Foley expanding wine empire with recent acquisitions

  • Bill Foley bought Chalk Hill Winery back in 2010. Foley is acquiring vineyards and wineries at a quick pace, Tuesday Dec. 18, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

When a winery goes up for sale in Sonoma County, Bill Foley is the first one brokers call.

Foley, who made his fortune in the title insurance industry, says he has poured more than $200 million of his own money into the wine business since buying his first winery in 1996. He now presides over a collection of 16 wineries from Alexander Valley to New Zealand, including four acquired in the past year alone, making him one of the most active buyers in Wine Country.

"Once I get into something, I go all in," Foley said. "I just keep on going. I don't stop with just one little thing. I just keep trying to grow it and make it bigger and to keep on improving."

Wine has become both a lifestyle and a strategic business opportunity for the 68-year-old insurance<NO1><NO> executive, who moved the base of his wine operations to Sonoma County in 2008. He now spends five months of the year at his home on the grounds of Chalk Hill Winery in the hills east of Windsor.

<NO1><NO>Colleagues and competitors say the former Air Force<NO1><NO> officer is both disciplined and decisive. He continually searches for wineries with untapped value and acts swiftly when he finds them to unlock their potential, consolidating back-office functions while giving creative license <NO1><NO>to winemakers and vineyard managers.

Foley has openly tried to emulate the late Jess Jackson, who built Jackson Family Wines into one of the world's largest wine companies before his death in 2011. Both men share similar traits, said Tim Matz, who worked as a senior executive under Jackson and Foley.

"They're very intelligent, visionary, and willing to take a risk," said Matz, now managing director of Accolade Wines' North American operations. "And when a mistake is made, they just keep moving forward. They don't look back."

But the self-described "serial acquirer" comes across as remarkably relaxed, quick to laugh and joke about his dogs, his Texas roots and his music preferences, which range from Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli to pop star Taylor Swift.

On days when the weather is right, Foley enjoys walking along a three-mile path at Chalk Hill with his wife of 42 years, Carol, and their three dogs.

A cattle rancher who proudly traces his lineage to the Texas cowboys portrayed by actors Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in the classic TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove," Foley clearly prefers Sonoma over Napa.

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