Buying wineries and drug busts

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(The Casella brothers, from the left – John, Marcello and Joe)

It was a surreal combination of top wine stories on the one day: Peter Lehmann Wines (tastings) to be sold to Yellow Tail producer Casella Wines (tastings), and one of the Casella family charged over allegations he was involved in a drug syndicate.

Marcello Casella, brother of the managing director John Casella, stood down as a director after the police raided his farm at Griffith early this year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald report. Casella was charged last week with cultivating a prohibited plant, and with participating in a criminal group.

Of greater import to the wine world was the news that Peter Lehmann Wines was to be sold. Margaret Lehmann, Peter’s widow, was quoted as saying she was pleased PLW was being sold to an Australian buyer, and the sale came as a relief after months of uncertainty. Casella will pay just $1.50 a share, a massive fall from the $4 the Swiss-based Hess Corporation paid in 2003 for its 86% share. The Lehmann family will also sell its 10.4% share to Casella, who will pay about $57 million for the company. It is a coup for Casella, but such is the cyclical nature of the wine business.

John Casella has been quoted as saying he wants to increase production at the PLW Tanunda winery. He also wants more involvement in the premium end of the wine market. To that end, Casella boldly released two cellar-aged $100 red wines last year, a 2006 shiraz and 2006 cabernet sauvignon.

After the sale goes through, it will be the first time in PLW’s existence that there is no Lehmann ownership nor any member of the Lehmann family involved. How quickly things change: two years ago, Peter and his son Doug Lehmann were still alive, Doug was still CEO, and Andrew Wigan was chief winemaker. Wigan, who had been with Peter since they worked together at Saltram (tastings) in the 1970s and throughout PLW’s evolution, has announced his retirement, effective January.

Margaret Lehmann will continue to live in the house that she and Peter built near the winery, as it’s held on a separate title. Peter and Margaret’s two sons, Philip and David, are winemakers in their own right: David has his own enterprise called David Franz (tastings) and Philip is chief winemaker for the Hesketh family group, which includes Hesketh (tastings), St John’s Road (tastings) and Parker Coonawarra Estate brands (tastings). 

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