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Billington Winds Down Havens Winery

Financially troubled Billington Imports has all but pulled the plug on Napa Valley’s Havens Winery, telling employees and growers that it would not be making a 2009 vintage.

Suppliers, former employees and others formerly associated with the winery said that Billington executive and winery General Manager Phil Manno informed the winery’s remaining six employees of the decision on September 3. Manno also informed its growers that Billington would not honor its 2009 contracts.

The action leaves the employees uncertain as to the status of their positions.

Manno was contacted by WII, and left a voice mail on his cell phone asking specifically about the employees and contracts. He did not respond.

Winery founder Michael Havens sold the winery to Billington in 2006. While the winery retains Havens’ name, it has been managed directly by Billington since the sale. Havens did not return Wine Industry Insight’s phone calls, but did respond by email, the contents of which are included (with permission) below.

As Wine Industry Insight reported on August 6, the winery defaulted on its winery and vineyard  lease payments  in May and has been for sale.

EMPLOYEES LEFT IN A LURCH

After its three-year decline, the winery had only six employees left, including four in the winemaking operation. Sources familiar with the operation said that Billington had consistently told the employees that the winery would be making a 2009 vintage.

GROWERS STUCK WITH TONS OF GRAPES

Like the employees, Billington repeatedly assured its growers — primarily Oak Knoll Farming of Napa and  Hyde Vineyards of Carneros — that they would honor contracts for approximately 150 tons of red varietals.

No exact amounts were available, but the contracts were worth approximately $500,000.

By voicemail, Doug Hill, whose company is busy harvesting, took time out from crush and said that,  “It’s always a bad thing when a winery needs to shut its doors or go out of business, but hopefully good things will comewill come for everyone involved.”

SCREAMING EAGLE, HAVENS LAWSUITS DID NOT HELP BILLINGTON POSITION

Screaming Eagle Partners sued Billington Imports in February 2009 for trademark infringement. At issue was a brand called “Screaming Jack,” a joint venture between Billington Imports and winemaker, Tom Larson who founded Sonoma Creek Winery.

The lawsuit was settled in late July. Terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.

Michael Havens also sued Billington, charging for Breach of Contract. That action was also settled confidentially in May 2009.

HAVENS STATEMENT ON BILLINGTON & WINERY COLLAPSE

Below is Michael Havens’ emailed statement, reprinted with his permission.

My partnership (Mobius) sold Havens Wine Cellars to Billington Imports in August 2006; in December of that year the real estate and winery were sold separately to Vinreit, which then leased it to Billington.

After working within this new arrangement for 19 months, I was summarily dismissed in May, 2008. I have had nothing to do with managing Havens Wine Cellars since then.

Less than one year after my departure, Billington and their California subsidiary, Sin E Wines, imploded and closed doors, abruptly dismissing virtually all employees.

I am not involved in any attempt to repurchase either the brand or the real estate.

Currently I have a few select winemaking consulting clients, both startups and large corporate wineries.

I will start this year, with my friend Morgan Twain-Peterson, a new wine brand focused on white varietals originating from Galicia.


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