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Retiring Winemakers Find it Tough Time to Sell

When JoAnn Stear opened Eaton Hill Winery in the 1980s, she was among the pioneers of Washington's modern wine industry.

Gabriela Hasbun | Aurora | Getty Images

But when the 82-year-old decided to retire, she found how difficult it is to sell and get out of an industry she helped to establish in the Northwest.

With no takers at her original price of $2.7 million, Stear recently accepted an offer of $1.2 million for the south-central Washington winery.

"What we really didn't get out of it are our years of work," she said. "But health wise, age wise, it was time to go."

Others who were among the founders of Washington's relatively young wine industry are facing a similar situation, finding it difficult to sell when the economy remains sluggish and few people are willing to spend big money to buy into the industry.

"Times are tough, especially if winemakers are retiring," said Mark Hazell, who operates an online listing service for vineyard and winery owners looking to sell. "There are properties selling, but people have to essentially discount the properties to get them sold."

Hazell said the number of listings has grown steadily, especially in the Northwest where the wine industry has seen tremendous growth in the past three decades. Washington has about 40,000 acres of wine grapes under cultivation and more than 700 wineries. It's the nation's No. 2 producer of premium wine, behind California.

Often owners want out for financial reasons, but Hazell said many are looking to retire.

Bob Betz was among the first to crush grapes decades ago, and this year he will produce his 36th vintage at Betz Family Winery, near the Seattle suburb of Redmond. He and his wife, Cathy, announced last month that they had sold the winery and would transition into retirement, with Betz staying on several years as winemaker.

With no family to take over the business completely, selling it became the best option, he said.

"What you're seeing here in Washington is an aging of our industry that shows some of us have been at this a long time," he said.

In the Yakima Valley, Gail and Shirley Puryear opened Bonair Cellars in the mid-1980s, becoming the state's 29th winery. They've since built a new tasting room amid acres of fruit orchards near Zillah, Wash. and have discretely made it known they're looking to retire if the right buyer comes along.

"This isn't the greatest time. We know it's the economy, but we also know there's somebody out there," Shirley Puryear said as she prepared for crowds of wine tasters for spring barrel tasting. "This is a thriving winery and we're willing to wait."

Hazell said winery owners too often get stuck on how much they've put into the property, much like anyone selling property. Today, some vineyards are selling for what it cost to build them, he said.

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In addition, potential buyers learn quickly that making wine is a lot of work and that the profit isn't always as high as they expect, Hazell said.

"Interest trickles away then," he said.

Washington has seen second- and third-generation family members step into some winery operations, reflecting the maturation of the industry, said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, a promotional group funded by member fees from wineries and growers.

Planning for the future of the estate is no different than any other business, she said. It's also no different from other aspects of agriculture, though wine connoisseurs may wonder if a particular brand they've come to love will stay the same under new ownership.

"It all boils down to ensuring that whoever is making the wine or growing the grapes, the quality remains at the forefront," Pollard said.

The buyer at Eaton Hill already has a winemaker in mind and plans to increase production tenfold, Stear said. That kind of change would be good for the local economy and the industry overall, she said.

Chris and Myrta Coleman of Richland, Wash., have made Eaton Hill a regular stop during spring barrel tasting the past few years, and they aren't too worried about a change in ownership.

"Since they're good and they know what they're doing," Myrta Coleman said, "I feel like they'd sell to someone who thinks the same way and loves the wine."

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