For the last two decades, Gavin Newsom has been rising to the highest levels of California politics.
At the same time, he also has become a multimillionaire businessman, with an upscale chain of wine stores, wineries, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and retail shops stretching from the Bay Area and Napa Valley to Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs. He built some of those businesses with the Gettys, heirs to an oil fortune who have deep connections to the Democratic lieutenant governor’s family.
While Newsom has focused his campaign for governor on his progressive politics, he also has touted his success as an entrepreneur and jobs creator, citing the 23 businesses and 800 employees under the umbrella of his PlumpJack Group.
“I’m proud to have built a number of successful small businesses before my time in public life — businesses that continue to employ hundreds of Californians,” he said in April.
Fairly or not, how he amassed his fortune has been sharply criticized by his opponents.
Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa hammered him during the primary campaign for making millions in the wine industry while serving as lieutenant governor. And Newsom’s opponent in November’s general election, Republican John Cox, has gone further, deriding him as the poster boy for privilege and the beneficiary of a famously moneyed oil family.
“It is safe to say that without the Gettys, there would be no Gavin,” claims the website “Fortunate $on,” produced by Cox’s campaign.
Newsom, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has defended himself against the attacks, downplaying the involvement of billionaire Gordon Getty, a longtime family friend who was the first investor in the businesses more than 25 years ago and still has a stake in some. In an interview with The Times last year, Newsom said Getty had been a “very small equity owner in most of the businesses” and indicated that others distorted the relationship for political purposes.
“So there’s a lot of mythology,” he said. “People have made it what they want, because it builds a narrative for them.”
Newsom’s fortune started with a single wine store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, which opened in 1992.
Oil scion Gordon Getty was among the first to back PlumpJack Wine and Spirits, and his son, Billy, was Newsom’s partner in the store and some subsequent businesses, including the nearby Balboa Cafe.
Taken from the title of an opera Gordon Getty wrote about Shakespeare’s fictional Sir John Falstaff, the PlumpJack name later went on other businesses including the Squaw Valley Inn in Lake Tahoe, a winery in Napa Valley and boutique hotels in Carmel-by-the Sea and Palm Springs
All are part of a privately held collection of limited-liability corporations and holding companies, many with multiple investors. Their actual values and ownership stakes are difficult to determine because that information is not publicly available. Newsom’s campaign provided a partial list of investors to The Times last year, but has not released a complete accounting of how much each has invested.
What is clear is that Newsom’s fortune has grown significantly since he entered public life in 1996, when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown appointed him to the Parking and Traffic Commission.
Newsom’s 1996 financial disclosures filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission showed that he had assets of more than $950,000 at that time, including investments and related holdings. His Airelle Wines Inc. and a related entity, Villa Encinal Partnership, each had a fair-market value of $10,000 to $100,000.
A disclosure for 2017 reflected more than $6 million in investments and assets, with an additional $10 million-plus held by those entities in wineries and other businesses. Airelle and Encinal had a fair market value of more than $1 million each.
The filing also listed a blind trust held by his wife, the actress filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, with investments worth more than $1 million.
The economic interest statements are an imprecise gauge of wealth. Public officials who file them are required only to report the fair-market value of their assets in ranges, such as “$10,000 to $100,000” or “over $1 million” — for example, a $10-million asset would have the same value on the statement as one worth just over $1 million.
Wineries have been the biggest source of Newsom’s income for at least the last seven years, according to his income tax returns for 2010 to 2016. The returns, which Newsom allowed reporters to examine but not photocopy, show that he and his wife have averaged more than $1.4 million in adjusted gross income for each of those years.
The couple’s income from PlumpJack partnerships and other business in which they have ownership stakes totaled some $6 million during that time, including an average of about $557,000 a year from Airelle Wines Inc., which runs the Napa wineries.
Airelle accounted for $787,751 of the nearly $1.3 million adjusted gross income reported on the couple’s 2016 return. It also reflected wages and salaries totaling $428,661, including his pay as lieutenant governor and hers from a nonprofit organization and an entertainment company she owns.
The Newsoms’ jointly filed returns show they also made hundreds of thousands of dollars trading silver bars during his time as lieutenant governor — in 2011 alone, they reaped a profit of $499,452 in selling them.
Newsom has made no secret of his longstanding business and personal ties to the descendants of the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, at one time the most wealthy man in the world.
