Local Millionaires in the Wine Biz

millionaires3Going into the often-unprofitable wine business is popular with local millionaires, some who plant vineyards around their mansions.

(Published by South Bay Accent in August, 2014.  See related piece in previous post.)

A much-repeated phrase about the wine business is that it’s the best way to turn a large fortune into a small fortune. This doesn’t seem to dissuade famous and wealthy — or just wealthy — individuals from planting vineyards and sometimes launching wineries. A partial list of celebrities who moonlight in the wine biz includes Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Joe Montana, Madonna, rocker Mick Fleetwood, Wayne Gretzky, Pixar chief John Lasseter and politico millionaire Nancy Pelosi.

millionairesVC Kevin Harvey of Rhys Vineyards in Saragota.

Our region is particularly teeming with well-heeled wine entrepreneurs. Given its great climate for grape growing, the Santa Cruz Mountains is home to wine operations by high-tech titans beyond the one T.J. Rodgers founded. The most notable enterprise is Rhys Vineyards, owned by venture capitalist Kevin Harvey. The Rhys pinot noirs have inspired rapture among wine critics but the winery — which operates several vineyards spread across the mountains — also makes chardonnay and syrah. According to the New York Times, Rhys produces “among the best American pinot noirs, a beacon for those who value grace, balance, structure and distinctiveness in wine.”

Another serious operation is House Family Vineyards above Saratoga, owned by former Intel executive David House. Cabernet sauvignon is the winery’s focus but David House is also the managing partner of the historic Mountain Winery in Saratoga, which he and his colleagues rescued from financial turmoil and refurbished into a premier event and winemaking operation, replanting and extending vineyards on the undulating hills. During earlier incarnations, the former Paul Masson winery had lost focus on winemaking in favor of performances but under House’s tutelage, grape production was brought back to glorious life.

millionaires2The views from Dave House’s winery are spectacular.

Such is the broad appeal of wine and the wine lifestyle that many other well-heeled valley residents are keen to buy a piece of it — if only as vineyard owners or home winemakers. In fact, a percolating trend is planting home vineyards in the wealthier enclaves of suburbia, paying for the work and potential winemaking to be done by others. Nicknamed “vanity vineyards,” this concept inspired a second company for Clos LaChance Wines founder Bill Murphy, a former high-tech executive himself.

CK Vines is a subsidiary of the winery that provides installation and maintenance of small-scale vineyards on a homeowner’s property in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Far from a landscaping company, CK Vines takes special care of more than 25 local home vineyards and offers to buy the fruit for use in Clos LaChance wines. For example, the pinot noir from the home vineyard in Los Altos of well-known former networking CEO Bill Krause has shown up in at least two well-received commercial wines. Having a vineyard in the front yard surely beats having a lawn, which produces no income and definitely isn’t a conversation starter.

BrangelinaChateau Miraval, the Southern France wine estate owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, makes one of the country’s most expensive rosé wines.

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