Foley acquiring Chalk Hill Winery
Published: Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 3:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 9:24 p.m.
Chalk Hill Winery, the high-end wine estate of famed class-action attorney Fred Furth, is being sold to insurance magnate William Foley, Furth confirmed Thursday.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources estimate the sale price could approach $100 million, making it one of the largest deals for a single California winery in recent years.
Foley, who purchased Sebastiani Vineyards in 2008, and Furth have signed a letter of intent to purchase the winery in the hills east of Windsor. The deal is expected to close next month.
“Life has its phases and you've got to move on through the phases,” said Furth, 78. “I love Sonoma County and I hope to make a contribution here in other ways.”
The sale involves the entire 1,270-acre estate and all its buildings, including the 40,000-case winery, a pavilion, equestrian center, and several homes, including the main residence, a palatial home dubbed “Furthheim.” The property contains 278 acres of vineyards amid stunning oak-studded hillsides.
Chalk Hill Winery is known for its award-winning chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, but also produces several red varietals. The bulk of the wines sell for between $20 and $50, but reserve wines reach into the hundreds of dollars.
Foley did not return calls for comment. He told the Wine Spectator that he plans to live in the main home, which he was purchasing separately along with 500 acres for $20 million. His Sonoma-based wine company, Foley Family Wines, would purchase the winery and vineyards, he said.
The acquisition would be the crown jewel in Foley's fast growing wine portfolio and establish Sonoma County as the heart of his wine empire.
Foley is chairman of the Florida-based Fidelity National Financial, one of the largest title insurance firms in the nation. He founded Foley Family Wines in 1996 when he bought his first vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
He later added Firestone Vineyard in Santa Barbara, Three Rivers in Walla Walla, and Kuleto Estates in Napa, among others. Following the purchase of the historic Sebastiani winery in 2008 for an estimated $47 million, Foley moved management of the wine group to Sonoma.
Last fall he added a 280,000-case New Zealand wine group, New Zealand Wine Trust, to his growing portfolio. All told, Foley Family Wines now produces about 800,000 cases of wine annually.
Chalk Hill, however, is in a class of its own, combining a world-class winery with opulent residences and world-class equestrian center.
“Chalk Hill is certainly one of the preeminent wine estates in Sonoma County, in fact, in California,” said industry analyst Jon Fredrikson. “It has a great reputation for making outstanding high-end wines that are marketed at high prices, and therein lies the rub.”
The winery has probably struggled to sell its wines in the past few years as the recession has caused consumers to spend less on luxuries like high-end wine, Fredrikson said.
A recent divorce from his second wife, Peggy, probably didn't help the situation, either, Fredrikson said.
Furth acknowledged the market challenges facing all high-end producers, but he said that isn't the reason he's selling. He noted that his children are pursuing other interests, and he felt he'd taken the winery as far as he could take it. He called the Foley family “a good wine family who'll protect the place.”
“It seemed like a natural fit,” he said.
Furth said he has been granted a “life estate” that allows him to live in a smaller home on the property for the rest of his life.
According to industry sources, the winery and property had previously been privately marketed for well over $100 million.
Furth is a renowned antitrust class-action attorney who founded Chalk Hill in 1972.
For years he ran his own law firm in San Francisco, chalking up multimillion-dollar victories against everyone from makers of gypsum wallboard to the NFL. His most recent legal victory was representing nearly 116,000 California Wal-Mart workers who claimed they were denied lunch breaks. His firm won the workers a $172 million judgment in 2005, and the retailer agreed to settle the case last year. The judge had yet to award him fees, he said.
Fond of white suits, private jets and expensive cigars, the flamboyant Furth is an avid pilot. In 2007, he flew his $10 million private jet around the world with his great Dane, Brandon.
Peggy Furth has been actively involved in the winery, as well as equestrian and charitable events, such as the Imagine wine auction. In 2008, she was appointed CEO of Chalk Hill. The couple divorced in June of 2009.
Industry speculation was that the divorce might force a sale of the winery, but at the time Fred Furth denied that would ever happen.
“Chalk Hill is not for sale and never will be for sale,” he said.
Terms of the divorce settlement were confidential, but it clearly involved large sums. A lawsuit filed earlier this year against Furth by his former wife indicated that as part of the divorce, he had signed a $15 million promissory note backed by winery property.
Land records also indicate he borrowed $14.7 million in mid-2009, shortly before the divorce was finalized.
He declined to discuss the terms of the divorce or its role on the winery sale.
Documents filed during his divorce showed Furth to be a man of considerable means.
In 2007, according to a draft estimate, Furth estimated his net worth at $311 million. Insurance documents list 67 vehicles, from winery pickup trucks to two Rolls Royces. Other divorce documents indicate that both the winery and Furth's law firm were losing millions of dollars each year between 2001 and 2005.
Land records also indicate Furth owes $5 million in back taxes to the IRS, which last month placed a lien on his property.
In early 2008, Furth announced he was moving his boutique law firm from San Francisco to Santa Rosa to be closer to home and save money. He scrapped the plan when his staff balked at the move, and he ultimately closed his practice and took his open cases to another firm.
Industry sources noted that Peggy Furth was more involved in the winery in recent years than Fred had been. Through her attorney she declined comment Thursday. Several sources said it was the divorce that was one of the primary drivers behind his decision to sell.
“Why would you sell in this market unless you had to?” one source said.
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