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Brown-Forman set to buy Sonoma-Cutrer Winery and vineyards

by Lew Littleman
Posted February 12, 1999
 • Sonoma-Cutrer Winery is on the auction block

Brice Jones, founder, president and chief executive officer of Sonoma-Cutrer, announced on February 11 that he had signed "an agreement in principle" selling a majority of the stock in the winery and vineyards to Kentucky-based Brown-Foreman Corporation. But he says he will stay on "until I'm 90" along with the winery's 40 employees, and that croquet and the Sonoma-Cutrer World Croquet Championship will continue.

Brown-Forman owns Fetzer Vineyards in nearby Mendocino County, California, along with other well-known brands such as Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, Lenox china, and Hartmann luggage. The company is publicly traded, with 62 percent of the stock held by the founding Brown family. Family member Owsley Brown II, 54, is chairman and chief executive officer of the company founded in 1870 as Brown-Forman Distillery to produce Old Forester brand whiskey.

Map of California indicating the location of the Sonoma-Cutrer winery. Sonoma-Cutrer hosts the World Croquet Championship, one of the world’s major croquet tournaments, on the winery’s two championship courts. Each year many of the world’s top players compete at Sonoma-Cutrer. This year’s WCC will be the fourteenth consecutive competition held at the winery. Winners over the years have included Stephen Mulliner, Robert Fulford, Aaron Westerby and David Maugham.

A benefit wine auction held on finals day benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The tournament is one of the northern California wine country’s biggest social events. Last year the auction raised more than $750,000.

Bourbon, croquet, and chardonnay to make a smooth blend

Jones said that Brown-Forman is committed to keeping the tournament part of the wine country scene. "The World Croquet Championship and the auction for Make-A-Wish will continue and will become bigger and better," Jones said..

Jones, 58, and Brown-Foreman officials did not disclose the sale price. According to reports in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Brown-Foreman is paying $125 million.

Jones will continue as president and chief executive officer. He was quoted in the Press Democrat as saying that he would "retain a significant equity position" in Sonoma Cutrer. He stated that he would continue to run it for many more years in partnership with the new majority owner.

"I will be here until I’m 90," he said.

Original investors take the gold and run

Apparently, Brown-Foreman is buying out the interests of the winery’s stockholders, many of whom were original investors when the company was founded in the 70's as a vineyard. "Some of the shareholders had been investors for more than 25 years. They were interested in selling their equity position in Sonoma-Cutrer," Jones said.

Sonoma-Cutrer has annual revenues of more than $17 million, producing more than 100,000 cases of chardonnay from its estate vineyards. It is one of America’s leading producers of ultra-premium chardonnay wine. The wine lists at many upscale restaurants throughout the country feature Sonoma-Cutrer.

Jones said he entertained better offers but selected Brown-Forman because it was in the best interests of the Sonoma-Cutrer brand and the winery’s 40 employees. He said there will be no changes in staff.

"It’s a great alliance. Brown-Forman and Sonoma-Cutrer share a common vision for the future," Jones said. Elaborating, Jones said Brown-Forman has the resources and commitment to maintain and improve Sonoma-Cutrer wines and distribute them in the world’s best market venues. He believes that Brown- Forman and succeeding generations of the Brown family will own Sonoma-Cutrer "in perpetuity."

[This story is based on a report in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on February 11, 1999.]

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