Yellowtail.

"I think consumers are beginning to realize that what comes out of Washington State is similar to what comes out of the good growing regions of France and Northern Italy," Deutsch said.

W.J. Deutsch's success marketing the wines of Kunde Estate in Kenwood convinced the company that it would be wise to have an ownership stake in some premium California wineries, he said.

Constellation's sale reflects its continuing effort to realign its massive wine portfolio after years of aggressive growth.

It paid $1.4 billion for the Robert Mondavi Corp. in 2004, $1.3 billion for Canadian vintner Vincor International in 2006, and $885 million for Beam Wine Estates last year.

Following the Beam purchase, Constellation laid off 93 people at Beam, and effectively broke up the wine group, absorbing Clos Bu Bois and Wild Horse but leaving the fate of the three remaining wineries unknown until Tuesday.

Ascentia paid $209 million in cash for the wineries, and will pay up to $25 million more over the next five years as part of an "earn out" provision that depends on how the wineries perform, Constellation spokesman Mike Martin said.

Constellation will record a $23 million pretax loss on the transaction.

Additional financing for the deal was provided by St. Helena investment bank Global Wine Partners through its real estate investment trust. The fund, called VinREIT, put up about $110 million to buy the vineyards and winery real estate, and will lease the properties back to Ascentia, said Vic Motto, CEO of Global Wine Partners.

Ascentia will be based in the former Beam Wine Estates headquarters on Healdsburg Plaza.

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

@pressdemocrat.com.