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Sonoma County wine entrepreneur embarks on second act with Marine Layer brand, syrah project

Baron Ziegler creates a new vision after the sale of Banshee Wines in 2018.|

It’s a tale occasionally repeated in the Sonoma County wine industry in recent years.

A young entrepreneur creates a brand that takes hold in the marketplace and then a bigger company comes calling with a large paycheck to buy them out and expand the label.

After a period under a noncompete agreement, the vintner begins Act 2 and carves out a smaller niche that is typically much more of a passion project than the glare of staring at Excel spreadsheets and worrying about cash flow.

The examples: After the sale of their Kosta Browne winery to a private equity group, Michael Browne left to focus on his CIRQ Estate, while partner Dan Kosta founded AldenAlli.

Wells Guthrie escaped to Mendocino County with his DuPuis Wines label after selling Copain to Jackson Family Wines. Jackson also bought Siduri from Adam Lee, who went on to create Clarice Wines and Beau Marchais.

The time to think about the next step along with financial resources “can be quite freeing and help you focus on some really exciting prospects,” Lee said.

That’s been certainly the case for Baron Ziegler, who stands out even among the recent examples for the breadth and energy that the 43-year-old tattooed father of three girls is creating after he sold Banshee Wines to Foley Family Wines in 2018 for an undisclosed amount.

Industry insiders say Ziegler is arguably one of the most interesting people in the American wine sector to keep an eye on in the next few years as he embarks on two ambitious local projects: Marine Layer and Halcon.

“It’s rare that you find someone like Baron that is the whole package,” said Rusty Rastello, wine director of SingleThread Farm, the three-starred Michelin restaurant in Healdsburg that serves Ziegler’s new Marine Layer brand.

“Most people are really creative, or they are hard working, or they have a great palate. Baron has it all.”

The first post-Banshee example is Marine Layer, which had its first release with the 2018 vintage. The label is a small-batch brand where Ziegler sources grapes from highly acclaimed local spots, such as Durell Vineyard and Gap’s Crown for their pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. They are crafted under winemaker Rob Fischer from the winery that Ziegler purchased from Ramey Wine Cellars and is within the city limits of Healdsburg.

“We went out and paid a ton of money for these grapes, and we said we really don’t care how much we have to charge for it because we are going to make 150 cases,” he said of the initial business plan.

A Minnesota native, Ziegler had an entrepreneurial streak at age 15, when he began buying Bordeaux futures. He later dropped plans of medical school for the wine business, starting at the retail sector and later imports. He founded Banshee with the help of investors, and it released its first vintage with the 2008 harvest.

Decades later, he said he still has the same drive when speaking about Marine Layer.

“It’s the distillation of all what we have learned about this wonderful growing region: the Sonoma Coast. The best vineyards. The best barrels. What barrels to use with the best vineyards,” he added.

The brand also has picked up attention from wine directors and sommeliers around the country to the point where Ziegler now said he has limited the quantity shipped out to those accounts. Rastello recently posted about Marine Layer on his social media account, and said he was amazed at the reaction among his fellow wine professionals.

“I had sommeliers from all over the country that were like, ‘I love those wines.’ They were talking about them in a way that most people don’t talk about California wine,” Rastello said.

He also noted they are considered affordable at the price range of $40 to $75 per bottle in the category of top Burgundian varietals from Sonoma and Napa counties. “They are talking about how elegant they are and the quality-to-price ratio.”

The quality of the Marine Layer wines also has been amplified in its marketing outreach in its symbiotic relationship with SingleThread, which has become a top culinary destination within the U.S. since opening five years ago.

They just were part of a recent pop-up event in Park City, Utah. The restaurant’s chef, Kyle Connaughton, has overseen the food pairings at the new Marine Layer tasting room. The hospitality space just east of the Healdsburg Plaza opened in September with a coastal-inspired design that includes a fireplace, pendant lights sculpted by Oaxacan artists, and oversized Moroccan wool rugs, along with plenty of natural light shining through skylights.

The food options are all plant-based, such as a garbanzo-bean cracker dusted with dried kale bits. “We literally have a food experience that nobody in the world has,” Ziegler said.

Marine Layer ― which will ramp up its production in future years ― on its own would be enough for a next chapter for most vintners. But not for Ziegler. Late last year, he revealed another project: Halcon.

Ziegler teamed with Pax Mahle of Pax Wines of Sebastopol to purchase Halcon Vineyard in Mendocino County to create a new label focused on syrah and named after the vineyard.

The two friends bought the 162-acre plot from Paul and Jackie Gordon just before last year’s harvest. The couple first planted grapes in the high-elevation and windy area in 2005, and the land has since been a favorite among local winemakers with 11 of 15 planted acres dedicated to syrah.

The vineyard is at an elevation of around 2,500 feet in the Yorkville Highlands above Boonville in the Anderson Valley with thin, rocky soil from which the vines were planted.

The goal is to popularize the dark-skinned syrah ― which features a high tannin profile and a range of dark-fruit flavors ― similar to what occurred with the pinot noir boom in the aftermath of the movie “Sideways” almost two decades ago.

“There’s got to be something else that becomes cool as well. Not only cool, but accepted by the woman who comes in from Ohio to have a glass of wine at the bar. That’s when you know you have made a trend, when she’s like, ‘I’ll have a glass of syrah,’” Ziegler said.

The two last month tasted their first vintage from the barrel and were pleased with what they sampled, he said. They hope to rival the syrah of northern Rhône, which produces the best of that varietal in the world.

“We are going to try to put syrah at a level where people are like, ‘That is as good as any $85 pinot noir,’” Ziegler said. “We are going to try and start a trend. We might fail, but we don’t care.”

Ziegler can make such a boast because he has other parts of his wine business that help pay the bills, especially now that he has 40 employees throughout his portfolio along with the winery and a 6-acre vineyard in Sebastopol.

In fact, the diversity of his portfolio resembles to some extent that of top producer E. & J. Gallo Winery of Modesto, but on a much smaller scale.

That includes his import business, Valkyrie Selections, which does about 50% of the overall sales. He also has Valravn, the affordable wine brand from Sonoma County that offers selections at around a $25 per bottle retail price; Averaen, his Oregon brand; and Requiem, his Washington state label.

There also is Pavette Wines, which is his more budget-conscious California appellation label with chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon at around $15 per bottle.

“Diversification is always huge,” he said. “You see all these wineries that were pegged to one price point, whether it would be low or high or in one category … and God forbid something happens in the market and their business goes to (expletive).”

The range in price points among his brands also allows him to use barrels that may not fit the right profile for Marine Layer, but that he can use for Valravn instead if, for example, the alcohol content is too high or there is some underlying glycerol.

“Maybe there is something specific (in the barrel) you don’t like for a $70 wine, it’s still going to make a pretty damn good $25 wine,” he said.

But for Marine Layer, his sights are set much higher.

“It’s a hard thing to make a lot of money on, at least in the short term,” Ziegler said. “That’s really why we created Marine Layer. We wanted to make something that is as good as anything in California.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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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