Buying a group of wineries is one thing. Building a wine company from scratch is something else entirely.
Jim DeBonis succeeded in pulling together a complex deal to buy five wineries for $234 million from Constellation Brands in June.
But seven weeks after the formation of DeBonis' Ascentia Wine Estates, Sonoma County's newest wine company remains a chaotic work in progress.
A small sheet of paper taped to a window is all that greets visitors to the company's headquarters in downtown Healdsburg.
Many of the employees work in half-furnished offices using their own computers while they wait for key IT systems to come online.
And forget a Web site -- no one even has business cards because the company doesn't have a logo yet.
"We are a startup and we are not a startup," says DeBonis, the 48-year-old Healdsburg native who formed Ascentia to return some of Sonoma County's most prominent wineries to local ownership.
Ascentia isn't a true startup because it acquired a group of fully functioning wineries from a massive corporate owner that was looking to slim down after years of gorging itself on rival wine companies.
Constellation Brands purchased Healdsburg-based Beam Wine Estates, the wine division of consumer goods conglomerate Fortune Brands, in December 2007 for $885 million. Constellation, the largest wine group in the world, quickly made it known it would only retain two of the five brands -- Clos du Bois in Geyserville and Wild Horse in Templeton.
DeBonis, then chief operating officer at Beam, made up his mind to buy the remaining Sonoma wineries -- Geyser Peak, Gary Farrell and Buena Vista Carneros -- to rescue them from the "corporate shell game."
The purchase instantly created a company far larger than a typical startup: five wineries, including two in the Pacific Northwest, producing 1 million cases of wine from 646 acres of vineyards. It now employs 270 people in California, Washington and Idaho.
Despite its size, Ascentia is the quintessential startup, a firm created overnight by a small group of passionate people forgoing the stability of corporate life to take a risk on a new venture.
"I have to tell people to go home," DeBonis said. "Everyone here is committed to seeing Ascentia succeed."
That commitment immediately was put to the test for the employees who joined Ascentia's management team on June 10, the day the sale was completed.
Most showed up to work to find their future headquarters a shambles. Beam had employed about 80 people at the Healdsburg office, but Constellation laid most of them off, moving management of the brands to San Francisco and St. Helena.
"This place was a ghost town," DeBonis recalled.
Constellation didn't exactly make it easy to repopulate, either.
DeBonis, who was forced to resign from Constellation as part of the negotiation process, wasn't able to recruit employees until the deal was done. With harvest on the horizon, however, he didn't have the luxury of waiting.
So he slyly posted job openings on the classified Web site Craigslist explaining the positions without naming the company. Constellation employees and former Beam workers spotted the ads and figured out what was up.
Tony Lombardi, director of communications, had taken a job at J Vineyards in Healdsburg after being laid off by Beam. He recalled the thrill of learning about DeBonis' plans.