The Santa Barbara wine world is buzzing about the recent sale of Firestone Vineyards to William Foley of Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery. The deal, part of a plan by Foley to build a wine producing and distribution empire, has fueled speculation about what the founder and chairman of Fidelity National Financial Corp., a multibillion-dollar title insurance and claims-management services company based in Jacksonville, Fla., will buy next.
"Bill's idea is to put together a consortium of six or seven wineries and develop his own wine distribution and sales company," says Foley Estates general manager Alan Phillips. Before the Firestone deal was announced, Foley purchased the 220-acre Las Hermanas Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills as an estate vineyard for his Lincourt Winery. With the acquisition of Firestone, Foley owns 760 planted acres in Santa Barbara.
Firestone's 330 acres of vineyards, winery facility and 250,000 cases of unsold wine aren't prize properties. The attraction, says Phillips, was Firestone's national sales force. And it was a plus that Firestone's $8 wines don't compete with Foley's $35 to $50 Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. "Firestone needs polishing," he says. "We want the wines to stay the same price but to be the best in their category."
What's next on Foley's shopping list? Most likely, Phillips says, he'll buy wineries in Sonoma, Napa Valley, Washington or Oregon. "It's not about owning more here in Santa Barbara," he says.
Foley came to Santa Barbara 10 years ago and bought J. Carey Cellars, a small winery in Ballard, renaming it Lincourt. Within a year, he bought a 460-acre horse ranch in Santa Rita Hills that he renamed Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery. New York-based wine distributor Kobrand is a minority owner in both Foley and Lincourt. Firestone, however, will be wholly owned by Foley.
When it opened in 1972, Firestone Vineyard was among the first Santa Ynez Valley wineries. Started by Leonard Firestone, heir to the Firestone tire fortune, it continued as a family-run winery until the sale. The Firestone family retains 100 acres of vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, as well as Curtis Winery, a Santa Barbara brand focused on Rhône varieties.
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