[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story, originally published on March 20, was updated on March 31 with additional reporting.]
When Paso Robles viticulture pioneer Gary Eberle was unexpectedly ousted as general manager at Eberle Winery in January, it sounded like the new majority partners had some radical changes in mind to boost profits.
Eberle told several media outlets that the controlling partners talked about boosting annual production to 150,000 to 200,000 cases, far above the winery’s output of about 25,000 cases.
Eberle said he worried about maintaining quality, and he told the Tribune newspaper he was stunned by the hostile takeover and didn’t know what was next for him.
Last week, the management announced that Eberle will remain as ambassador for the brand. And in an interview with the Business Times at the winery, new general manager Willis Blakewell said production will continue at the current level of about 25,000 cases a year.
“We’re not really looking to make any changes,” Blakewell said. “We’re going to continue to build the brand around Paso wine … and hopefully to continue to improve the quality in every vintage.”
In a separate interview, Eberle, a nationally known champion of the region and a co-founder of the Paso Robles viticulture area, said the management shakeup still does not make sense to him. “We’ve been very profitable,” he said. “And then to be told that that’s not good enough, it’s kind of hard to understand.”
Eberle said that in his new role as an employee, he no longer is privy to the books or the ultimate game plan of the business. “I don’t know where we’re going,” he said. “I was told that in spite of the fact that we were one of the most profitable wineries in the industry that we needed to make more money.”
Eberle said he wonders if the winery is being groomed for a sale to a larger company. He has asked if he can buy a majority share of the business, but the controlling owners will not talk to him about that, he said in an interview.
Eberle spoke to the Business Times outside the winery’s tasting room, which is festooned with ribbons from wine competitions. The bar was crowded with about a dozen visitors on a midweek afternoon. The brand is nationally known with distribution in 35 states.
The management shakeup came about after Eberle’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Giacobine of San Diego, began voting a 39 percent share after her husband Jim, Eberle’s half-brother who is 94 years old, was admitted to a facility for Alzheimer’s patients. Those votes, combined with shares owned by brothers Rob and Abe Flory, gave those partners a controlling 52 percent ownership.
Eberle said it never occurred to him that he would ever not be running the business that he and his partners launched more than 30 years ago, but he will do all he can to support the brand where he still owns a 35.5 percent share that is his retirement nest egg.
Blakewell, who has been general manager for a little over two months, said the new management is looking at the business overall. “
Like any business, we’d like to continue to improve in some areas and grow in some areas,” he said. “We’ve got a great foundation here and we’d like to build off that foundation.” He acknowledged that the winery has been profitable, “and we look to continue to grow the profits and to as I said increase the quality of the wine as well. We look for Eberle to be a signature of Paso Robles cabernet.”
The Business Times asked Blakewell in a follow-up phone call if management is considering selling the winery. Blakewell, who was a senior executive with Terlato Wine Group for about 16 years before owning his own consulting business in the Napa Valley, said, “At this point we’re not interested in selling the business. The controlling partners look forward to running it with Gary into perpetuity.”
While it first looked that there might be major changes in winery operations, it now appears that any adjustments will be incremental and largely behind the scenes. In one cost-cutting move that Eberle questioned, he said the management has let go a veteran public relations person and is farming out that work to an outside firm.
Under the management change, Blakewell oversees the business side and Eberle handles sales and marketing. The ownership group announced that the wines will continue to be made by Ben Mayo, another partner in the group.
Eberle said he has been working well overall with Blakewell and that the new boss understands the wine industry. Blakewell managed for Terlato at Sanford, Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and Alderbrook, among other brands.
In a statement on Eberle’s role as brand ambassador, partner Rob Flory said, “We are extremely happy with this positive development. We want to continue to evolve, strengthen our vineyards and position the winery for continued success and Gary is an important part of this plan.”
Eberle, who has been called the “godfather” of Paso Robles wine country, said in the winery’s statement, “For the past 30 years I’ve poured my heart and soul into this winery. This is a new chapter in my life at Eberle Winery and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Christopher Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said the announcement on Eberle’s status is welcome news. “It’s great to know that Gary Eberle is going to continue on as brand ambassador not only for Eberle but for the Paso Robles wine region,” he said.