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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, October 17, 2011, 6:25 am

CalPERS in talks to exit vineyard partnership

Also: What winery sellers and buyers are looking for; Napa Smith’s tasking room

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    Jeff QuackenbushPart of the multibillion restructuring of hard-hit real estate investments over the past few years by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) are potential changes to a joint venture with Premier Pacific Vineyards of Napa to acquire up to $200 million in West Coast vineyards.

    “Premier Pacific Vineyard is our current manager, but we are in discussions to wind down the partnership,” said pension system spokesman David Wayne.

    Richard Wollack, founder and managing partner of Premier Pacific, declined to comment on CalPERS’ decision or other company activities. One media report said that the company’s employees were expecting the partnership split at year-end.

    Mr. Wayne said didn’t have a date for a decision on Pacific Vineyard Partners management or information on future plans for the investment.

    In 2002, CalPERS partnered with Premier Pacific to manage a fund — Pacific Vineyard Partners LLC — that has purchased 1,500 acres of vineyards mostly in California but also in Oregon and Washington. Premier Pacific also has been looking to develop part of the 20,000-acre Preservation Ranch north of the Mendocino-Sonoma county line acquired in 2003.

    In its most recent report on returns from real estate ventures, Pacific Vineyard Partners had a fair market net asset value of $68.1 million as of March 31. Returns on the fund, after management and other fees were considered, were off 8.2 percent since it started in July 2002 and nearly 30 percent from March 2010.

    The fund’s net asset market value was $64.4 million at the end of the fiscal year in June of this  year, down from nearly $87 million a year before. Management fees for the fund were $1.36 million, up from $1.27 million.

    ***

    As part of a mergers-and-acquisitions panel at the recent Wine Industry Financial Symposium in Napa, Jeff Menashe of Demeter Group observed four trends among active buyers of wine businesses and successful sellers:

    1. Sellers are returns-driven. North Coast acquisition opportunities for wine businesses include a number of middle-sized operations — that “awkward size” of too big to sell it all directly to consumers or accounts and too small to attract significant representation from distributors — many of which are focused on making chardonnay and sauvignon blanc wines, according to Mr. Menashe.

    “There needs to be a transition to a new owner, which will prune back the line of wines to its core,” he said after the discussion session.

    To have the best price in a business sale, mid-sized vintners well in advance should triage noncore from core varietial wines, sell off excess inventory and lock in sourcing for the core wines via bulk-wine purchases or contracts with growers for grafting or planting.

    2. Buyers are driven even more by returns.

    3. Rather than opening up a sales opportunity to a number of suitors, narrow potential buyers to a small group, perhaps two to four good matches.

    4. Have a more open mind about the pool of potential buyers, which may not have been actively considering wine M&A. The next round of consumer packaged goods players in the wine business will be looking for opportunities tied to brands retailing for more than $15 a bottle, rather than the $8 to $12 range of the last wave more than two decades ago.

    “It’s different from the past, when the big guys populated the lower end and bought iconic properties to have something to talk about to the wine press,” Mr. Menashe said after the panel discussion.

    On the wine M&A panel at the symposium were Pete Seghesio, whose family sold Seghesio Family Winery to Crimson Wine Group; Crimson Chief Executive Officer Erle Martin; Justin Baldwin, founder of Justin Vineyards & Winery on the Central Coast; and Stewart Resnick, whose company owns Fiji Water as well as agricultural companies and recently got into the wine business with the acquisition of Justin and Landmark Vineyards in Kenwood.

    ***

    Part of the $1 million-plus invested in production and distribution of the Napa Smith beer brand since it was acquired is a tasting room opened this month at the specially designed south Napa brewery-winery, located at 1 Executive Way.

    On tap are eight Napa Smith brews as well as wines from Bourassa Vineyards, newly relocated to the facility from elsewhere in the same business park.

    Napa Smith’s U.S. sales rep, Indiana-based Pelican Brands, acquired Napa Smith in December. The Paddington Corp. merged with Pelican in June to form Paddington Brands, maker and importer of spirits, beer and wine.

    ***

    St. Helena-based ETS Laboratories is now offering free same-day results on common analyses such as juice panels for San Joaquin County vintners. ETS partnered with custom vintner Estate Crush in Lodi to provide a drop box for samples. Samples dropped off on weekday mornings are taken to St. Helena by courier, and supposed to be available that day, or on Monday for Saturday dropoffs.

    ETS said it plans to set up a laboratory at the winery. The company has labs in Healdsburg, northern and southern Oregon and Walla Walla, Wash.

    ETS has been offering same-day routine testing for samples from wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties during this harvest. Courier pickup is available at no extra cost.

    ***

    The 11,500-square-foot home of the late Robert Mondavi on 56 acres atop Oak Knoll overlooking Napa Valley is set for sealed-bid auction Nov. 16, according to auctioneer James Cote Jr. of luxury property auction house Sheldon Goode & Co. Originally marketed for $25 million, the reserve price is $13.9 million.

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