About a month ago, after twenty years in business, and arguably at the peak of their business, Adam and Diana Lee sold Siduri Wines, and their sister project Novy Family Winery to Jackson Family Wines for an undisclosed sum.
Siduri began in 1994 when Lee and his wife, betting on the security of Adam landing a job at Lambert Bridge winery, used some of their savings to buy some fruit from people who responded to their ad in Wine Country Classifieds looking to buy some Pinot Noir. Within four years, they had moved into an industrial park on the outskirts of Santa Rosa and were receiving praise for their Pinot Noirs made from sites in both California and Oregon.
In many ways, their “estate-less” winery in an old garage served as a model for the wave of hundreds of such operations that sprang to life in California over the next fifteen years. But the Lees never thought of themselves as pioneers of anything. They just wanted to make some wine.
“We never studied a business plan, and never had one,” chuckled Lee during our last encounter.
When I sat down with Adam in San Francisco at the end of this past summer, I don’t know if discussions had begun with the Jackson Family yet, but here’s what he said when I asked him where he thought he was at, and where he might be going.
“In recent years we’ve had more fruit than we knew what to do with. We’ve gotten in a situation where now it’s the tail wagging the dog. We end up with a lot of wine each year, and we’re having to spend a lot more time selling. It’s exhausting, but of course we’re far from the only winery in that boat.
We still love the differences in place to place. If the market demand were endless, we’d love to try all sorts of things, like experimenting with certain clones in certain places. I’d love to try other things. I still have this complete fascination with Pinot, but we’ve bumped up against the number of SKUs and cases we can really manage. We’re bumping up against the edge.
If anything we’ve gotten a little too big, but that is a product of a couple of seriously great vintages. We’ve had some serious offers over the past few years, we’ve not been looking but we thought from the beginning that we’d talk to anyone about anything. The first offer we ever got was a drunk friend at a bar. But I’ll be fifty in September. It’s definitely something we talk about. I think what we would do is figure out the things we’re doing best and draw down to those. If we’re going to keep it going for 20 years, I don’t think I can be doing as many areas that are as spread out as I do now.
I definitely don’t see us expanding to anything new. I like some of the old vine Zin we’re getting, making small amounts of that is pretty neat, but we’re not nearly as good at that as we are at Pinot.
We’re getting older, and we’re getting to the point that we want to make the best wines from the sites that have the most potential. It probably makes more sense to go more in depth in those. There’s something interesting about that. it’s not as fascinating as a new project, but after a while that as as interesting as the next new vineyard site.
When I was in college, I had lunch with John Updike once. We talked about a lot of different things. He told me he wrote for several hours a day, 365 days a year, and most of it was shit. You look what he did with Rabbit. He wrote a lot of other stuff, but what did he become known for? One character — some chauvinistic white guy, who was slightly overweight — but it’s what he did best. You find what you do best and concentrate on that.”
With the benefit of hindsight, these comments seem a perfect setup for the sale of a successful business that had seemingly reached the capacity of growth and mindshare that its founders could provide.
So what does the sale of Siduri to Jackson Family mean? I have observed some hand-wringing from those who fear a loss of quality and personality from such events, but of all the companies that could have bought this successful winery, Jackson Family Wines seems the most likely to preserve the magic of what Adam and Diana have managed to build. The late Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, who now runs the company, have a history of acquiring brands and helping them shine, as opposed to subsuming them into mediocrity, something which can be all too common in the world of mergers and acquisitions in any industry.
I’ve watched Jackson Family Wines buy quite a few wineries over the past decade or so and in some cases I’ve even seen wines get noticeably better under the new ownership.
For his part, Lee seems quite excited about the future under Jackson Family, and one could easily understand the excitement of any winemaker proprietor who just learned he no longer has to expend any effort to sell or market his wines, and can now just concentrate on making them.
“We came to believe that the best way of pursuing our dream of making that perfect vineyard-designated wine,” wrote Lee in a letter to his customers on January 29th, 2015, “was to sell both Siduri and Novy to Jackson Family in a deal that keeps me on as winemaker. That way, their resources can be brought to bear on the sales, marketing, business and logistics of producing Siduri and Novy, freeing me up to focus on the winemaking. In simple terms, we’ve always been more winemakers than winery owners, and this allows us to concentrate on doing just that…. Looking ahead to the 2015 wines, we believe this new arrangement will mean more of my time spent in the vineyard during the growing season, more ability to concentrate of the nuances of each section of each vineyard, and the ability to take all that we’ve learned about grape growing and winemaking over 21 years, and bring that knowledge to bear on a great set of grapes. That opportunity is truly exciting to us and we hope that it will be to you as well. So please stay with us as we move ahead on this journey. The goals we hold remain the same, but we believe that our ability to reach them has exponentially increased.”
