Whither Bill Foley? A wine critic weighs in on his California properties
Bill Foley came onto my radar years ago, when his winery empire still was small and centered in Santa Barbara County (through Lincourt and Foley Estates, both of them very good wineries). I followed his career as he bought Sebastiani, Chalk Hill, Kuleto, Firestone and others, including overseas properties I don’t review. On my recommendation, Bill was Wine Enthusiast’s Man of the Year in 2010, at our Wine Star Awards.
I admired, and still do, this businessman’s tenacity and unerring eye for picking up bargains. The Recession has been Bill’s Happy Hunting Ground. Bloomberg News, which wrote about Bill last week, marveled at Bill’s ability as a turnaround artist, Mitt Romney-style, “gambling he can become a commercial force in a wine industry that is struggling with stagnant sales” by buying “Debt-laden producers…at deep discounts.” The main example in the wine industry has been Bill’s purchase of Chalk Hill “for an undisclosed price well below its peak valuation,” which was estimated by Bloomberg, perhaps generously, to have been $100 million.
You can’t help but admire an astute businessman, but what I’ve wondered about is what Bill Foley really wants. There are only three purposes, in theory, to buy a winery: (1) to keep things exactly as they are, (2) to raise quality or (3) to milk it for all it’s worth before selling it to somebody else.
The question is, which of these three options represents Bill Foley’s innermost desire?
Let’s take a closer look at his California properties in hopes of discerning the answer. The dates in brackets are the reported years Foley bought the property.
Firestone : I always thought Firestone promised more than it delivered. It was a pioneer in the Santa Ynez Valley but never soared to the top, the way, say, Foxen, Zaca Mesa or Fess Parker did. At least prices never were high. They still aren’t. With large vineyard holdings and (I assume) a good distribution network, Firestone would seem to be a good brand for Foley to pump wines out in large numbers, if he can keep those prices modest (below $20) and maintain scores in, say, the 85-89 range. I cannot see Firestone rising to the level of desirabilty.
Sebastiani : This venerable company, founded in 1889, had its ups and downs for many years before falling into the Foley portfolio. In recent decades, its wines haven’t been particularly good or bad, just average; there was no compelling narrative, no driving reason for the consumer to seek out a Sebastiani wine, except for availability and value. A wine like the 2009 Pinot Noir is a good buy for $18 and 90 points; the 2008 Cherryblock [$95, 91 points] presents consumers with a more difficult choice. The jury remains out on where Foley takes Sebastiani. I, personally, would like to see Sebastiani get serious about being great. If there’s a brand better situated to move upscale and take advantage of residual good will, it’s Sebastiani.
Kuleto : I had mixed feelings about Kuleto from its inception. (I first began reviewing its wines with the 2001 vintage.) I thought it was merely a vanity project from a celebrated restaurateur. Many of the initial wines were overpriced, although a trio of 2006 Cabs, all $80, got high scores. But a Zinfandel and Chardonnay I tasted last year were average, and expensive for what you got. I’m not sure I have a good feeling about Kuleto, but Bill can elevate this brand, if he really wants to.
Chalk Hill : I was a big fan of Chalk Hill for years before Foley bought it. Everything the winery did seemed right: Chardonnay, sweet Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, the red Bordeaux blend, Syrah, Merlot. I would have called it the perfect Chalk Hill [the appellation] winery, except that would have been a back-handed compliment, since it was practically the only Chalk Hill winery. In re-examining my scores since the Foley purchase, it’s very difficult to discern any trends; the wines seem to be as good as ever, although Foley’s fingerprints won’t really be felt until future releases. Chalk Hill is a gem; Fred Furth probably hated to have to give it up. I hope Bill Foley will keep the gleam on this property.