WineInk: Wine Changes
Love and business in the world of wine
Those who follow Aspen hospitality, restaurants and real estate don’t need to be told that the only constant is change. For the last few years there has been an accelerating increase in sales and consolidations which have changed the business of dining and wining, along with our entire community. It should come as no surprise that the same trends are being seen in the business of wine. In recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of wine properties that that have changed hands as founders and second-generation wineries are courted by larger entities.
In November, longtime Aspen winemaking favorite Randy Lewis, a former Indianapolis 500 driver who, along with his late wife Debbie, founded the eponymous Lewis Cellars in the Napa Valley in the early 1990s, got an offer he could not refuse. Lewis Cellars was sold to the Paso Robles-based Justin Vineyards and Winery, which is owned by the Wonderful Company, which in turn is owned by Aspen’s Lynda and Stewart Resnick. Lewis Cellars joined a brand marketing powerhouse that includes Wonderful Pistachios, POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, FIJI Water, Halo oranges and Sonoma’s Landmark Vineyards. No doubt you have been a consumer of one or more Wonderful products. Now a Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon will fit that bill.
Earlier this month another Napa property, the Silverado Resort and Spa, was acquired by a company familiar to many Aspenites, KSL Capital Partners. Silverado, an iconic property located on the base of the Atlas Peak wine appellation, is also home to a championship golf course that will be the site in September of the PGA Tour’s Fortinet Championships. KSL is a major investor in premier luxury properties (they once owned the Snowmass Westin) and this is a significant investment in a wine-centric resort surrounded by close to 400 wineries in one of the world’s premier wine regions. In 2017, KSL partnered with Henry Crown and Company (who own a little place called Aspen — or rather, the Aspen Skiing Co.) to form what became the Alterra Mountain Company, which innovated the IKON ski pass.
And this past week another wine much loved and featured regularly on Aspen wine lists, Shafer Vineyards, sold to a South Korean hospitality concern called Shinsegae Property. Founded 50 years ago in 1972, a seminal year in the Napa Valley that saw the introduction of wineries like Stags Leap, Chateau Montelena, Caymus and Silver Oak, Shafer has been operated the past three years under the solo aegis of Doug Shafer. Doug’s father, John, came from Chicago to try his hand in the wine business and the “père et fils” partnership created a wine powerhouse with an old TD-9 tractor becoming the beloved image of the winery. John passed in 2019 but the house has continued to produce great wines (see “Under the Influence”) from the rugged 200-acre property in the Stag’s Leap region.
These sales, along with the recent purchase of Calistoga’s Frank Family Vineyards by the Australian-based Treasury Wine Estates, reflect a continuing trend where investors and beverage concerns are looking for established name brands and the best locations in the Napa Valley to invest in. There is a perfect storm, much like here in Aspen hospitality, where low interest rates, abundant capital and a generation of willing sellers converge in a moment of financial momentum. In real estate and hospitality, location is everything and the opportunity to buy, say 200 acres in Stag’s Leap, is simply too good an investment to pass up. They are not making any more of that land and the scarcity of supply should ensure that any investment in the Napa Valley, much like Aspen, will be a good one. It has been for the last half century.
Of course, there are those who lament the changes and are concerned about the influx of money to the Napa Valley. Will there be homogenization in high quality wine as new-generation owners wish to profit from a wine style and brand name at the expense of authenticity? Will new owners push the bar on tasting rooms and lodging, creating a bubble that is only accessible for the hyper-rich? As opposed to just the mega-rich? Will younger, risk-taking adventurers, like their predecessors who founded the great wine houses of the Valley, disappear or be forced to venture to other regions to create new paradigms in wine? All of the above is to be determined.
But one thing is clear: Napa owners who sell are not the villains. Much like longtime Aspen locals who spent their lives building classic and valuable properties, this is an opportunity to realize more financial success than they ever dreamed. We have all heard the stories about local restaurateurs who have been offered life-changing money to sell their leases or businesses. Can you blame them for taking advantage of this moment in time? No more so than can you blame John Shafer for accepting $200 million or Rich Frank $315 million, along with promises that, as the news releases say, “operations will continue as they have in the past.”
“Much like Aspen” is a refrain I have used a number of times in this column and that is because there are serious similarities to the Napa wine region and Aspen that are centered on the continued accumulation of demand and wealth. Housing issues, worker shortages, infrastructure, traffic — there are myriad challenges and issues that have been exacerbated by the influx of new investors and residents. How these play out and the ability of the communities to weather that perfect storm will determine whether wine regions and ski resorts can survive and thrive.
And in other news of the rich and famous and wine, it seems a love that took a turn for the worse continues to plague wine empresario/actor Brad Pitt.
One of the great wine success stories of recent years has been the emergence, under Pitt in partnership with winemaking legend Marc Perrin, of the Château Miraval brand of Rosé wines from a splendid and historic estate in the south of France near the village of Brignoles. The story began in 2008 when Brad and Angela Jolie were very much in love. They went to France that summer where Angelina gave birth to the couple’s twins, Knox and Vivienne. While there they spied from the skies (on a helicopter scouting trip) a spectacular vineyard and château and in time it became theirs for a reported $60 million. Brad, who has a history in real estate, recognized that the real value in the property was in the potential to create a wine brand and he connected with the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel fame to investigate the opportunity to produce quality Róse, a wine style that was just coming into fame and fashion. In less than a decade, the wine has helped to create and ridden a pink wave to become one of the most in demand wines on Earth.
In 2020, long after Jolie and Pitt’s love soured, Perrin and Pitt launched a premium priced Fleur de Miraval Rosé Champagne, and just in December, it was announced that a recording studio on the Château Miraval property would be reopening. Artists like Sting and Pink Floyd recorded hits there in the 1970s and ’80s. The property and the wine business have become Pitt’s passion.
But just as all was going well, Angelina Jolie decided last October to sell her half of the property to a company controlled by a Russian businessman, Tenute del Mondo, which has ties to the Stoli Group, marketer of Stolichnaya Vodka among other products. Jolie, who does not drink noted that she could not continue to be a part of business that she does not believe in and Pitt claims her sale violated his rights of first refusal and was done for vindictive reasons. He also claims the new owners have a plan to take over the project that means so much to him.
Pitt filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles this month challenging the sale and there is little doubt it will be a tabloid story — and a wine story — in the weeks and months to come.
Welcome to the wine world of the Roaring Twenties. 21st Century Style.
2019 Shafer “One Point Five” Napa Valley Stags Leap District
Big and bold. The One Point Five is a staple of the Shafer Vineyards. Named for the “generation and a half” of winery partners John and Doug Shafer, this is the first version of the wine made in a vintage following John’s passing on March 2, 2019, at the age of 94. John would have loved the wine produced by Elias Fernandez. A classic Bordeaux blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and a bit of Malbec and Petit Verdot the wine is a bounty of berries and cherries that mingle with scents of sage and leather. The wine will soon see its best time but for now, and I drank it just weeks after its Feb. 1 release, it is still a touch tight and youthful. What is clear though is that Shafer is on point. Actually, One Point Five.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.