Billionaire Bill Foley bets on getting bigger in competitive Sonoma County wine industry

Billionaire Bill Foley’s formula for success? Start from scratch, put the pedal to the metal and go big.

As a corporate attorney, he took over a small title insurance firm in 1984 and turned it into a Fortune 500 company. Fidelity National Financial of Jacksonville, Florida, earned almost $10 billion in revenue last year.

Twelve years later, he bought a single Santa Barbara vineyard and grew it through buyouts and acquisitions into Foley Family Wines, the 18th largest wine company in the country last year, on pace to produce about 1.6 million cases for 2017.

Now, at age 72, Foley’s newest venture brings ice hockey to the desert as owner of the new Vegas Golden Knights, which played their first regular season game in Dallas on Friday night. He owns about two-thirds of the investment group that paid $500 million to the National Hockey League for the rights to bring the first major professional sports team to Las Vegas.

“I kind of get involved in something and if I have figured it out, then I want to move on and do something else. I don’t want to sell anything. I’m never a seller,” he said in a recent interview.

The stake in hockey, a lifelong passion sparked by playing the game on frozen ponds as a child in Ottawa, Ontario, has reorganized his life, both personally and professionally. He stepped down as executive chairman of Fidelity in January 2016 and into a nonexecutive role, and he and his wife, Carol, moved out of Florida. They are now Nevada residents and spend some four months of the year at their home on the Chalk Hill Winery estate in Healdsburg. Their Montana ranch serves as a summer residence.

But Foley still has unfinished business in the wine world since going on a buying spree for bargains in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. He picked up the historic Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma as well as Chalk Hill, Sawyer Cellars in Napa Valley and Lancaster Estate in Alexander Valley, all part of a package of acquisitions he made through 2012 that totaled more than $200 million.

Even though he now owns 27 labels and farms 3,000 acres of vineyards worldwide, he needs, in short, to get bigger.

He wants to ramp up production quickly to at least 2 million cases annually, a benchmark at which Foley Family Wines will be big enough to continue to attract the attention of large wholesalers and retailers within their increasingly consolidated marketplaces. By contrast, the top three companies - E &J Gallo Winery, The Wine Group and Constellation Brands Inc. - had more than half of all domestic sales last year at 183 million cases combined, according to Wine Business Monthly.

“The little guy has a tough time getting enough attention in getting our wines sold,” said Foley, who also owns EPIC Wines & Spirits, a California distributor of Foley Family Wines as well as bottles from other wineries. In other states, Foley has to rely on major distributors such as Southern Wine & Spirits of America and Republic National Distributing Co. to place his cases with merchandisers and restaurants.

“I see that in our distributor in California,” he said. “We have to focus on the larger players we distribute for as opposed to the smaller players. We need to make the gross profit. That’s one reason I have to get bigger in the wine business.”

To accomplish that goal, Foley made one of the biggest moves of his wine career last month by hiring Hugh Reimers, president of Jackson Family Wines until a management reorganization earlier this year, as his chief administrative officer. Foley readily admits that past top executives have not worked out at his wine business. But he is bullish on Reimers, an Australian native who made a name for himself at Jackson by spotting premium boutique wineries in places such as Oregon that were primed for greater expansion in the marketplace.

For example, Foley said he “really would have liked” to have bought the WillaKenzie Estate, a Willamette Valley producer of single-vineyard pinot noir and pinot gris, which Jackson bought last year under Reimers’ guidance.

“He’s the type of guy I look for in every one of my businesses. I believe in delegating responsibility and authority. If you find the right guy and do that, you can really grow your business and be successful. I have done that in the title business, my financial services company, my restaurant business,” said Foley, a West Point graduate.

Foley’s love for the Army and for its discipline has extended to the business world. That includes naming one of his companies Black Knight Financial Services after the nickname of his alma mater, though an attempt to do the same for his hockey team encountered opposition.

“Sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I go through a couple different people to get to that right situation. When I finally get that right guy or that right woman, it works out,” he said.

Foley’s choice of a top executive from Jackson Family Wines isn’t exactly surprising; his life mirrors much of the late Jess Jackson’s in many aspects. Both turned from careers as lawyers to the wine business in Sonoma County and later migrated into sports, with Jackson going into thoroughbred racing and owning two horses that won the prestigious Preakness Stakes.

Reimers, in fact, said Foley is about 20 years behind where Jackson Family Wines is today as the ninth-largest wine company in the country. An estimated 6 million cases were sold last year, but with a disproportionate share in the highly profitable premium market.

