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Vineyard, winery buyers talk recent deals at Santa Rosa wine conference

  • Jeff Wesselkamper from Jackson Family Investments, right, and other speakers from the Mergers and Acquisitions panel take questions from the crowd during the Wine Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on Thursday, April 18, 2013. (CONNER JAY/ PD)

There's no question that North Coast vineyards and wineries have been changing hands at a record pace. But buyers, beware: Not everything that's up for sale makes a good buy, experts say.

A panel of some of the industry's most active winery and vineyard buyers on Thursday revealed the things that can turn them off to a deal. The discussion was part of the Wine Industry Conference hosted by the North Bay Business Journal, which drew more than 450 wine executives on Thursday.

One deal-breaker panelists agreed on: There are too many vineyards with pesky mansions on the property.

"One of the biggest impediments I've seen to local vineyard deals . . . is that inevitably, someone's built a $3 or $4 million house on it," said Jeff Wesselkamper, president of Jackson Family Investments.

"If you want to take an attractive asset and make it hard to sell, that's a good plan. That's almost a liability for us," he said. "We have multimillion-dollar houses coming out of our ears."

Bill Foley, owner of Foley Family Wines -- an executive who's more likely to buy hard assets than most -- agreed.

"Every time I look at a vineyard it has a house on it, which really screws it up," Foley said.

Another turn-off for Foley: vineyards or brands that are heavily damaged and need too much work.

"I'm trying to avoid a distressed vineyard that needs to be completely replanted, because it's all about timing. . . . Three years later you finally get a crop," Foley said.

That doesn't trouble all buyers.

"We'll take all the distressed stuff," Wesselkamper interjected. "We spent as much time and money on plantable and, honestly, some tired vineyards that need to be replanted, and that's OK because there isn't a vineyard that our farming team doesn't seem to think they can replant better anyway."

Jackson Family Wines is now more interested in increasing the prices of its luxury wines than achieving volume growth, Wesselkamper said. The company does consider buying established brands with a history, but not "flash-in-the-pan" brands, he said.

Another factor to consider while buying a wine brand is whether its distribution channels fit with the buyer's existing network.

"You're going to spend a lot of time and a lot of effort recrafting your distribution network if it doesn't match up with yours," said Dennis Carroll, former president at Purple Wine Company. "So if it has a good match with your distribution, you're ahead of the game."

Fetzer Vineyards CEO Giancarlo Bianchetti, the keynote speaker for the event, said his company is still planning to expand its vineyard holdings in California.

"To have high quality, you have to own your own vineyards," Bianchetti said.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @cbussewitz.

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