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