Founder returns as Ascentia Wine Estates CEO

Jim DeBonis is back in charge of Ascentia Wine Estates, the beleaguered wine company he formed in 2008 with more than $200 million in financing from investors.

DeBonis's return as chief executive of the Healdsburg company that owns Geyser Peak Winery among other holdings comes less than eight months after investors replaced him in what they described at the time as "an evolution in the management of the company."

During DeBonis's absence as CEO, the company was forced to sell key wine brands such Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg and Buena Vista Carneros Winery in Sonoma as it struggled under the weight of its roughly $200 million in debt.

Investors hired Mike Kenton as CEO in January, heralding him as the right man to "successfully lead Ascentia" given his sales and marketing experience. His sudden departure Monday followed growing differences between him and the lead investors on how to best grow the remaining brands, said Sam Singer, a company spokesman.

"The division between Mr. Kenton and the board had become very apparent," Singer said. "In the wine business, much like Hollywood, people have different visions."

Kenton, who was the former president and CEO of Artesa Winery in Napa, declined comment.

Ascentia's main investor, GESD Capital Partners in San Francisco, decided to bring back DeBonis because "he has the most knowledge of the company and he understands where the board of directors want to take it," Singer said.

The company notified employees and business partners of the change in leadership Monday. The sudden shake-up was necessary in order to "correct course," Singer said.

But he said the direction of the company would continue toward Kenton's previously stated goal of increasing production of lower-priced wines.

"I don't think we are going to shift direction at all," Singer said.

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