A Stealth Juggernaut

By Robert Whitley

August 20, 2019 5 min read

Unless you're a wine industry insider, chances are you've never heard of the Vintage Wine Estates.

Whether by clever design or simply an accident, Sonoma-based Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) is a high-fly act that manages to cruise under the radar, a stealth juggernaut that now controls 30-plus wineries and/or wine brands plus two separate spirits companies.

You may not know VWE (or its visionary CEO, Patrick Roney), but you certainly know many of its better lights, such as the Napa Valley wineries Clos Pegase, Swanson and Girard, just to name a few.

To that growing list of powerhouse producers you can add the iconic Central Coast winery Qupe, one of the original so-called "Rhone Rangers," and the sprawling (more than 500 acres) Laetitia estate in Arroyo Grande. The latter two are VWE's most recent acquisitions that establish a strong presence in California's Central Coast region, along with the Clayhouse wines of Paso Robles.

For those of us old enough to remember when the Vintage Wine Estates portfolio was simply the Girard brand (the vineyards and winery buildings had been sold to the late Leslie Rudd, one of the original VWE investors), its rise over the past 20 years has been nothing short of meteoric.

The venture into California's Central Coast further strengthens the company's emphasis on growth focused on quality. Qupe, under founding winemaker Bob Lindquist, quickly established itself in the 1980s as a leader in the Rhone Ranger movement, so named by The Wine Spectator to identify winemakers committed to producing world-class wines from the Rhone (France) grape varieties, particularly syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier, marsanne and roussanne.

Lindquist, who moved on to produce a new label following the sale, was a giant in the movement, along with Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm. Blake Kuhn, formerly the winemaker at Clayhouse, has taken over the winemaking reins at Qupe.

"I was gifted this brand," Kuhn told me during a recent visit. He had moved down from Paso Robles to be assistant winemaker to Lindquist, a longtime friend and colleague, when Lindquist opted to leave. "Bob and Jim (Clendenen, owner/winemaker at nearby Au Bon Climat) were kind of the guys who got me into this business."

A month ago, when Roney first told me he had a deal for Qupe in the works, I asked what he would do first. "The winery needs new barrels," he said.

Indeed, when I met with Kuhn, I asked him about new barrels.

"Got 'em," he said. "Four hundred new barrels right downstairs!"

By downstairs, he meant downstairs at the Laetitia winery, for one of the first decisions, and perhaps the most controversial, was to move the Qupe operation into the underutilized Laetitia space. The Laetitia property is vast and extends back into the hills from Highway 101, literally on the Pacific Ocean, to the mountains in the east. And there was ample space within the winery, too.

Laetitia specialized in sparkling wines but cut production dramatically in recent years because of the huge expense, turning its attention to the more profitable still table wines pinot noir and chardonnay.

"About 10 years ago we capped sparkling production at about 7,500 cases and went more to direct sales," noted longtime winemaker Eric Hickey. "We hadn't been utilizing all of our space."

Hickey's tenure at Laetitia predates the previous ownership, back to a time when the Champagne house Deutz owned the property and the head winemaker was the legendary Christian Roguenant.

"I literally learned how to make wine from Christian," said Hickey, who embraces the recent changes.

"The family that owned Laetitia before Vintage Wine Estates didn't have a succession plan," he said. "Patrick put some badly needed capital and renewed energy into Laetitia."

The current plan for the property calls for a separate tasting room to be built to accommodate the Qupe portfolio of wines, with production a shared venture in the main winery building. The advantage to Qupe, currently a 30,000-case brand, is increased visibility on a major highway that is often jammed, particularly in the summer months, with wine enthusiasts seeking the next great tasting experience.

A visitor to the now-combined wineries will likely never see the words Vintage Wine Estates. But rest assured, the stealth juggernaut will be present, ensuring that both wineries reach their potential. How do I know? I give you Clos Pegase, Girard, Swanson, B.R. Cohn and Cosentino wineries. The wines have never been better.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. Email Robert at [email protected]

Photo credit: MaxWaidhas at Pixabay

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