Healdsburg company acquires wineries from Constellation, scrambles to set up office

  • Ascentia Wine Estates Art Ochoa, director of I.T. unpacks and installs a router in the server room at the new Healdsburg office, Wednesday July 30, 2008.

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."

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