August 2009

UpFront with Bill Foley: Lonesome No More

By: Deborah Parker Wong
photos by the author

Modern history is filled with accounts of men and women who have achieved success only to find their true calling, one that brings to bear all of their innate and learned talents, later in life. This tried-and-true pattern fits vintner and Fortune 500 executive William “Bill” Foley II like a well worn pair of boots.

Like his great-grandfather Charles Goodnight, a retired Texas Ranger who found his true calling as a trailblazing cattle rancher, Foley has parlayed the rewards of a stellar career as the top hand at Fidelity National Financial, Inc. for a growing empire of high-profile brands that now includes the historic Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery.

Bill Foley.
It’s not a far stretch to compare Charles Goodnight’s early days of cattle driving on the Texas Panhandle, where he and longtime friend Oliver Loving carved the trail that bears their name, to the trail that Bill Foley has blazed up the West Coast, from Santa Barbara to Walla Walla, Washington, with the acquisition of seven wineries and a pedigreed herd of brands of his own.

In the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Lonesome Dove, writer Larry McMurtry immortalized Goodnight as Captain Woodrow F. Call and Loving as his alter ego, Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae, in a compelling saga that portrays the vagaries of human nature. Foley, with his preference for cowboy boots and his world-class golf game, might draw comparisons to the easy-go-lucky McRae; but his knack for acquisitions and astute management style are the very qualities that drove Goodnight, credited with developing the modern cattle industry, to acquire 1.5 million acres of Palo Duro Canyon ranchland known as the JA Ranch.


A native Texan, Foley operates a working cattle ranch in Montana and has tapped his family history and the legacy of the JA Ranch in developing Foley Family Wines (FFW). Established in 1996 as the Foley Wine Group, the company has now grown to 1,100 acres in California and Washington.

Santa Barbara County served as the starting point for Foley’s second career when he founded Lincourt Winery in Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation; not long afterwards, he created Foley Estates Vineyard and Winery and purchased the Las Hermanas Vineyard, both in the promising Santa Rita Hills area. In 2007, Foley added Firestone Vineyard, Santa Barbara County’s first estate winery and a producer of Bordeaux-style wines of superb value, to his Central Coast holdings; he has since developed the aptly-named Goodnight portfolio as Firestone’s second label.
In Lonesome Dove, novelist Larry McMurtry immortalized Charles Goodnight as Captain Woodrow F. Call, who had a knack for acquisitions and an astute management style. Bill Foley is the legendary Goodnight’s great-grandson.

Firestone marked a turning point for Foley, and it was here that he developed a template for growing his fledging company based on conservative value buys and an emphasis on hard assets. It wasn’t long before the entrepreneur’s attention turned to Napa Valley, where he soon scored two top-notch labels, Merus (Latin for unmixed wine) and sister brand Altvs, both purchased in December 2007. The former Venge facility, a refurbished 1891 barn in St. Helena built by Napa pioneer Carlo Rossini, was acquired in May 2008 as a production facility for the brands, both of which emphasize boldly-styled cult Cabernet Sauvignon.

Just prior to bringing the old Rossini Ranch into the fold, the company looked northward in February 2008 to Washington State for majority ownership in Three Rivers Winery of Walla Walla. While it waits for several newly-planted estate vineyards to come online, the winery relies on many different sites from within the Columbia Valley appellation to produce a diverse line up of varieties, including Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Riesling. Winemaker Holly Turner sources fruit from Wahluke Slope and Alderdale regions in Lower Columbia, as well as Walla Walla sub-appellations, including Sagemoor and the prized Champoux Vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills, one of the oldest in the Columbia Valley.


As 2008 wound to a close, Foley announced his plans to acquire Sonoma’s oldest family winery, the historic Sebastiani Vineyards, for a reported $47 million and with it to reorganize his company by centralizing administration in Sonoma and ushering in a name change to Foley Family Wines.

Tim Matz, President of FFW, announced the completion of the reorganization in February 2009, along with the formation of a five-zone sales force to support the rapidly growing organization. Foley’s track record of building and refreshing brands facilitated the transfer of the historic winery from one family to another and positioned Foley Family Wines as a more than fitting steward for Sebastiani’s iconic Cherryblock Vineyard.

In an acquisition run that would have struck a familiar cord with Charles Goodnight, Foley continued to invest in highly visible brands in 2009 and secured the majority share in Kuleto Estate winery, founded by prolific designer and restaurateur Pat Kuleto. The winery, which includes 150 acres of estate vineyards and makes about 7,500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, only stands to gain from the economies of scale made possible by streamlined operations; it plans to expand production to as much as 14,000 cases annually. 

Having previously stated his intention of rounding out Foley Family Wines to include ten to 12 different brands, Bill Foley may still be scouting properties all over the world, but for the time being, he is giving his newly restructured company a breather to focus on sales. With the ambitious goal of one million cases and plans to grow their direct-to-consumer business by 20 percent, Foley Family Wines is striking out on what amounts to its very own Goodnight-Loving Trail.


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