Jim DeBonis, the founder of Ascentia Wine Estates, has been replaced as chief executive officer in the latest shakeup of the troubled Healdsburg wine company.

Michael Kenton, former president and CEO of Artesa Winery in Napa, has been named chief executive of Ascentia, the company announced Wednesday.

DeBonis had the "vision and guts" to form Ascentia in 2008, but it was time for someone with additional sales and marketing experience to take the helm, company spokesman Sam Singer said. He denied DeBonis was ousted.

"This is an evolution in the management of the company," Singer said.

DeBonis did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Ascentia was created by DeBonis, a Sonoma County native, and several partners to acquire eight wineries and wine labels in California and the Pacific Northwest from Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine company.

The deal, which included Sonoma County wineries Geyser Peak, Buena Vista Carneros and Gary Farrell Vineyards, was hailed for returning several well-known wineries to local ownership after years of bouncing between large corporate wine companies.

At the time, DeBonis called the deal "a dream come true."

But the $209 million deal took place just a few months before a financial crisis rocked Wall Street. High-end wine sales across the nation have suffered ever since.

Then last year, Ascentia's sales and marketing firm and one of its key investors, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, sued Ascentia, claiming the wine company was on the brink of collapse and DeBonis had inflated sales projections.

The company denied the allegations, and blamed Deutsch for the company's poor sales. The suit was later dismissed.

Singer said DeBonis has done an excellent job of building an in-house sales force for Ascentia. The company's sales now exceed levels it saw under Deutsch, he said.

But industry sources say sales figures for the company tell a different story. One prominent industry newsletter reported that case sales rose sharply in the first quarter of 2010, when Deutsch was in charge, but declined in the second and third quarters, compared to the same periods a year earlier.

Singer said the company's sales are "doing well." He declined to provide sales figures.

Lou Giraudo, chairman of San Francisco-based investment firm GESD Capital Partners, an investor in Ascentia, expressed faith in Kenton.

"I have no doubt that he will successfully lead Ascentia and effectively manage these valuable brands and assets in this competitive market," Giraudo said in a statement.

Kenton has more than 30 years of sales and marketing experience in the wine industry.

Artesa, which is owned by the Codorniu Group of Spain, produces wines in the Carneros region. Kenton also oversaw Aven? Brands, Codorniu's Baltimore-based importer and distributor. Before joining Codorniu, Kenton held senior sales and marketing positions with Gallo, Chateau St. Jean Winery, and Seagram's.