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Originally published March 3, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 3, 2012 at 11:35 PM

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Mortgage title exec turns to collecting wineries for next line of work

Bill Foley is gambling he can become a commercial force in a wine industry that is struggling with stagnant sales.

Bloomberg Markets

Foley Family Wines

California: Chalk Hill Winery, Healdsburg; Curtis Winery, Buellton; Eos Estate Winery, Paso Robles; Firestone Vineyard, Los Olivos; Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery, Lompoc; Kuleto Estate, St. Helena, Lincourt Vineyards, Solvang; Merus, Napa; Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, Sonoma; and Wattle Creek, Cloverdale.

Washington: Three Rivers Winery, Walla Walla.

New Zealand: Clifford Bay, Blenheim; and Vavasour, Renwick.

Source: Foley Family Wines

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On a crisp winter's day in 2010, Bill Foley was exploring a troubled winery for sale in Sonoma County, Calif., when he was taken aback by the sight of an enclosed horse-riding ring the size of an airplane hangar.

Foley, who made a fortune selling mortgage-title insurance during the housing boom, also recalls seeing a California mission-style chapel and a regulation-sized football field and baseball diamond at the Chalk Hill Estate. These extravagant structures had nothing to do with making wine and helped saddle an estate valued at more than $100 million with excessive debt.

"My wife said, 'There's no way you can buy this,' " Foley recalls with a mischievous grin.

Foley, 66, did buy Chalk Hill in June 2010 for an undisclosed price well below its peak valuation. Now, it's the flagship of his burgeoning viticultural business, which produces more than 1 million cases of wine a year and stretches from California to Washington state to New Zealand.

Foley is hunting for more distressed wineries along Napa Valley's fabled Route 29 and in the pinot-noir-laden vineyards of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

"I'm not even close to being big enough," says Foley in a mellow voice that bears the twang of his childhood home in the Texas Panhandle.

Swooping in

The wealthy have long come to California's wine country to indulge in the pleasures of the grape. While many are content to lord over one luxury estate, Foley is gambling he can become a commercial force in a wine industry that is struggling with stagnant sales.

After jumping 37 percent from 2002 to 2007, sales of California-made wine have been flat at about $18 billion for four straight years as consumers drink less expensive brands in economic hard times, according to the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group.

Debt-laden producers have sold their operations at deep discounts. In April, Southbank, Australia-based Foster's Group spun off its wine division at a $2.5 billion valuation after spending $7 billion building it into a global player with Napa-based Beringer Vineyards and other brands.

In exploiting the shake-up, Foley has emerged as the most ambitious individual empire builder in the wine trade since the late Jess Jackson developed chardonnay powerhouse Kendall-Jackson Estate Wine in the early 1980s, says Mario Zepponi, a principal at Zepponi & Co., a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based mergers and acquisitions advisory firm.

Foley's fortune tops $153 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Since 2007, he has spent more than $200 million of his own money and credit on 12 wineries with more than 20 labels.

"Nobody really knew who this guy was, and then all of a sudden, he was making deals," Zepponi says. "He's been one or two steps ahead of everyone else."

Foley's properties range from Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, a Sonoma-based producer of $25 reds and whites, to Merus, a Napa cult winery that sells its silky cabernet sauvignon for $135 a bottle. His holding company, Foley Family Wines, recorded $15 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization on about $100 million of sales in 2011.

More buyers are now joining the hunt for undervalued wineries. In March 2011, Chilean producer Vina Concha & Toro paid $238 million, double Foley's bid, for Sonoma County-based Fetzer Vineyards, which makes 2.2 million cases annually.

And French entrepreneur Jean-Charles Boisset has spent almost $40 million in the past three years to build his own California wine domain with the acquisitions of Raymond Vineyards in Napa and Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. In 2010 and 2011, two dozen wineries changed hands in California in a record spate of acquisitions, Zepponi says.

In 2010, Foley was eager to improve sales at Firestone Vineyard, a Santa Ynez producer of $20 reds and whites he bought three years earlier for $50 million. The problem was, its tasting room was in Paso Robles, a viticultural area an hours drive north of Santa Ynez.

So Foley bought a Paso Robles-based producer called Eos Estate Winery out of bankruptcy and converted the Firestone tasting room into an Eos showcase, appealing to visitors who prefer locally produced wines. Sales at the tasting room quickly doubled, he says.

"Bill has a deep understanding of financial risk and operational risk, and it's rare to see those two skills in one guy," Hagerty says. "He does love wine, but he's not a hobbyist. He's in this to build a first-class business."

Mortgage business

Foley graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in 1967 with an engineering degree and then switched from the Army to the Air Force, serving four years and earning the rank of captain. He went on to receive a master's in business administration at Seattle University and a law degree from the University of Washington.

In storming the wine business, Foley says his private-equity-style deal-making will tame an inefficient industry. From 1984 to 2007, he transformed a Phoenix storefront operation called Fidelity National Title into the No.1 U.S. mortgage-title insurer by acquiring more than 50 firms and absorbing their market share and customers.

Now, he wants to do the same in wine, a fragmented market teeming with more than 7,600 producers in the U.S. alone. In every winery deal, Foley has shunned short-term debt in favor of using 25- or 30-year loans and then capped his leverage at 30 percent of his invested capital.

He favors aggressive lowball bids. In 2010, he pursued a prestigious New Zealand pinot-noir producer called Te Kairanga with a book value of $20 million. Foley got it for $8 million.

"I'm not doing anything I haven't already done," Foley says with a shrug. "You buy companies, collapse the back office, keep the front office and enhance the marketing and sales programs."'

Foley is betting that a combination of greater wine volume and improved branding will elevate his labels in a market flooded with them. After every acquisition, Foley pumps his new wines into his existing distribution channels to stores and restaurants.

He says he must add cases to get more clout with distributors, who choose which wines to showcase for retailers and which to shunt off to the back of the warehouse. So he's hunting for farms in California's Central Valley to produce more wine for his many labels and for brands already popular with consumers.

Foley is still kicking himself for letting a Central California producer called Four Vines Winery get snapped up by another suitor in 2010 for an undisclosed bid. Priced below $20 a bottle, the winery's Naked Chardonnay and zesty zinfandels are a smash with budget-conscious buyers, and the winery produces about 100,000 cases annually.

"That's the kind of thing I'm looking for, something that's got some pull to it and distributor relationships," Foley says. "I've got to find one like that."

During harvest in early fall, Foley saw how difficult his new career could be when unseasonal rains drenched Sonoma just as the grapes were reaching peak ripeness. The moisture caused a countywide outbreak of botrytis, a gray fungus that spoils grapes, and Chalk Hill lost about half of its chardonnay crop. The development raises concerns about the 2011 vintage's volume.

"If you run out of product and lose shelf space, somebody else will get that slot," says Mark Lingenfelder, Chalk Hill's vineyard manager.

Foley takes the news in stride as he visits with guests of the estate on an October afternoon. He says the Chalk Hill brand possesses prestige to build on, and thanks to his deals, he's finally getting his labels onto the shelves of mass-market retailers such as BevMo Inc., a 114-store chain in California and Arizona.

A glass of Chalk Hill's 2009 chardonnay is placed in front of Foley. The scent of apples and nectarines wafts from the wine. One of his guests compliments the estate's Olympic-sized equestrian ring and asks whether Foley rides horses. He shakes his head and says he's a cyclist.

"I was thinking of going this afternoon," Foley says, swirling his wine. "But now I'm going to drink this chardonnay."

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