Grape investments: Notable developments in the wine business

I recently published a blurb revealing my fear that Rosenblum Cellars would be bastardized by its sale to Diageo, the largest multinational beer, wine and spirits company in the world. Like many other business categories in the United States, wine is corporatizing and homogenization looms. Really, my concern falls into selfish territory — if all wine fell into a few, neatly organized financial statements, I wouldn’t have much to write about. My favorite beverage stands as one of the last bastions in the romantic, family-owned business arena, traditionally steeped in personality and handcrafting. And although larger, more powerful entities can swoop in to liberate and facilitate comfortable retirements, they can also quickly turn an award-winning first-time author into a cheesy Harlequin. Sensing my alarm, I received a note from Rosenblum’s director of marketing, Mike Kohne, who tried to assuage my angst:

Hello Taylor:

"I just saw your comments regarding Rosenblum Cellars. Just to set your mind at ease, please know from someone on the inside that this deal will be a good thing. It is a very good fit for the family and for the extended family (aka the staff). As a winery that outsources for fruit, the synergies will allow Kent [Rosenblum] access to more fruit, as well as [to] spend more time in the cellar. In addition, new investments will allow the winery to continue the pursuit of high-quality winemaking, which is after all what Diageo is looking for — premium wines and wineries. … I think you’d find that the good in this deal far outweighs any negatives in terms of our business and especially the wine quality."

Since I wallow in cynicism, I initially interpreted his words as the ramblings of a hyped-up marketing wonk. But, after some soul searching, I realized I’m excited to see what Kent can invent, given freedom and deep pockets. We won’t see results until the 2008 vintage, out probably 2009 or 2010, but we’ll see if he can uphold his best-seller reputation.

Wine on Wall Street?

If owning your own vineyard remains a furtive fantasy, fulfillment isn’t far away. Premier Pacific Vineyards, a company founded by real estate developer Dick Wollack and legendary vineyard guru William Hill, is making it a reality. Since 1999, eyeing big bucks in the "superpremium" wine grape category ($25-plus bottles), Wollack and Hill have been quietly amassing an impressive portfolio of undeveloped yet promising land in California, Washington and Oregon. Using Bill Hill’s vine smarts, they establish grapes appropriate to the location, then, after three to five years when the vines produce, sell or lease the fruit to esteemed wineries such as Ponzi, Flowers, Merryvale and Cakebread. Out of the 4,200 acres they’ve acquired thus far, 1,200 have been planted.

But this is more than just a boring real estate deal. Within the next couple of years, you could own a sliver of the project, sold through shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Once it reaches its target development threshold of 2,500 acres, Premier Pacific will be bundling it all up into a Real Estate Investment Trust and taking it public. Although the company downplays the wine aspects for fear people will invest for the wrong romantic reason, it’s still titillating. Not only does this bode well for consumers seeking to sink their money into a vinous investment, it means better wine for everyone in the long run.

SHARING IS CARING

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