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Healdsburg wine company plagued by failure of partnership, lawsuit, mountain of debt

In 2007, Jim DeBonis set out to save three storied Sonoma County wineries.

Geyser Peak, Buena Vista Carneros and Gary Farrell were being sold to the world's largest wine company, Constellation Brands, and he feared for their future.

So DeBonis, chief operating officer of the company unloading the wineries, Beam Wine Estates, set out to buy them back from Constellation and return them to local ownership.

He would succeed in June 2008 after several nerve-racking months of negotiations. In a complex $209 million deal, DeBonis formed Ascentia Wine Estates and acquired eight wine brands in California and the Northwest from Constellation.

After years of watching local wineries get snapped up by huge companies based in London, New York and Chicago, the deal was a source of pride for many in Sonoma County and proof that its signature industry still had some control over its own destiny.

"It was a great story. Local brands, local ownership and competent management," said Mario Zepponi, a Santa Rosa-based wine industry broker and investment banker.

It was also an exhilarating highlight in the long career of a respected wine industry veteran and Sonoma County native.

"Making this whole thing come together is really a dream come true," DeBonis said at the time.

Two years later, DeBonis' young company is fighting for survival.

Its partnership with one of its key investors, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, which also marketed its wines, has collapsed. Deutsch responded by filing a lawsuit claiming Ascentia is insolvent.


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