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Wine Notes

A Marketing Partner for Geyser Peak Surfaces From Down Under

June 29, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma County, which has been looking for a marketing partner for about three years, finally found one--in Australia.

Penfolds Wines Pty. Ltd. of Sydney, the largest winery in Australia and a company that markets nine million cases of wine per year, announced June 15 that it had acquired 50% of Geyser Peak. Details of the transaction were not announced, but sources within the industry said the deal was worth about $15 million.

Henry Trione, chairman of Geyser Peak, acquired Geyser Peak from Stroh Brewing in 1982 for an estimated $20 million. Geyser Peak reached annual sales of more than one million cases with its Summit bag-in-the-box line of jug wine in 1985 before selling that brand and sticking to premium wines.

Last year, Geyser Peak's sales of premium wines rose marginally to 620,000 cases, but the winery's prices and wine quality have remained moderate.

Penfolds indicated it had further interest in the United States wine market.

The Trione family's vineyard operations, which includes about 1,000 acres of Sonoma County land, was not part of the deal.

Wine maker, author and merchant Alexis Lichine, one of the wine world's most dominant figures and a man who openly challenged the existing order of Bordeaux even though he owned a chateau there, died in late May at the age of 76.

Lichine, proprietor of Chateau Prieure-Lichine who also maintained a residence in New York, entered the wine business as a grape and wine buyer in the 1930s. His first venture on his own, as Alexis Lichine and Co., was founded in 1955. In addition, Lichine owned three vineyards in Burgundy as well as Chateau Lascombes.

His writing on wine began in 1951 with his book "The Wines of France." In 1967 he published the first edition of "Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits," a monumental work that has been revised and updated numerous times and remains one of the great works of wine literature.

It was in that work that Lichine first challenged the legendary 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, relisting the various properties of the Medoc into what he perceived to be a 20th Century rendering based on current quality.

The $850,000 in wine sales generated by feverish bidding for many lots at the ninth Napa Valley Wine Auction in early June made wine lovers and winery owners fear that the extravagance of a few will sour the auction for others.

In particular, auction organizers and wine makers fear that true wine lovers, who don't mind paying $200 to $300 for a bottle of fine and rare wine, will look at the $1,000 to $4,000 bids generated for a few items, conclude that they'll be left out of the bidding, and will simply forgo the pleasure in the future.

Immediately after the auction, after high bids of $55,000 for one three-bottle lot, $42,000 for another 12-bottle lot, and $38,000 for a series of painted bottles, wine makers expressed concern that such bidding would leave the wrong impression about their event.

Auctions such as this, and particularly this one, offer few bargains. But in years past there have been a number of unique wine offerings that permit the dedicated collector to spend a few hundred dollars a bottle for a wine that few if any have, and a wine that will offer great pleasure when consumed.

This year, the thrust was on hand-painted bottles, unique carved wooden boxes, and specialty items (such as huge 18-liter bottles that contain the equivalent of two whole cases under one cork) that some fear will never be consumed, only displayed.

And this, they fear, created the climate that generated nearly twice as much revenue as the previous record total.

This benefits the medical charities that receive contributions from the auction, but it left some wine makers with the feeling that such prices would make some bidders jaded. Savvy merchants and collectors who were outbid by the high-rollers expressed concern over whether they're wasting their time here.

Moreover, some fear that some of this wine has become untouchable in terms the average wine lover can understand. The biggest lots of wine this year went to folks who vowed to put them on display in wine shops or museums of viniana; they said they didn't intend to consume them.

The biggest fear of locals is that this auction will be seen as all glitz and no substance, an affair for the wealthy egotist.

The Napa Valley auction, which sells out every year, is a grand event for generating publicity about the already-best-known wine-growing region in the United States. The side functions (luncheons and dinners, picnics, tastings, concerts and vineyard tours) are marvelous for dissecting the industry and seeing how its denizens live.

However, some people from the Napa Valley fear that a few ultra-rich may leave the wrong impression about this auction and the result could be little more than a gathering of the elite.

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