Bill Leigon has a new challenge, one he hopes might match his earlier success with the HRM Rex Goliath and Cycles Gladiator wine brands.

Leigon, a 40-year veteran of the wine business, became president of Jamieson Ranch Vineyards on Feb. 18. That’s the winery on Jameson Canyon Road that was formerly Reata, Valley View and Kirkland Ranch wineries.

He’s been moving with breakneck speed to establish a new and significant visibility for the winery and its brands.

Leigon previously spent 12 years as president of Hahn Estates in Monterey, where he created the popular Rex Goliath brand named after a 47-pound rooster. He grew it to prominence before selling it to Constellation.

He did the same thing with Cycles Gladiator, another popular-priced line of wines that received unexpected visibility when officials in Alabama banned the wine because of its art deco sketch featuring bare-breasted nymphs riding bicycles.

From entertainment to wine

Leigon, who has been a professional actor and singer, entered the wine business in 1973 at a wine shop in Manhattan. He soon made a career choice. “I could be paid to sing or to sell wine, but I got paid a lot more to sell wine,” he said.

Starting out in high-end French wines, he moved to California in 1979 to work for a French wine company. He notes, “I did everything from driving trucks to selling.”

In the process, he mastered America’s three-tier distribution system for wine, which has developed into an obstacle for new wine brands.

In 1981, he joined J. Lohr wines of San Jose, Monterey and Paso Robles, and became national sales manager. While he was there, Lohr grew from 40,000 to 500,000 cases. He also helped found Ariel non-alcoholic wines.

Later, after a brief stint with Associated Vintage Group and Mark West in Sonoma, he formed Wimbleton Wine Company, which represented Lohr and other brands.

In 2002, he became president of Hahn, which absorbed his marketing company.

Hahn is a leading producer of wines from Monterey County with an impressive location on the Santa Lucia Highlands. It makes a wide range of wines, but it was the big chicken that moved it into the mainstream.

This year, Leigon was hired by managing partner Bryan Gordon of small Denver-based Madison Capital Management, which owns the Jameson Canyon property.

Madison invests in oil and gas, real estate and activities largely unnoticed by others. One of its successes is high-end art storage in New York, for example. Madison holds about $250 million in assets according to its website.

A checkered history

Kirkland Ranch was founded by the Kirkland family, long-time cattle ranchers in Napa County who once owned about 3,000 acres of ranch land in the mountains and hills of southern Napa County.

The winery was built in 1998 with a western theme and had a permit for 200,000 gallons of wine annually, but greater capacity. That capacity was expanded last year to 850,000 gallons of productions, with up to 350,000 gallons of bulk wine bottling, although Leigon doesn’t expect to grow much anytime soon. “We want to concentrate on making great Napa and Sonoma wines,” he said.

It’s a modern custom winery, with a permit that allows the winery to hold up to 74 events annually in its banquet and meeting facilities, a valuable franchise in Napa County — although perhaps not so much in this out-of-the-way location on Jameson Canyon Road (Highway 12).

The winery’s location and its strategy as a western-themed winery — including a western wear store that fell afoul of county regulations — never seemed to catch on.

It was on the route in and out of Napa Valley from the Central Valley, but visitors seemed more eager to get into the heart of the valley or home rather than stopping there.

It entered an ill-fated partnership with 360 Global, which had also purchased Viansa Winery & Marketplace in Sonoma County. 360 Global acquired a half interest in Kirkland Ranch Winery, but in 2006 lost $24 million in the first six months of 2006 against revenues of only $8 million.

Later that year, Kirkland Ranch Winery filed for protection and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, which essentially blocked foreclosure on a $20 million loan from Metropolitan Life.

Kirkland Cattle Company also filed for bankruptcy protection because the ranch was collateral for the loan.

In 2007, 360 Global filed for bankruptcy protection.

Madison acquired the winery by buying a $20 million loan on the property from Traveler Insurance and provided another loan when the Kirkland business emerged from bankruptcy in the second half of 2007.

Part of the balance on the loans was paid by selling 2,000 acres of the original 3,000-acre ranch to Silverado Premium Properties in 2008.

After being shuttered for a period — with clients’ wine inside — the property was reborn as Valley View Winery, a custom crush facility, then renamed Reata Winery (“Reata” means “lariat” in Spanish).

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The Indelicato family (DFV wines) still leases much of the winery for wine production, but that reportedly will end in mid-2014 when it moves into new space nearby in the airport industrial area.

Leigon would like to find one client crushing about 850 tons to partly replace them but leave space for the winery’s own production. It makes some of its other wines elsewhere including those from other counties but three quarters of what the winery makes and bottles must come from Napa Valley.

The winery sits on about 300 acres, with 75 acres in grapes. Although not in Carneros, the property shares the same cool climate and excels in chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. It also has a nice viognier.

The company uses the Reata name for cool climate grapes, but Leigon said he thinks the real winner will be Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which restaurants can sell for $12 a glass.

The winery will use Jamieson Ranch for cabernet and other warmer climate wines. One is “Double Lariat” and be both fermented and aged in oak barrels. He plans to sell it for $40, but says it will be comparable to $150 wines.

His secret is flash detent, a relatively new technology that extracts color and flavor almost instantly from red grapes under elevated temperature and high vacuum. The process eliminates the need for punch down or pump over wines and allows easy fermentation in barrel with only red juice, no skins.

The process can also remove taints, like that from car exhaust near busy highways, and greatly reduces the need for adding sulfites to the wine.

Jamieson’s winemaker is Japanese-born Nori Nakamura, who moved to California to work as catering manager at the Hotel Nikko San Francisco. This led to cellar positions at Koves-Newlan and Pine Ridge Vineyards, and a degree in winemaking from UC Davis. Most recently, he was assistant winemaker at Artesa Vineyards & Winery in Carneros.

While embracing technology to make better wine, Leigon also loves creating brands. He also likes to innovate in marketing, having pioneered the use of the Internet and social media to build and market Hahn Family Wine brands. He intends to maintain the equestrian theme but as “Ralph Lauren, not than cowboys,” he said. Other wines include Spur and Whiplash.

Because of Leigon’s background, 80 percent of the wines will be sold through the conventional distribution system, although some wines will be offered only direct to consumers via a wine club, the expansive tasting room and the Internet.

He is developing consumer amenities, however, and in addition to the horses, he plans extensive wine and food pairings and an event center convenient to out-of-county populations. He brought chef Bryan Overhausen with him from Hahn, and just outside his door is an organic garden with herbs, vegetables and a selection of fruit trees.

Jamieson Ranch Vineyards was once part of General Mariano Vallejo’s Rancho Suscol and remains a working ranch featuring vineyards, cattle, sheep for weed control and an apiary for honey.

A founding director of the Napa Valley Repertory Theatre, Leigon’s flair for showmanship shines through, like his recent reintroduction of the winery featuring a popular singer, food trucks and falconing demonstrations.

He plans to create a small herd of miniature horses that will be used to help autistic children (a son is autistic) and at-risk children under the Light Horse Foundation. He has also introduced a $15 Light Horse wine to benefit the foundation. The California appellation wine is made off-site. This year, they’ll make 30,000 cases, but Leigon projects it could hit half a million cases.

Bill Leigon has his challenges running the new winery, creating and building brands and penetrating the demanding American distribution system. He clearly relishes the challenges, however, and based on his track record, he has a good chance to succeed.

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