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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, March 30, 2009, 3:00 am

Viansa renovation approved, some work set to start in April

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    SONOMA — A planned multimillion-dollar makeover of Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace in south Sonoma Valley received a key approval from the county of Sonoma, and work is set to begin in April.

    At the same time, management of the operation has been getting an overhaul, and refocused merchandising and tourism initiatives are planned for launch later this spring.

    The Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments on March 12 voted 4-0, with commissioner Paula Cook absent, to approve a new use permit and design review for the Viansa project. Final design review is set for mid-April.

    The approved use permit included:

    • An 18,000-square-foot, 40,000-case-a-year winery with a caretaker apartment
    • A separate 2,300-square-foot, 5,000-case-per-year “boutique” winery integrated with a 5,100-square-foot auxiliary tasting and hospitality room
    • A package sewage-treatment plant
    • 150 annual special events a year with a maximum of 220 people, as previously allowed
    • On-site cooking and sales of foods and retail items to promote local agricultural products

    Work to improve the property is set to start in late April, according to Lloyd Davis, partner in Laurus Funds, a New York-based hedge fund group that acquired Viansa in late 2007.

    Trailer offices, kitchen facilities and a house at the north side of the 168-acre property will be demolished, and the administrative staff will be relocated to offices created in the Eighth Street East winery or in leased offices in Sonoma. Parking for disabled visitors will be relocated to the top of the landmark knoll, next to the buildings.

    Then this summer, work is set to begin on the sewage plant, which will have the capacity for the current number of visitors and provide highly treated recycled water for irrigation.

    The replacement of the current large, white hospitality tent with a permanent hospitality center styled after the marketplace building could begin. However, instead of being just a place for wine club members, the building will serve as an auxiliary tasting room to relieve crowding in the main building. Next to that events center will be the boutique winery.

    Those two buildings plus the planned main winery, planned to start as early as the tourism off-season in November for opening by harvest 2010, may have to wait until more funding can be secured, according to Mr. Davis. The new main winery is planned for the “near future,” also dependent on resources.

    Funding has become challenging since the estimated $5.5 million project was first proposed in mid-2008, but the approval from the zoning board will make the task easier, according to Mr. Davis.

    “It’s a chicken and the egg situation, because it’s hard to raise funding when you do not know if it will be approved and what will be approved,” said Mr. Davis, who serves as Viansa chairman and president. “Now that it is approved, I can get funding.”

    After a huge hit in the fourth quarter of last year, U.S. hedge funds had some stability in early 2009, according to research firms that track the industry. Capital outflow from the funds reached a record $154 billion last year as investors withdrew money, with all but $4 billion coming in the last quarter, according to Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research.

    In the first two months of this year, however, hedge fund composite indexes were about flat, compared with double-digit declines in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500. Fund watchers such as Hennessey Group have attributed this improvement to investments in bonds, short-selling stocks and risk arbitrage. Some stock exchanges and financial-markets regulators have called for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission to bring back and strengthen the “uptick rule” on short-selling in response.

    However, Laurus started in 2001 as a funder of micro- and small-cap companies and has worked to bolster rather than short its investments in more than 100 companies worldwide.

    Laurus invested $55 million in Viansa starting in 2005, when 360 Global Wine Co. acquired Viansa for $31 million from Sam and Vicki Sebastiani, who started the winery in 1989. Laurus won ownership of the operation in a bankruptcy court equity bid.

    For the past year Mr. Davis has been spending two to three weeks at a time at Viansa, followed by four days in New York, to turn the operation around. In coming weeks he hopes to hire a top executive to manage day-to-day operations, so he can spend two weeks at a time on each coast.

    In late 2008, Mr. Davis said he had to make the tough call of letting go about 30 percent of the work force to align off-season staffing with revenue. He said that wasn’t the practice when he arrived and was needed with 10 percent fewer visitors than a year ago and some reduction in club memberships.

    However, staffing will increase as summer approaches, Mr. Davis noted.

    As part of the Viansa makeover to restore the Italian food-and-wine marketplace vision of the Sebastianis and increase the tourism draw of the property, Mr. Davis is planning to start food festivals this summer that mirror ones held at the same time in various regions of Italy. Also going in this spring will be a vegetable garden to supply the festivals as well as augment local foods going into reworked, unique products and merchandise on sale in the villa.

    The planned on-site wineries will complement those endeavors by providing a harvest-time draw for visitors to see grapes crushed and wine made on the property. In line with that will be a new Signature Series line of wines from the best of the estate vineyards. And coming to the line of 30 different wines Viansa makes will be a new six-label Wetlands Series, with profits going to fund maintenance of and visitor information for the 110 acres of wetlands Mr. Sebastiani created on the property for migratory birds.

    “I’m very optimisitic about Viansa,” Mr. Davis said.

    The Santa Rosa-based project designers are architect Michael Palmer and MacNair Landscape Architecture. Managing the project is The Fifth Resource of Cotati. The civil engineering firm was Santa Rosa-based Adobe Associates.

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