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New Owners for Valley of the Moon Winery

West Coast families hope acquisition of Sonoma vineyard to be first of many

by Peter Mitham
valley of the moon dan zepponi tony stewart
Dan Zepponi and Tony Stewart, the new owners of Valley of the Moon Winery, hope to own several West Coast winery properties.
Glen Ellen, Calif.—Sonoma's Valley of the Moon Winery is the first acquisition on what could be a West Coast acquisition trail for Calfornia’s Zepponi and British Columbia’s Stewart families.

Speaking to Wines & Vines in the first media interview regarding the acquisition, Dan Zepponi of West Coast Wine Partners LLC said Valley of the Moon is a good fit for the kind of properties the company hopes to assemble from California north to British Columbia.

“We weren’t looking for a lifestyle buy, we were looking for something we could build as a business,” Zepponi said. “This one kind of hit on all cylinders.”

Zepponi said the deal with Korbel Wine Estates went from offer to close in 45 days—lightning speed for an acquisition. West Coast Wine Partners was in competition with Banfi, which this spring announced its plan to acquire Kenwood Vineyards from Korbel. Banfi pulled out of both deals at the last minute, clearing the way for West Coast Wine Partners to complete the deal uncontested.

60-acre property
Valley of the Moon is a 60-acre property with 41 acres of vineyards and annual production of 35,000 cases. Zepponi did not disclose a purchase price but said there was consideration for goodwill in respect of the property’s extensive history—an element West Coast Wine Partners hopes to leverage in developing the property.

“It’s really got that rooted sense of place,” Zepponi said.

The name Valley of the Moon—a translation of the original native meaning of Sonoma, popularized by Jack London’s novel The Valley of the Moon (1913)—was given to the winery in 1941 by the Parducci family. A winery was first established on the property in 1863, and it had several owners through the years, including the Hearst family.

Korbel acquired the property in 1997, but it was largely a secondary production facility for the group.

“We’re really excited about being able to take it to the top-quality Sonoma production it should be,” Zepponi told Wines & Vines. “Relative to their overall portfolio it was tiny, so it didn’t get as much attention. Relative to ours, it’s the centrepiece, so it’s going to get a lot of attention.”

Zepponi said the property will be repositioned as an estate winery, with grapes from its blocks of 80-year-old head-trained Zinfandel vines channeled into upper-tier single-block lots. Similar distinction will be given to fruit supplied by growers in Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Los Carneros AVAs.

The acquisition also includes the Lake Sonoma brand, which Zepponi said will continue to produce a line of appellation-specific wines that showcase what Sonoma has to offer.

“We believe the real future, outside commoditized wines, is celebrating a sense of place, and something unique,” he said.

Scott McLeod, formerly of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, will be consulting winemaker, working with Valley of the Moon’s Greg Winter to set a direction for the new owners’ wines.

“Anything we bottle and blend from here on out will have Scott’s signature,” Zepponi said.

Quails’ Gate owners
The deal for Valley of the Moon is the culmination of a three-year quest driven in large part by the Stewart family. Speaking to Wines & Vines in April 2010 (see headline, “British Columbia Winery Looks South”), Tony Stewart, whose family owns Quails’ Gate Estate Winery near Kelowna, B.C., said he had investigated opportunities in the Oak Knoll and Stag’s Leap districts of Napa, and in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley AVAs. Stewart expected to spend between $5 million and $25 million to buy a 10,000-case winery sourcing 60% to 80% of its grapes from its own properties.

The launch of Plume last year, which now has an annual production of 2,000 cases, was a first step, driven largely by a lack of available properties in the price range Stewart and Zepponi had targeted (see Wines & Vines headline, “Napa, Okanagan Unite for Wine Venture.”)

The acquisition in Sonoma is another step, and Zepponi said additional deals are planned. The first will likely be for a winery site in Napa to accommodate Plume, which has room to grow to 6,000 cases and more, but other regions are also in the partners’ sights.

“We believe there are specific appellations in the wine regions of the West Coast of North America that are unique and distinctive and what we want to do is explore those,” Zepponi said. “As we get everything up and running and tuned up, we’ll look for things out of Washington, out of Oregon, maybe out of the Paso Robles area, building a company that can celebrate a portfolio of complementary viticultural areas up and down the West Coast.”

Northwest areas of interest are the Willamette and Yakima valleys.

&l dquo;I’d say over the next five or seven years we’d hope to see another couple of opportunities,” Zepponi said.

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