Kempner: Why a daring grandpa sold his Georgia winery and golf resort

It sounds French, but it isn’t.

Chateau Elan, the brainchild of a pharmaceutical baron from West Virginia, started as a Georgia winery before Georgia wineries were cool or even taken seriously.

It grew into a sprawling resort along I-85 at the edge of Gwinnett County, with big-time golf courses, hotels, restaurants, convention space and a spa. The winery itself is supposed to look like a 16th century French chateau. Nearly 1,000 high-end homes and The Legends golf course were built behind the gates of an affiliated development.

Chateau Elan’s founder recently sold the resort portion to an outfit that intends to make more than $20 million in changes. Specifically: make it more luxurious.

One big question I wanted to ask founder Don Panoz: Why sell it?

Like a limitless amusement park

He called me on a recent chilly Atlanta evening to answer that question and others. He said he was on a business trip in Costa Rica.

He’s 82. (Actually, almost 83.)

Panoz apparently hasn’t yet gotten comfortable with the concept of chilling on the whole work/career thing.

I get the feeling that business is like one limitless amusement park for him, and he keeps finding new upside-down rides to try.

“Retirement,” he said, “is not in my vocabulary right now.”

He’s currently in the business of professional race cars (Deltawing Racing) as well as luxury sports cars and electric vehicles (Green4U Technologies). Earlier, he grew wealthy in the pharmaceuticals industry, having launched a company called Elan Corporation in Ireland that eventually got patents for a variety of products, including the nicotine patch. (He became an Irish citizen in the process.)

Challenge accepted

During his travels in the pharmaceuticals business, Panoz and his wife, Nancy, were motivated by the great food and wine of Europe. But he also had compiled a list of aggravations he thought he could fix someday in the hotel and convention industries.

Those interests collided in the early 1980s on a business trip in to Georgia, where he was building a manufacturing plant. Panoz learned that while muscadine grapes grow locally, there were doubts that a fancier grape species, called vinifera, would.

“A lot of people told me I couldn’t do it and couldn’t make wine, that we were too far out and people wouldn’t come,” he said.

Challenge accepted.

I read an early copy of a book Panoz has been writing: “Drinking, Driving and Drugs: Secrets of a Serial Entrepreneur.”

“Don’t be afraid to take chances,” he wrote. “Experts say you should know something about a business before you start your own. I disagree.”

There were few Georgia wine operations at the time, but Panoz had the muscle to push for changes in state law to make it easier for wineries to sell direct to customers.

That change was big, said Tom Slick, the owner of Habersham Winery. “He was very important in the first years of the wine business.”

Some of the legal changes, though, were written in ways that would have stifled some other local wineries, Slick told me. “His influence in the business has been profound, but not always good for everybody else.”

Grape gripes

As it turns out, Panoz could grow viniferas. But it was a pain. The grapes that were just right for Europe faced disease in Georgia, south of the mountains.

Eventually, the winery operations waned.

Simone Bergese, who joined the operation five years ago, told me before he arrived the annual output had dwindled to 7,000 cases (at 12 bottles a case).

And how did the wine taste?

“It was awful,” said Bergese, now the executive winemaker.

He pulled out the viniferas from the chateau’s property, planted muscadine plants instead, bought more muscadine grapes from other Georgia farms and shipped in vinifera grapes grown in California.

Annual production has quadrupled since 2012, and Bergese said he expects to hit 35,000 cases this year. The wine is sold at the resort, but also in a variety of other outlets, from Publix to Kroger and Walmart. The wines are winning awards, I’m told, including legit ones.

More wine 

The wine industry overall is also growing, which is pretty evident if you drive around North Georgia. Little wineries and tasting rooms are sprouting like pumpkin patches. Georgia has more than 55 active licensed wineries, up from 21 six years ago, according to Georgia Wine Producers, a local association. More are expected to open soon.

Chateau Elan, though, is the state’s biggest commercial winery.

But for the first time in 35 years it’s not Panoz’s any longer.

“I’m getting into the twilight of my career,” he told me. “I wanted to make sure Chateau Elan is on a firm footing in the future.”

He has five grown kids. I think he was joking — or maybe half joking — when he told me he didn’t want to have five different heirs, each with their own attorneys, trying to decide the right way to run things.

“I thought it was time to move on,” he said.

“One of the most profitable resorts”

He told me the resort business has been doing well. Actually, he said, it “is one of the most profitable resorts in the hotel business.”

He wouldn’t tell me what he sold the resort for.

Neither would the buyers at Wheelock Street Capital, a Greenwich, Conn.-based real estate investment firm. (An affiliate of firm purchased Atlanta-based John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods a few years back and later sold homebuilding assets to PulteGroup.)

Wheelock has said it will spend more than $20 million on upgrades to Chateau Elan, including renovation of the golf clubhouse (slated to be completed in July) and the Inn at Chateau Elan. It’s bringing in independent operators to handle the golf and hotel operations.

Food and beverage offerings will be dramatically nicer at the resort, Wheelock’s Keith Manning told me.

The new owners promise “a new era of luxury and refinement.”

That sounds expensive to a cheapo like me. Not all of us can afford a pseudo French chateau.

It doesn’t seem like Panoz will miss it, though.

“I never become hostage to anything I do,” he told me. “Progress isn’t made by looking in the rearview mirror.”

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