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Napa Wineries Still Scouting Red Mountain

Duckhorn rumored to be close to finalizing Washington vineyard property deal

by Peter Mitham
Interest in vineyard land in the Red Mountain AVA is still high following an auction in which Aquilini Investment Group purchased 670 acres in that part of Washington state.
Benton City, Wash.—They may have lost the battle, but the fight continues on Red Mountain as California wineries remain scouting properties in the wake of a hotly contested land auction.

Aquilini Investment Group’s surprise purchase of 670 acres on the venerable mountain, including 519 acres within the Red Mountain AVA, trumped bids by 38 other parties including both local wineries and contenders from California (see “B.C. Group Wins Washington Land”).

One of those California bidders was Duckhorn Vineyards, which president and CEO Alex Ryan told Wines & Vines is close to acquiring property in the AVA.

There are parcels available near Col Solare, the venture between the Antinori family of Italy and Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Ryan acknowledged that the area is of interest.

“There are a couple up there that we’re interested in,” he said. “Can’t really talk about things that aren’t done yet…(but) more than likely you’re going to hear about something pretty quick.”

Duckhorn purchased grapes from Red Mountain vineyards in 2012 and again this year, with winemaking taking place at Artifex Wine Co. in Walla Walla, Wash. Ryan expects the first release of wines (from the 2012 vintage) to occur in late 2014. The wines will bear the name Canvasback, ensuring the company’s brand family remains ducky.

The auction and other properties
Participation in the Nov. 23 auction was significant because of the connections it fostered, Ryan said.

While the initial response to the Aquilini purchase of parcels on Red Mountain was one of intense scrutiny of the motives of a family hitherto known in Eastern Washington primarily for its Sunnyside dairy operation, Ryan hopes to build on the relationships initiated there.

“We were received very well because our interest is genuine and legitimate,” he said. “We didn’t walk away with land, but I think we might have walked away with something much more substantial.”

One of the properties near Col Solare is a 20-acre parcel adjacent to the Hedges family’s Bel’ Villa Vineyard, which is reputed to be under contract to a Napa Valley winery. Closing is reportedly slated for later this month.

Eric Weinheimer of Ag Com Real Estate LLC in Sunnyside, the listing agent for the property, has been referring media queries to the purchaser, who has not yet contacted Wines & Vines. The purchaser is widely believed to not be Duckhorn, but Weinheimer expects the buyer to be keen to share its plans when the deal closes.

The flurry of dealings follow on the court-ordered sale in September 2012 of 174 acres formerly owned by the late Michael T. Moore and held by Green Vineyard LLC to Michael Corliss (see “Red Mountain Property Sells”). Corliss paid $4 million for the property, giving him a total of approximately 350 acres on Red Mountain as well as RMV Cellars.

Together with Lauri Darneille, Corliss also owns Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla. He told Wines & Vines last year that he planned to focus on renewing the vineyards that came with the latest acquisition, which included Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 1983.

Corliss didn’t return a call this week for comment on progress at the property.

The tide of interest and plans for investment are encouraging to Tom Hedges, however, who told Wines & Vines last week that any purchaser of property in the AVA should aim to enhance its reputation.

In the case of the property adjacent to Bel’ Villa, Hedges said development will be a significant improvement over the accumulation of equipment on the site at present.

“This is a superb site,” he said. “We will be happy to see a junkyard go and a new vineyard in place!”

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