Sonoma’s Harvard Winemaker Sells to Fifth-Generation Vintner

Laurel Glen Winery
Laurel Glen winery's famed cabernet sauvignon vineyard on top of Sonoma mountain. The first vines in the 16-acre vineyard were planted in 1968. Photographer: Patrick Campbell/Laurel Glen Winery via Bloomberg

Patrick Campbell found his calling tending grapes at a Zen Buddhism center on Sonoma Mountain.

Thirty-four years later, the Harvard-educated, viola-playing, kayak-racing winemaker is one of Sonoma’s old guard, known for the long-lived cabernets from his Laurel Glen winery, which he sold two months ago. Like many winery founders today, at 64, he wants to move on.

Campbell, in open-necked blue shirt and black jacket, is in town for a nostalgic wine retrospective, a tasting of 15 vintages of his iconic cabernet sauvignon, hosted by the winery’s new owner Bettina Sichel at New York’s Tocqueville restaurant.

Laurel Glen’s cab is surely California’s most under-the-radar great wine, thanks to Campbell’s lack of patience for marketing and his scorn for chasing critics’ scores.

The elegant reds in front of me span three decades, starting with 1981, the first commercial vintage from his rugged 16-acre Sonoma Mountain estate. Many vintages can still be had for $40 to $60.

Though all have finesse, balance, and smooth structure rather than muscle and power, they mirror prevailing trends in California winemaking. Vintages from the 1980s are leaner, more classical, with spiciness, complexity, and a floral note, while those from the mid-1990s on are darkly fruity, rich, chocolatey.

All have more acidity - necessary for longevity -- than the state’s many overripe high-alcohol examples.

Wine Favorites

My favorites are the savory 1988 and 1989, plush, dark 1992, cedary 1993 reserve, spicy 1996, herb-scented 1999 reserve, and very elegant 2005. Campbell has stuck with his vision of making 100 percent cabernet, but added a second wine, Counterpoint, in 1988. Only the best barrels go into the Laurel Glen.

After the tasting, Campbell and I settle in a corner to sip and talk. He attributes the wines’ character to the vineyard’s elevation - 800 to 1,000 feet above sea level, above the fog layer -- and its south-east-facing slopes that mean cool morning sunlight, not afternoon heat.

“I decided to sell four years ago,” he explains, “I was spending most of my time with projects in Lodi and Argentina. There’s not much new to do at Laurel Glen.”

He would not discuss the sale price, which is reputed to be in the $4 million to $5 million range.

Sibling Rivalry

Campbell’s story is a textbook example of the wave of family winery sales predicted in a 2008 report from Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division and Napa-based Scion Advisors.

The overwhelming majority of U.S. wineries are family owned and 82 percent of them have first generation owners like Campbell.

Many founders are ready to pass responsibility to the younger generation. Yet 46 percent either have no heirs or have children who don’t want to toil in vineyards in the California sun, carrying on someone else’s dream.

Campbell’s kids have gone in other directions. One is a human rights lawyer at the United Nations, another a college professor. A third works at the winery but doesn’t want to take it on.

At other wineries, sibling infighting points to selling as the solution. There is also the temptation to cash in and head for Bali. “The recession accelerated sales,” said Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan.

Few wineries are the size of billion-dollar Kendall-Jackson, whose founder Jess Jackson died April 21 at age 81. To ensure that his company stayed in the family, he set up a complicated web of intergenerational trusts.

Sichel’s Blue Nun

Global law firm Nixon Peabody pointed out in its fall 2008 newsletter that the coming property shift provided opportunities for private equity funds.

Such was the case for the seven wine-loving investors Sichel pulled together to buy Laurel Glen.

She is the fifth generation in the wine business. Her father, Peter M.F. Sichel, chaired the family’s German wine company and made Blue Nun a household name in America. His daughter chose California for her wine career. Peter Sichel put together a similar group of investors to purchase Bordeaux’s Chateau Fourcas Hosten, sold in 2006.

A number of high-profile family estates have been snapped up recently. Acquisition-thirsty William P. Foley II, chairman of Florida-based Fidelity National Financial, bought Sonoma’s 1,270-acre Chalk Hill Winery last August, a major addition to his fast-growing wine empire. Owner Fred Furth, 78, said his kids weren’t interested.

In December, Fiji Water acquired Paso Robles pioneer Justin Vineyards, founded in 1981. In April, Washington State’s Bob Betz sold his eponymous winery, noted for its luscious syrahs. His daughters have other careers.

And just last Thursday, Napa’s Chappellet Vineyard & Winery announced its acquisition of Sonoma-Loeb, founded by former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, John Loeb Jr. in 1973.

No Chardonnay

I’m focused on the future quality of the wines, wondering what direction new owners will take at these properties.

Campbell’s labels cost much less than famous, over-the-top Napa cabs. Will Sichel up the ripeness -- and price -- levels? She says no.

“I’d hate it if Bettina uprooted the vineyard and planted chardonnay -- that would be stupid,” Campbell says. “I think she’ll give it a marketing kick in the pants.”.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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