Like many fans of Siduri’s efforts over the years, I certainly hope that to be the case, especially because I think that Adam is currently making the best wines of his career.
Here are some notes from a few bottles he brought along for tasting when we met late last year.
2013 Novy Family “Four Mile White” White Blend, California
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and apple and a hint of citrus. In the mouth bright apple and grapefruit flavors are mouthwatering and delicious. Not amazing complex, but very juicy and delicious, especially for the money. A blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $14. click to buy.
2013 Siduri Wines Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and cherry with a slightly volatile quality in the nose that hints a bit of nail polish remover. In the mouth this wine has a very ethereal quality, that lifts off the palate and almost seems to vaporize in the mouth. 2013 was a tough year in the Willamette Valley, to the point that Siduri decided not to make any single vineyard wines, and instead made a this Willamette Valley wine, that contains 95% of the fruit the winery contracted in the region. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2013 Siduri Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright raspberry and cranberry fruit has a nice purity and length. Simple, straightforward and quite delicious. A blend of Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Coast, and Russian River fruit. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor and cranberry. In the mouth, cranberry and raspberry fruit has a nice velvety silkiness and perky acidity. Faint but plush tannins and a nice hint of herbs on the finish. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and bright cherry fruit with a hint of green wood that wafts up unexpectedly. In the mouth, juicy raspberry and boysenberry fruit has a wonderful, zippy acidity underneath it. Juicy and long. Very soft, barely perceptible tannins. A blend of all five vineyards owned by Gary Pisoni and Gary Franscioni. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $28. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth the wine all but bursts with bright raspberry fruit. Gorgeous, mouthwatering acidity and great length. Faint tannins buff the edges of the mouth. Touches of herbal notes linger in the finish. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines “Arbor Vert Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of gorgeous floral berry fruit and wet chalkboard. In the mouth bright raspberry and floral cherry flavors mix with the faintest whiff of new oak that all conspire to create a sweet, delectable complexion for the wine. Faint, barely perceptible tannins add some texture to the wine, but this is mostly an expression of fruit. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2012 Siduri Wines “Sonaterra Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass this wine smells of rich cherry and raspberry fruit with a hint of cedar underneath. In the mouth juicy cherry and raspberry fruit walks a well poised and graceful line across the palate. Excellent acidity and length is a sharp counterpoint to a silky texture and very faint tannic structure. Smooth and with a nice sweetness. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines “Lingenfelder Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich, ripe cherry fruit. In the mouth lush cherry and raspberry fruit is held firmly in the grasp of fine grained tannins. Nice acidity and length. Very pretty and balanced. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines “Sierra Mar” Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry and a hint of green herbal overtone. in the mouth, luscious juicy cherry fruit has a mouthwatering brightness thanks to fantastic acidity. Perfectly poised and balanced with great length. 14.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $48. click to buy.
2012 Siduri Wines “John Sebastiano Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry and floral notes caked with green herbs. In the mouth plush cherry and raspberry fruit has a nice stony quality to it, a fresh brightness that lingers with fine grained, tannins in the finish. Delicious. Good length and balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2012 Novy Family “Four Mile Creek” Red Blend, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright blackberry and black cherry fruit that leans a little towards the cooked side of things, and is tinged with a hint of alcoholic sharpness. In the mouth lush blackberry and black cherry fruit is padded with velvety tannins. The fruit leans a little more towards the dried end of the spectrum, but thankfully the wine is not polished with new oak. A blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Grenache. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $14. click to buy.
2012 Novy Family Wines “Old Vine Papera Ranch” Zinfandel, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and cherry fruit backed with some cinnamon and cloves. in the mouth the wine has an aggressive acidity that lifts the blackberry and cherry flavors to the front of the mouth, and makes for an airy finish. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Novy Family Wines Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of smoked meats, wet dirt, and white pepper layered over cassis and blackberry, In the mouth, rich blackberry and cassis fruit is draped in peanut-butter-thick tannins that linger for a long time in the finish. Excellent acidity keeps the wine leaning towards the fresh side of the spectrum, but there’s no doubt that this is a massive hunk of fruit in the mouth. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.