More wine brands go under the hammer

© Penner-Ash Winery
| Lynn and Ron Penner-Ash can hope to rest after selling their business to Jackson Family Wines.

Two U.S. Pinot Noir wineries were eaten by midsize out-of-state fish this week in two very different deals: one on the land, the other on the mark. The two deals also seemed like the end of a very American wine story, as a generation’s wine pioneers cashed in without having a successor.

Jackson Family Wines continued its ongoing attempt to acquire as many Oregon pinot noir vineyards as possible, purchasing Penner-Ash Cellars. The sweetest part of the deal for the California-based company is the estate’s 15 acres of vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, as well as a winery.

The very next day, Washington’s largest winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has announced the purchase of premium California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialists Patz & Hall. This deal came without vineyards, although Patz & Hall has contracts with well-known Pinot cool spots like Dutton Ranch and Hyde Vineyard. Ste. Michelle, who is herself owned by the parent company that makes Marlboro cigarettes, gets a winery and a separate visitor center in Sonoma County.

These are the two cases where the big one grows: Ste. Michelle is the seventh largest wine company in the United States and Jackson Family is the ninth. Big wine producers have more rewards and more threats they can pose to big retail companies to get their products into stores. But these two players are still not of the class of behemoths. Even combined, Ste. Michelle and Jackson Family would not reach the top five.

It’s a bit of a weird deal for Ste. Michelle. His most recent purchase in California was for famous land at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. He owns several Washington brands that are not tied to any particular winery, such as 14 Hands and Northstar. But generally Ste. Michelle has opted for wineries — like Erath in Oregon — that own vineyards, and CEO Ted Baseler recently explained that he wishes Washington state had four times as many vineyards as it does today.

In its thirst for pinot, Jackson Family recently struck a vineyard-free deal, buying pinot noir specialist Siduri and keeping winemaker Adam Lee on board. Penner-Ash will now be just one of many small Pinot brands in the Jackson Family portfolio, including Byron and Cambria.

In both offers this week, the winemaker’s name is on the mark, and that winemaker has agreed to stay — but probably not for too long. The Oregonian newspaper reported that Lynn Penner-Ash and her husband finally want to retire, after spending 30 years in the industry, and they don’t have a successor. The Patz & Hall winemaker, James Hall, must also wonder about the future; he founded the winery with National Sales Manager Donald Patz in 1988.

This, again, makes the Chateau Ste Michelle case a little weirder. Jackson Family Wines can absorb the Penner-Ash vineyard into its existing 1,300 acres in Oregon without a hitch. But Patz & Hall without Patz & Hall… well, what is it, exactly?

Of course, many of America’s most famous wineries are named after people and families long estranged from the brand, whether it’s Fetzer, Arrowood, Robert Mondavi Winery or even Carlo Rossi. It is perhaps the enduring measure of respect that a name becomes a brand: it is a commercial heritage. Nobody looks at a bottle of Mondavi anymore and thinks a Mondavi made it. Or do they?

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