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Last chapter on Ascentia?


If, as some are saying, Ascentia’s demise is close, it will come as no surprise. Rumors of trouble at the company have been circulating for two years, ever since the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported, in May, 2010, that Ascentia “is insolvent and on the brink of financial collapse.”

Ascentia was created in 2008 as a startup company to pick up the pieces of Constellation’s decision to sell, for a reputed $209 million, a number of wineries from its West Coast portfolio: Atlas Peak , Buena Vista, Gary Farrell, Geyser Peak Winery, XYZin, Columbia Winery, Covey Run and Ste. Chapelle. (Gary Farrell and Bunea Vista were sold once again by Ascentia last year.)

Those poor wineries! Like pitiful orphans, they’d been through more changes than most wineries go through in a lifetime. Each originally had been created as a standalone premium boutique winery; each has now been traded, swapped, retooled, abandoned and repurchased so many times, it’s hard–and sad–to know what’s really going on with them.

According to the newest report, which was published yesterday in Lewis Purdue’s Wine Industry Insight newsfetch, Ascentia’s latest disintegration will come “piecemeal,” with the remaining individual properties being sold to the highest bidder/s, starting with Geyser Peak. The same publication reported last year that Ascentia was subjecting Geyser Peak to “deep discounting,” with 5 cases of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio wholesaling for $90, or $7.50 a bottle. [In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly did the math, which was never my strong suit! Thanks to reader PAWineGuy for the correction.]

Geyser Peak used to be a respected brand, back in the Daryl Groom days. When I began reviewing wine, I always looked forward to their Reserve Alexandre Meritage, one of the best. Their Cabernet Sauvignon defined Alexander Valley and helped boost that appellation’s reputation for Bordeaux varieties.

Wine lovers tend to see the industry through a romantic prism of the small family winery, lovingly tended by dad, mom and kids, enjoying the bucolic country life. Sometimes it’s just that, but the greater reality is that behind the pastoral image is a roiling landscape of big business and corporate deals. When I first reported on Ascentia, I wrote that “not much is known” about it (which was obvious, since it had just started). I had hopes it would come to the rescue of these struggling wineries, many of which were dear to me; but Ascentia had the extreme bad fortune to spring into existence just as the Great Recession began. We shouldn’t judge their performance too harshly.

It was fortunate that Gary Farrell and Buena Vista were ejected from the crashing Ascentia bus last year, both acquired by individuals I know well, and who are eminently capable of guiding them to full recovery. Gary Farrell was bought by Vincraft, led by a great wine businessman, Walter Klenz, who used to run Beringer (Vincraft also owns Kosta Browne and part of Kistler.). Buena Vista was acquired by Jean-Charles Boisset, whose American company, Boisset Family Estates, owns De Loach, Raymond and others. Jean-Charles seems very serious about Buena Vista. I tasted a quartet of their wines earlier this year, and gave them higher scores than I’d given Buena Vista wines in some time; but then, those wines all were made before Boisset took control, so perhaps a renaissance already was underway.

Whatever happens to the Ascentia wineries, we can only wish them luck. It’s never pleasant to see respected old brands turn into commodities, tossed around like so many beanbags. Atlas Peak in particular deserves a chance to rest and grow. What a great property, in a spectacular location; but it’s known nothing but tsouris since Piero Antinori started it, a quarter-century ago.

  1. PAWineGuy says:

    $90/12 = $7.50 per bottle, not $1.50

    Those are per case prices on a five case purchase.

    With the additional free case on some of the wines, that’s 6 cases for $450, or $6.25 per bottle.

    Way to kick a winery when it’s down!

  2. What is it with all the tsouris? Yesterday it was the wine tsar and his tsouris. Today it is Atlas Peak with tsouris. This is a tsunami of tsouris, Steve!

  3. Morton, you made me laugh! I guess there’s a lot of tsouris going around.

  4. raley roger says:

    Tomorrow, tune in when Steve tackles the tsouris of tourism.

  5. Morton,

    Shouldn’t that be “tsunami of tsouris, tSteve?”

  6. @Lewis: People, tstop it already!

  7. Steve – Ascentia’s demise has everything to do with the management; don’t let them off by fingering the bad economy. The venture capital folks were fed an enormous lie about bottle price, even before the recession, and, like housing prices wine prices were also a bubble that had to burst. My feelings are with the winemakers, cellar workers, admin folks, etc., who took the risk of staying with bad management. I knew many of them from days at Clos du Bois.

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