Last week I discussed one popular vision of terroir, in which a lonely artisan winemaker toils in the vineyard to produce singular, expressive wines that could be made nowhere else. Another facet of that romantic image sees quality coming from small estates, with corporate ownership the enemy of individuality.
Just don’t say that to Adam Lee.
Lee, with his wife, Dianna Novy Lee, created Siduri Wines, based in an unromantic industrial park in Santa Rosa, in California’s Sonoma County. From their start in 1994, with $24,000, the Lees built their portfolio to include 20 single-vineyard pinot noirs from vineyards as far south as Santa Barbara, Calif., and north to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They also produce syrah and zinfandel under the Novy Family Wines label. Their products have attracted a devoted following, and Adam Lee has been a prominent voice on wine, a self-described “cage rattler,” in traditional and social media.
When news broke in late January that the Lees had sold Siduri and Novy Family Wines for an undisclosed sum to Jackson Family Wines, the parent company of Kendall-Jackson, their fans were surprised. Along with congratulations, questions were raised: Did they sell, or did they sell out? Would the wines decline in quality under corporate management?
“I understand the concern,” Adam Lee wrote on Facebook shortly after the announcement. “When we first started meeting with the folks at Jackson, they said their main goal was to preserve the quality of the wines. I said it’s got to be to improve the quality of the wines. That’s what we are going to do.”
When I visited Lee at the winery in mid-February, he reflected on the irony of a small-business owner being questioned for selling his company for a profit. “In any other business I can think of, this would be a positive thing,” he said. “In the wine business, we think of it as a loss.”
Aside from financial security for the Lees and their three children, the sale gave Siduri employees a raise and better health benefits. The Lees no longer handle the payroll and other administrative matters that take up a lot of a small-business owner’s time and energy. For marketing, they can rely on Jackson Family’s national network, including six regional representatives who will do much of the traveling Adam Lee had done. And Lee will have access to pinot grapes from vineyards Jackson Family owns in the extreme Sonoma Coast and the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, as well as Jackson’s extensive new holdings in Oregon.
The day after the sale was announced, Lee left Santa Rosa at 3 a.m. to drive to Monterey County and inspect Jackson-owned vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Jackson Family Wines now boasts 40 wineries in its portfolio. The company is still owned by the family of the late Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson, led by his widow, Barbara Banke. With such a variety of wineries, there is no apparent effort to enforce uniformity of style in a “corporate” mold. Siduri is the first winery purchased by Jackson Family that did not have its own vineyards to bring into the sale.
Buying Siduri “aligns with our focus on high-end pinot noir,” Rick Tigner, Jackson Family’s president and chief executive, said in an e-mail. “They source from regions we are not in — like the Sta. Rita Hills [in Santa Barbara County] — and we are eager for Siduri to get fruit and craft wines from our amazing vineyards as well.”
Lee noted that recent vintages placed considerable strain on smaller wineries that buy fruit from growers. “We had small crops in 2010 and 2011, then big ones in ’12 and ’13,” he said. “So we had the challenge of paying for the ’12s and ’13s after making less money the previous two years.” Not buying the fruit would risk their contracts and long-standing relationships with growers.
Lee said he received offers from other companies but decided to sell to Jackson Family Wines because it, too, is a family-owned company. As part of the deal, he agreed to remain with Siduri for at least three years.
Time will tell whether Siduri’s quality will continue, improve or fall prey to the invisible handcuffs of corporate ownership and the need to make a profit. Given Lee’s outspoken nature, we’ll hear about it if the deal goes south.
For now, however, Lee says he’s looking forward to concentrating on crafting great pinot noir rather than on the mundane work of marketing it and running a business.
“People don’t come to California with the dream of running a winery,” he said. “They come here dreaming about making great wine.”