Wine Spectator has learned that Constellation Brands, one of the world's largest wine companies, has acquired Oregon's Lingua Franca, the Willamette Valley producer founded by Master Sommelier Larry Stone. The deal includes the brand, winery, vineyards and inventory. The price was not disclosed.
Lingua Franca's winemaking team, led by Thomas Savre and French consultant Dominique Lafon, will remain on board, while Stone will serve as brand ambassador. This is Constellation's first foray into Oregon. "We wanted to have a luxury Pinot Noir and Chardonnay brand in our portfolio," said Robert Hanson, president of wine and spirits at Constellation. "We looked at California and Oregon, and there was a synergy that happened in the conversation with the Lingua Franca team."
Stone originally sought new investors in 2019 to expand Lingua Franca's hospitality and direct-to-consumer business at the winery. Then came the one-two punch of COVID-19 and wildfires in 2020. "We decided not to bottle wine in 2020 because of smoke damage," Stone told Wine Spectator. That lost revenue was a blow. "Not only did we need partners to expand, but also to continue to operate at the level we had been at."
Enter Constellation, which is slowly reshaping its wine business, selling most of its value-oriented brands to E.&J. Gallo in 2021, and acquiring premium wine brands such as Schrader and Booker to join Robert Mondavi in the company's Aspira Fine Wine & Craft Spirits portfolio. Lingua Franca is another jewel.
It has only been 10 years since Stone bought property across the road from Evening Land's Seven Springs Vineyard in Eola-Amity. "I sold everything I had saved," Stone told Wine Spectator in 2019. "I sold my wine collection that I started when I was 21. Sold my small [Napa] winery operation that I had started in 1997, and got a couple of cousins to put some money in, too." Partner and San Francisco attorney David Honig contributed his retirement fund to help plant the 66-acre vineyard.
Lingua Franca's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs have achieved outstanding scores since the first release, the 2015 vintage. With his restaurant connections, Stone built sales in 30 states and 27 international markets. Stylistically, the wines combine the best of the Old and New Worlds, offering elegantly complex fruit with steely acidity and hints of minerality. Hanson says that won't change. "One of the things we are absolutely disciplined about is not making changes where changes don't need to be made. We so appreciate the quality, the body of the wines, the precision and ambition with which they built their estate portfolio."
Winemaker Savre and consultant Lafon are on board with scaling production above the current 12,000 cases annually, which are harvested from two estate vineyards—the 66-acre Larry Stone vineyard at the winery and nearby Bunker Hill. "We sold about 35 to 40 percent of our estate fruit, so we can grow production that much," Savre said. "We basically buy Chardonnay and sell Pinot Noir."
Their plans also call for expanding production of the lower-priced Willamette Valley bottlings made with purchased fruit. "There's a lot of great fruit in the valley if you know where to look," said Stone. "There's so much potential here that's untouched."
Stone predicted when he started the winery that he would eventually sell his interest in Lingua Franca, though he didn't think it would happen so soon. But he is sanguine. "To me, this is the great fulfillment of what I started here."
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