May 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Wilson Collection

Northern Sonoma couple has modest plans for growing portfolio

by Paul Franson

  • Ken and Diane Wilson have steadily built their collection of boutique wineries and now own five operational wineries and a sixth that they are restoring.
  • The Wilsons now own a total of 400 planted acres in Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and at Jepson Winery in Mendocino County.
  • Ken Wilson said they bought Jepson for the vineyard opportunities, the facility and the rare brandy permit.
With the recent acquisition of Jepson Winery in California's Mendocino County, Ken and Diane Wilson of Sonoma County have expanded their mini wine empire to include about 400 acres of vineyard, five operating wineries and the production of nearly 30,000 cases of wine.

Their collection of wine properties brings to mind Jess Jackson's penchant for acquiring family-owned and boutique wineries, as well as William Foley's recent buying spree, in which he acquired Kuleto, Sebastiani, Firestone and others.

Do the Wilsons have plans on this scale? Not according to Ken Wilson. All of the Wilson wineries make 15,000 cases or less, and he said they have no plans to ramp up or combine production. "Each has its own identity, though my wife, winemaker Diane Wilson, is involved in their winemaking."

By adding Jepson Winery near Hopland, Calif., the Wilsons now own five operational boutique wineries in northern Sonoma County and nearby Mendocino County, plus a restoration in progress on the old Soda Rock winery near Jimtown in Alexander Valley. The active wineries are: Wilson Winery and Mazzocco Winery in Dry Creek Valley, Matrix Winery in the nearby Russian River Valley, de Lorimier/Mosaic Vineyards in Alexander Valley, and Jepson in Mendocino.

The Wilsons started buying land in western Dry Creek Valley in the early 1980s, planting their first vines in 1988. They acquired and planted more in the 1990s. Today the couple farms 220 acres of Dry Creek Valley hillside vineyards. They later bought land in Alexander Valley and planted grapes in 2000, then acquired more with winery purchases.

Ken Wilson said he and Diane were interested in making wine early on, but they didn't start until 1993, when they bought the historic Fredson Winery from the retiring Chris Fredson. "It was an intriguing old bulk wine facility in what was really a barn," Wilson said. "It was 100 years old, and still contained the original redwood vats and tanks."

He and Diane, who has a background in biochemistry, then began fulfilling their dream: making their own wine. The first was a 1994 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Getting county permits and restoring the old barn took a few more years. By 1998, the complete winemaking operation was housed in what is now Wilson Winery. Slowly it grew to include additional varietals, and the annual production is now about 3,000 cases.

In addition to their acquisition of wineries, the Wilsons' move into the wine business also parallels Jess Jackson's: "In 2005, our grape contracts were expiring, and we had no place for our grapes," he said, so they bought nearby Mazzocco Winery that year to start making wine from their vineyards' yields.

In 2007, the Wilsons bought the old Rabbit Ridge facility as a home for their Matrix wines, which had been made at Mazzocco. Rabbit Ridge has an infamous history: The earlier owner had expanded production of the popular wine dramatically without getting permits, including constructing numerous buildings. He has since relocated to the Central Coast.

The Wilsons acquired the old de Lorimier/Mosaic Winery last year to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. Their grape buyers seemed more interested in Cab from Alexander Valley than Dry Creek, which is best known for Zinfandel. "I wanted a showpiece for Cabernet and Chardonnay," Ken Wilson said. "I'm counting on it to be a little easier sell there than in Dry Creek."

The Wilsons' latest acquisition is Jepson Winery, north of Hopland in Mendocino County. They bought the 1,250-acre property, which includes 121 acres of vineyards, from investment group Dbon Mendocino LLC. Dbon purchased Jepson with the backing of Fortress Investment Group in 2005, intending to renovate the winery and develop 1,000 acres of the wild hillsides behind it into high-end estates. They put Jepson on the block in 2008 because of the weak real estate market and expectations of trouble with Mendocino County's tough building restrictions.

Robert Jepson, a banker, founded the winery in 1985. The property includes a complete winery, a custom-crush operation and a rare permit to distill brandy as well as a classic pot still. The brandy is well regarded, and it is made in at least three versions: Rare at $34, Old Stock at $50 and Vintage Reserve at $100.

Ken Wilson said they bought Jepson for the vineyard opportunities, the facility and the brandy permit. "It's a beautiful facility, and the brandy is excellent. It stands up to the best Cognac in taste tests," he claimed. He also expects to make a little port-type wine, but doubts that he'll continue the sparkling wine program. The Wilsons are working with winemaker Alison Schneider on plans for renovation of the property and brand. The Jepson tasting room had been closed for two years, but it reopened Feb. 13.

Wilson Properties
Acres of Vineyard
Production in cases
When acquired
Major Varietals
Dry Creek Vineyards in
Dry Creek
220 -- 1982 Zinfandel
  Wilson Winery -- 5,000 1993 Zinfandel
  Mazzocco Winery -- 15,000 2005
Russian River Valley Matrix Winery -- <3,000 2007 Pinot Noir, Chard.
Alexander Valley Vineyards
in A.Valley
50 (developing others) -- 2000 Cab. Sauvignon, other Bordeaux varieties
  de Lorimier/Mosaic Winery -- 5,000 2008 Cab. Sauvignon, Chard.
Rock Winery
very small Renovation in progress 2008 Cab. Sauvignon, other Bordeaux varieties
Mendocino Jepson Winery 121 3,000 2009 Rhone varieties, also brandy

As for all that land, Wilson doesn't intend to develop it into estates as the previous owners did. "We'll probably keep most of it wild to enjoy. Maybe people in our wine clubs will have some access to it," he said, adding, "When the climate for grapes improves, we may plant more vineyards." He said several hundred acres are suitable for grapegrowing.

The Soda Rock Winery property in Alexander Valley includes only a few acres of vineyards, and the Wilsons expect to concentrate on Bordeaux varietals and maybe some white wines there. "Soda Rock is a labor of love," Ken Wilson said. "Restoring a historic building has been more difficult than I anticipated, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We expect to open it this year." They also own other vineyard acreage in Alexander Valley.

All of the Wilsons' wineries depend primarily on direct sales, so Ken Wilson isn't looking to get additional clout with distributors by adding a new winery to his group. Neither does he intend to merge production, but he said there are some economies of scale in administration, finance and purchases.

With six wineries in their control, Ken and Diane Wilson have become a significant force in Sonoma County winemaking. Though they make less than 30,000 cases, their current 400 acres of vineyards make them prominent in a county where 80% of vineyard holdings are less than 100 acres, according to Nick Frey of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
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