Napa Vineyard Buyers Looking Long Term

New owners of Calistoga's Saviez Vineyards discuss plans for historic property

by Jane Firstenfeld
Saviez Vineyards
The Davis family acquired the real estate at Saviez Vineyards, including a barn built in 1916 that is a California Historical Landmark.
Calistoga, Calif.—A century-old winery that fell to foreclosure in 2009 will be restored to productivity by wine industry newcomers with a long-term vision. Mike and Sandy Davis closed Monday on their purchase of the Saviez Vineyards property on the Silverado Trail at Larkmead Lane, reportedly for $4.7 million cash. John Bergman, Bergman Euro-National, Forestville, Calif., brokered the deal.

“We first looked at the property in November 2010,” Mike Davis told Wines & Vines. “Suddenly, around the end of April, there was a tremendous amount of interest. We thought it was fair value for the price. We’re thankful to own it.”

It’s not the Davis’ first Napa Valley acquisition. Last year, they bought a 5-acre property formerly owned by the Mueller grapegrowing family, behind Rutherford’s Cakebread Cellars. Its 5 acres contain a residence, now being renovated, and about 1.5 acres planted to Cabernet Franc vines. The Davis family will make this its local base.

At Saviez, the Davises acquired only the real estate—including a 1916-vintage barn that is a California Historic Landmark, plus numerous other structures—and conditional permits for both a tasting room and a 20,000-case winery. Cousins Paul and Mike Saviez had been making some 2,500 cases annually beginning in 1997 and retain the brand and inventory. The original winery, founded in 1900, burned down in 1946, according to a timeline at saviezvineyards.com. Paul Saviez owns Saviez Vineyard Management, which currently handles 30-plus vineyards.

Sadly, Davis said, last year the 9.2 acres of bearing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah on the Saviez estate went untended, and the grapes were left to wither on the vine. His first order of business was to contract with Piña Vineyard Management.

“Our goal is to work with Piña this year and get the vines in good shape,” Davis said. “In the short-term, we want to take good care of what’s there—the grapes and the vines—and get a good crop.”

Where that crop will end up is another question. “I’ve already got people calling up wanting to buy the grapes,” Davis said. “I wish I could answer what will happen.” He has a legal team working on the ticklish and time-consuming issues of bonding, licensing and label approval. “Ideally, I’d like to come up with some labeling, but we’ve got to cross several hurdles,” he acknowledged. He said he’s given the team 30-40 written pages of short-term and long-term goals and potential names, to which he’s received varied responses: “You can do this; you can’t do that; what, are you nuts?” he said.

No castle in the sky
Although it’s been reported locally that Davis plans to build a winery to rival Sattui’s spectacular 16,000-case Castello di Amoroso directly across the valley, Davis brushed off the suggestion. “Maybe in 20 years,” he said. “We’re not planning a chateau. I love the rustic aspects of the historic barns and buildings. We want to be part of its history, recapture its excellence in the past. We’re consulting with the local historic society: What’s their vision?

“We want to come to a synergy. Let’s come up with something that dovetails with the natural setting,” he continued. “The good news is we have location, potential and acreage. We’re going to use this facility.” Ultimately, the process will probably take at least a year, Davis said. “We want to restore the barn, maybe have a tasting room, maybe caves. We don’t want to do it hastily. We don’t want to make a mistake.”

Saviez Vineyards
Mike and Sandy Davis have two sons,  23-year-old Sean and 26-year-old Brandon.
Mike and Sandy Davis may be new to the wine business, but building a business is in their blood. In 1989, they founded Applied Computer Solutions in their garage; based in Huntington Beach, Calif., the company now rings up $1 billion in annual sales from 25 offices around the country.

Despite his Southern California base, Davis has a long and fond association with the Napa Valley. Growing up in San Mateo County just south of San Francisco, his family used to spend summer vacations at the Napa Valley Ranch Club (now a timeshare development). He hopes the recent acquisitions will remain in the family for “five or six generations.”

He and Sandy have two sons, Brandon, 26, a professional racecar driver; and Sean, 23, a tri-athlete still in college. Are they interested in the wine business? “I think I’d have a tough time keeping them out of it,” Davis said. “We’re in a high-tech bubble. It moves very fast and is loaded with stress. This will give us a chance to regroup and retrench.”

Although he understands that this year’s extended winter will delay harvest, Davis plans to spend September and October in Napa Valley, shepherding his grapes, plus the bears and other wild critters in his two hilltop vineyards. “We are guardians of this property, and we don’t need to turn revenue right away. We think it’s a magical place.”

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