B.C. Group Wins Washington Land

Investment firm bids $8.8 million for 670 acres in prime winery and grape-growing location of Red Mountain

by Peter Mitham
Aquilini Investment Group beat out 38 other bidders at an auction to purchase 31 parcels on Red Mountain in Washington state.
Vancouver, B.C.—Aquilini Investment Group of British Columbia picked up 31 parcels on Red Mountain in Washington state during a weekend auction for $8.8 million (including buyer’s premium).

Aquilini trumped 38 other bidders—including local contenders from Washington state as well as California—in the auction, which lasted five and a half hours—one of the longest property sales the Pasco office of Wyoming-based auctioneer Musser Bros. Inc. has ever conducted.

The purchase gives Aquilini slightly more than 670 acres of land, including close to 519 acres within the Red Mountain AVA.

New owner's plans
Luigi Aquilini—the patriarch of the family-owned company—told Wines & Vines late Monday that the family intended to develop vineyards as soon as possible with appropriate grape varieties.

“We see this acquisition as a great opportunity to enter the viticulture business in one of the best growing regions in Washington state,” he said. “We are in the process of determining the best grape varieties to grow in the region with the intention of developing and planting the land as soon as possible.”

The pledge puts to rest speculation circulating in the industry following the deal was an investment play that would see the property carved up and resold.

Veteran vintner Tom Hedges—whose family claims for itself the moniker, “Guardians of Red Mountain”—believes development of the land by the Aquilinis is the best thing possible if an established winery wasn’t the successful bidder.

While grapes from the AVA have been mythologized as an element in every award-winning wine the state’s produced, Hedges said there’s lots of room to raise the profile of the AVA.

Many—including Hedges, who bid a $700,000 slice of the mountain—expected Duckhorn Vineyards from California to snag a parcel for its new Washington state brand. This would have given Red Mountain—the state’s smallest AVA, at just 4,040 acres—a recognized name and boosted its profile and the renown of the state as a whole.

“Duckhorn would have been marvellous,” Hedges said.

 The purchase by the Aquilini family represents a significant investment, but without the recognition Duckhorn provides.

“We didn’t get any distribution out of this. We didn’t get any advertising, promotion, marketing – nothing,” Hedges said. “Red Mountain’s just sitting there.”

The plans Luigi Aquilini disclosed to Wines & Vines for its latest acquisition promise to change that.

Other property
The deal adds vineyard land to a range of holdings that include the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, a sizeable real estate portfolio that includes everything from residential developments to hotels and golf courses, as well as agricultural holdings.

Through the Golden Eagle Group, the family farms 1,200 acres of blueberries and 1,600 acres of cranberries in the Fraser Valley just outside Vancouver. It has an 1,100-acre dairy farm that operates under the family name in Sunnyside, Wash., and family patriarch Luigi Aquilini maintains a connection with the family’s hometown of Brescia, Italy, through a winery and vineyard operation there.

For its part, the Kennewick Irrigation District is satisfied with the results of the auction.

“We are pleased with the outcome,” Chuck Freeman, district manager with the Kennewick Irrigation District, told Wines & Vines following the sale.

The deal
The sale garners $8.3 million in one-time revenue for the irrigation district, which has undertaken $17.2 million in improvements and expansion to the aging irrigation infrastructure serving the vineyards and wineries on Red Mountain (see “Water for Washington Vineyards”). 

That project is set to wrap up in June 2014, providing 1.5 acre feet of water annually to up to 1,785 acres of vineyard—more than four times as many acres as have been restricted to groundwater to date.

The properties auctioned Saturday come with water rights that benefit from the development of new irrigation infrastructure.

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