The Racke decision to sell its historic Sonoma winery could be a further indication in the California wine industry of the pressure to get big or get out. Larry Walker examines the sale of Buena Vista.

And the beat goes on, as Sonny Bono once said. The Racke family, the German owners of Buena Vista, confirmed that the historic Sonoma winery and most of its Carneros vineyards are up for sale. Industry watchers in California expect it to be snapped up quickly.

It is estimated that the Buena Vista sale could bring in up to $250 million. The production facility in Carneros, the historic winery and tasting room in the town of Sonoma and some 450 acres of vineyards are in the pot, as well as the Haywood brand. Indeed it would be no surprise if the bidding pushed the final figure well beyond that.

There have been rumours for several months that the winery was to be sold and it has been confirmed by executives at Buena Vista that E&J Gallo has made a number of offers. Several other large wineries, including one Australian hopeful, made offers, but none were high enough, sources said.

Harry Parsley, the president of Buena Vista, believes the hot market for wineries will mean a quick sale.

"We hope that by the first of the year we can identify a prospective buyer," Parsley said. Parsley said consolidation in the wine industry is making it difficult for wineries the size of Buena Vista to compete. He said most wineries are either much smaller or much larger, with few in Buena Vista's 500,000-case production range.

"There is tremendously large footprint between us and a 1 million-case winery," said Parsley.

In an interesting sideplay, the Racke family is retaining 250 acres of vines and intends to produce a super-premium wine from that acreage, which will probably be called Donum Estate. The Racke's will also retain the super-premium Robert Stemmler brand, a Pinot Noir-only operation.

The Racke intent seems to echo the Sebastiani family's sale of their San Joaquin Valley winery and its budget brands to the Wine Group in September for $300 million, while keeping the Sonoma winery for the production of premium brands.

Buena Vista Winery was founded in 1857, although wine historian William Heitz believes grapes were grown on the site as early as the 1840s when California was still part of Mexico. But it is not only an historic brand, the Racke family, owners of A. Racke GmBH, a 155-year old wine marketing company based in Bingen, Germany, has made it a respected brand as well. Racke bought the winery in 1979.