“Jackson is already established... Bill wants to do the same thing,” he said. “Bill was very clear... We want to be a luxury wine company.”

The playbook will likely be similar to that which Reimers had with Jackson: There will be a focus in Oregon - Foley already owns The Four Graces winery and the Doe Ridge Estate Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton region - and other premium spots on the West Coast. Reimers explained that Oregon is a better fit than Washington state because the average price point can be around $30 a bottle and higher, as opposed to around $10 for the latter.

“You don’t have the big companies like Gallo or Constellation up there either,” he said of Oregon, where its most heralded areas are known for their Burgundian varietals. “The category is still not huge, but it is growing.”

Foley already has some terrific brands, he said, such as Chalk Hill, Roth Estate Winery and Lancaster Vineyards, all of which are located in the Chalk Hill American Viticultural Area. The region is located on the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains and known for its chalky white soil, which produces well-regarded chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

“He seems to own everything on Chalk Hill Road,” Reimers said. “Those are some really strong brands.”

The strategy will be to ramp up production of those labels and increase their visibility as the brands move into higher price points. A Chalk Hill Sonoma Coast bottle sells for around $19, while Roth is around $25, he said.

The company also owns Sebastiani, a historic property whose wines typically retail from $12 to $18 per bottle. The brand “probably should be respected a little more” given its strong tradition, Reimers said, though it may be a little tougher to raise its prices given the label is on the lower end of the company’s overall price spectrum.

Reimers noted that Sebastiani could be due for a makeover similar to what Jackson did when it reinvented Freemark Abbey, a Napa Valley winery dating back to 1881 that had its wines included in the historic Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. Jackson bought the winery in 2006 and freed up winemaker Ted Edwards to buy grapes from more growers in the Napa Valley to enhance and maintain its flavor profile. It also brought a new restaurant onto the property, Two Birds, One Stone, by critically acclaimed chefs Douglas Keane and Sang Yoon.

“There’s quality there in the bottle,” he said of Sebastiani. “There is a story there in the history.”

Reimers said he is excited to grow the portfolio, given that Foley has the wealth to make acquisitions that make business sense.

“Everyone knows what they want to do, but not everyone has the pockets to do it,” he said. “Bill does.”

Foley noted that he is still a discerning buyer, though he conceded “I am always looking.” For example, he said he believes prices in Napa County are too expensive to make a good return, even though Gallo earlier this year bought the 600-acre Stagecoach Vineyard in the Atlas Peak region.

“How many bottles of $200 wine can you sell? I know you can sell a lot of $50 bottles of wine,” he said. “I never go to Napa. I put my stake in the ground in Sonoma.”

Yet even he blanches at some of the prices in the Alexander Valley, where prime lots can now go for as much as $160,000 to $170,000 an acre. “It’s got to go into a premium product (at that price). You can’t put it into a Sebastiani cab anymore,” he said.

Foley has Langtry Estate and Vineyard in the up-and-coming wine region of Lake County, where he recently planted about 125 acres of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in the Guenoc Valley. He is looking at areas around Rohnert Park and Petaluma that aren’t yet planted, he said, but have good land for growing grapes that could sell for less than $40,000 an acre.

“I feel fortunate for the vineyards I was able to buy five or six years ago. They are great producing vineyards, they are high quality and I got them for the right price,” he said.

One area where he is satisfied with his company’s direction is in its direct-to-consumer business, which now represents about 25 percent of its revenue and is up from approximately 11 percent a few years ago, he said. Foley complimented Chief Operating Officer Bruce Cousins for that effort, central to which is a fulfillment center in Gilroy to ship out all of its brands.

Still, his attention this year has increasingly turned more toward hockey. He conceded he grappled with a new challenge when he became the face of the franchise, thrown into local Las Vegas media events and meet-and-greet gatherings with fans. He grew up on a cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle and noted, “I like big spaces and I like land, not have to be around that many people that often.” But Foley can easily expound on the business details, from the pricing of single-game tickets to the team’s plans to develop youth hockey leagues around the Las Vegas area to grow the sport’s popularity.

Both wine and hockey are future legacies for Foley. His daughter, Courtney, is the winemaker at Foley Sonoma, the Geyserville winery he bought last year from Pat Stryker. One son, Patrick, is the winemaker at Foley Johnson in Rutherford. Another son, Rob, used to work at Chalk Hill, but now works for the Golden Knights on the business side, working within its analytics unit.

“I’m not a short-term player on this. I view this as a legacy. I view these wineries and vineyards as this is something I’m going to pass on to my family. I have never been a seller of a winery or vineyard and I view hockey in the same way,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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