Thursday, August 9, 2012

Quails' Gate's owners gain a Sonoma winery


Photo: Dan Zepponi (left) and Tony Stewart



One of Sonoma’s most historic producers, Valley of the Moon Winery, has been purchased by the partnership that includes the owners of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery in the Okanagan.

Valley of the Moon, whose history dates from 1863, is a 45,000-case producer that been operated since 1997 by Heck Estates, the owner of sparkling wine producer F. Korbel and Bros. Heck has recently been trying to sell some winery assets to concentrate on its sparkling wine and brandy business.

The new owner of Valley of the Moon is West Coast Wine Partners LLC, a company set up two years by the Tony Stewart, president of Quails’ Gate, and by Dan Zepponi, a Californian who formerly was president of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.

The partnership is a vehicle to produce California wines. Last year, it launched a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon under the label, Plume Winery.

With Quails’ Gate an established winery producing about 50,000 cases, Stewart began looking for a winery investment outside Canada several years ago, even as far away as Australia. Zepponi persuaded him to invest in California, which is closer and which has a better domestic wine market.

In a 2010 interview with The Globe & Mail newspaper, Stewart explained the rationale for this investment. “It is strategic because Quails’ Gate has got to a certain size,” he said. “Having a U.S. operation of a similar size means there can be synergies in viticulture; and oenology team members can move back and forth. It provides the opportunity to gain access to the U.S. market. And we’re a partner in a wine distribution agency for Western Canada” which would get California wines for its portfolio.

Stewart and Zepponi know each other because Zepponi spent two years (2007 to 2009) as president of Mission Hill and its holding company, Artisan Wine Company.

Zepponi’s family arrived from Italy to grow grapes in California about the same time that Stewart’s grandfather emigrated from Scotland to the Okanagan. Zepponi’s father partnered with the deLeuze family to operate ZD Winery. Ultimately, the Zepponi family sold its interest in the winery but Dan and his siblings have continued in wine careers. Prior to coming to Mission Hill, Dan had been the senior vice-president for production at Beringer Estates.

The first vintage of Plume, a 2009 Cabernet, was made under a custom crush arrangement. Last year, Zepponi and Stewart said they were looking for a Napa winery or a property for a standalone winery.

It appears that the decision of Korbel owner Gary Heck to shed some assets provided Zepponi and Stewart with the opportunity to pick up a venerable producer. Heck has updated the winery substantially while retaining its historic ambiance. Heck also owns nearby Kenwood Winery; a deal to sell that to Banfi Vintners recently fell through.

Here is a description of the Valley of the Moon Winery from www.sonomawinecountry.com:   

Situated in the Sonoma Valley on land first planted to grapes in 1863, Valley of the Moon Winery is housed in a beautifully restored stone and redwood winery built in 1887. Blessed with rich volcanic soils and a distinctive "banana belt" microclimate, the estate vineyard has been a revered source of grapes for well over a century. A block of "old vine" Zinfandel planted in the 1940s is complemented by more recent plantings of Barbera, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah, all farmed sustainably with natural soil amendments and natural pest controls.
“Yet Valley of the Moon Winery is a thoroughly modern - even cutting-edge - producer. The state-of-the-art production facility features a full complement of temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenters, and small French and American oak barrels; ideal for Valley of the Moon's artisan winemaking. In addition to making superb Sonoma County Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, Valley of the Moon Winery is a leader among California wineries in the production of several exciting up-and-coming wines: Syrah, Sangiovese, Pinot Blanc, Rosato di Sangiovese and Cuvée de la Luna, a proprietary Bordeaux-inspired blend. Sometimes hard to find, Valley of the Moon wines are definitely worth the search.”

The history is recounted on www.atlasofwineries.com:

The land on which the Valley of the Moon Winery and Vineyards is located has an illustrious past. Once, it was part of the vast 48,000-acre Agua Caliente Land Grant owned by General Mariano Vallejo. Subsequently it changed owners several times until 1863 when the "Stone Tract" portion of the property was conveyed to Mr. George Whitman.

According to the best records, Mr. Whitman was the first owner to grow wine grapes on the land. He built a winery and by 1876 his enterprise was a successful one, annually producing 50,000 gallons of wine and 2,000 gallons of brandy. In 1881, Whitman granted a portion of his property to the Sonoma & Santa Rosa Railroad Company. A passenger train station was built and tracks from Sonoma to Glen Ellen were laid down.

Two years later, Whitman sold the property to Mr. Eli T. Sheppard, former consul to China, and later an advisor in international law to the emperor of Japan. Sheppard named the property "Madrone Vineyards" and in 1887 began constructing the first of two stone wine cellars on it. Due to poor health, Sheppard retired to San Francisco the following year, and sold the vineyards and winery to Senator George Hearst, father of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Senator Hearst lived on the property, further developing Madrone Vineyards into a serious winemaking operation. He proudly served his wine to guests in Washington, D.C. In 1891 Hearst died, leaving the property to his widow.

In 1905, the property passed to the Union Trust Company of San Francisco. Between 1911 and 1922, it was owned by two large wine companies - Great Western Vineyards, and the California Wine Association.

In 1922, during Prohibition, the property was acquired by Mr. Louis Engelberg. As the story goes, he did not make wine, but he did take good care of the vineyards and sold his grapes to other wineries. Financial difficulties evidently forced Engelberg to take out a loan from the California Pacific Title and Trust Company; the loan was transferred to the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, which, sadly, foreclosed on the property in 1938.

Until 1941, Madrone Vineyards sat neglected. In January of that year, two San Franciscans, Enrico Parducci and Peter Domenici bought the property, which by this time, extended over approximately 380 acres. From 1941 to 1956, Parducci and Domenici ran the winery and vineyards, renaming it "Valley of the Moon Winery." They sold their wines in the San Francisco area and their grapes to various local wineries including Sebastiani, Round Hill, and the Christian Brothers. The Parducci family continued to run Valley of the Moon Winery from the mid- 1950s until March 1997 when the owners of neighboring Kenwood Vineyards purchased the business and property.


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