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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.

"It was like, 'Hey, we're getting the band back together,' " Lombardi said. "In the end I just said I've got to take a risk. They're taking a risk, and I want to be a part of the excitement of rebuilding these brands."

Former Wine.com chief executive Peter Ekman has seen his share of corporate turmoil, but even by dot-com standards those first days at Ascentia were memorable.

"While the wineries were all working fine, here in the office we had zip," said Ekman, Ascentia's executive vice president. "We were scrounging."

People picked through abandoned office furniture, piles of unplugged fax machines, and artwork to assemble something resembling operational offices.

Many employees brought their own computers and office equipment to work on, and continue to work on them today as the young company's IT department builds its own local network.

"We're pulling off a miracle," IT director Art Ochoa said this week as he built the company's computer networks.

A host of back office and management systems had to immediately be rebuilt as well. Systems to track wine inventories, provide employee benefits and make payroll all had to be reestablished quickly.

One huge frustration was overcoming the reluctance of financial institutions to deal with an unknown company. Banks were hesitant to do business with a firm with no credit history.

"What am I, 18?" DeBonis recalled wanting to scream when a banker proposed restrictions on Ascentia's checking accounts. "You're nothing more than a guy trying to set up a business, and you don't mean squat to these folks."

While there have been plenty of frustrating episodes, the process of rebuilding a company from the ground up has been illuminating and rewarding, DeBonis said, especially when they've found ways to save money.

While Ascentia agreed to take over the lease on the office space, it hadn't agreed to take over the leases on about eight company cars used by executives and winemakers, DeBonis said.

"For about three weeks, we just never mentioned to Constellation we were driving their cars," he said.

After speaking to local Chevrolet dealer Bruce McConnell, DeBonis realized he could save about $5,000 a month and support the local community by scrapping the old leases and getting new vehicles through McConnell.

"There is waste in big companies, and they don't realize it's waste. But when you're counting every penny, you can't afford any waste," DeBonis said.

McConnell said he leased the company six Jeeps and two Chevrolets at half the rate Constellation was paying for similar vehicles. He said he went the extra mile to give the young company a good deal.

"I was delighted to see a local company actually buy some wineries back," he said.

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

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