His father, William A. Newsom III, is a retired state appeals court judge who was prep-school friends with Getty’s sons, Gordon and Paul. The elder Newsom later oversaw their fortunes as administrator of the Getty trusts and once said he considered the family “almost an extension of my own.”
After his parents split when he was 2, Newsom and his sister Hilary were raised mainly by their mother, Tessa, a bookkeeper and secretary who sometimes worked more than one job to make ends meet.
Bill Newsom moved to Placer County but stayed involved with his children, and his close relationship with Gordon Getty, a San Francisco philanthropist and classical music composer whose net worth has been been pegged by Forbes at $2.1 billion, extended to Gavin. As a youngster, he traveled with Getty, his wife Ann and their family to Africa, the Grand Canyon and other destinations that would have been out of reach for a single mom with two kids.
“I had so many amazing adventures and vacations and experiences, and people that I met that I would never have met,” Newsom told a Times reporter last year.
The Gettys’ generosity to Newsom stretched into his adult life, including a lavish wedding reception they hosted at their Pacific Heights mansion for him and his first wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Newsom’s 2001 financial disclosures note a gift of $116,708 for the party’s costs.
In light of such gestures, Newsom has been quick to note that, although close friends with the Gettys, he never forgot who his real family was.
“My last name is Newsom, not Getty,” he said last year.
Gordon Getty, 84, declined to comment for this article.
In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gordon Getty was the chief investor in 10 of Newsom’s 11 businesses at the time. The implication rankled Newsom’s father, who blasted the article in an interview with SF Weekly.
“I was enraged by the piece,” he said. “It’s a delusion that the Gettys rain money on Gavin.”
Gavin Newsom has said that Getty put $7,500 into the wine store, and that he was one of about a dozen investors who chipped in that amount.
A year after Brown appointed Newsom to the parking commission, he tapped him in 1997 to fill a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Newsom later was elected mayor and, after taking office in 2004, announced that he had divested of his businesses in San Francisco to avoid any conflicts. He sold his interests to Getty for $1.7 million, while keeping his stake in other PlumpJack businesses outside the city, including wineries and the Squaw Valley Inn.
But in 2011, after winning the lieutenant governor’s seat, Newsom reacquired his interests from Getty. Newsom’s campaign said he “paid a premium on those interests” based on an independent appraisal, but did not disclose the purchase price.
Getty also loaned Newsom an undisclosed sum to buy back his stakes, according to his 2011 disclosure. The amount checked on the filing was for “more than $100,000,” the largest denomination.
A recent Times review of campaign finance records identified the Gettys as one of eight prominent San Francisco families that were among Newsom’s most faithful contributors. Various family members have chipped in more than $362,000 to his current gubernatorial bid.
Some Gettys, including “nieces and nephews,” also own pieces of PlumpJack, Newsom said.
“The Getty family holds a very small percentage of any of the businesses,” he said. “When I say very, I mean very small, like in the single digits, with, again, the exception of the wineries, which Gordon and I are the principal owners, and he’s the principal investor.”
Newsom has not said whether he will divest his businesses if he wins the governor’s race, and his campaign says he is considering his options.
“As Governor, he will continue to publicly release his tax returns and economic interest statements every year, and he is currently seeking expert advice on additional best practices to ensure transparency and avoid even the appearance of conflicts,” the Newsom campaign said in a statement.
Newsom’s sister, Hilary Newsom Callan, has run the PlumpJack Group since 2009 as its president, while he serves mostly as a strategic advisor, offering his input on a variety of issues large and small, including business locations and menu selections.
Since becoming lieutenant governor, his campaign said, Newsom has attended “a few PlumpJack events a year,” including one to benefit research into cancer — Newsom’s mother died after battling the disease.
“I have no day-to-day responsibility and haven’t for years,” Newsom said in an earlier interview.
His opponent, Cox, also a multimillionaire, has attempted to contrast his business record with that of Newsom.
“And if you’re going to compare Mr. Newsom and I, compare the fact that I started at the bottom, worked my way and built my business with efficiency and quality,” said Cox, a wealthy real estate investor from Rancho Santa Fe. “He started by being funded by a billionaire, Gordon Getty.”
Newsom’s allies say he should win praise for building a successful business while also serving in elected office.
“To suggest somehow that he’s some sort of layabout who got millions of dollars doled out to him by some rich guy and didn’t do any work is a gross mischaracterization,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who worked on Newsom’s brief 2010 gubernatorial bid. “He built all of his companies from scratch.”
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.