Canadian company buys more land in Horse Heaven Hills

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldApril 5, 2014 

A Canadian company that recently scooped up a fifth of the remaining prime land in Washington's smallest wine grape growing area is the new owner of two vineyards in the state's largest.

Aquilini Brands bought almost 700 acres of vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills for almost $7 million earlier this week.

The company is owned by the same family who bought 670 acres of undeveloped Red Mountain land for $8.3 million from Kennewick Irrigation District.

"We are thrilled with our recent acquisition and continue to believe strongly in the Washington wine industry," Barry Olivier, president of Aquilini Brands, told the Herald Saturday.

The Aquilini family, including Luigi Aquilini and his sons, Francesco, Roberto and Paolo, may be best known for owning the Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League and Rogers Arena.

But they also own Canadian blueberry and cranberry farms, Sunnyside's Aquilini Dairy, a construction and real estate conglomerate with developments and rental properties across Canada, hospitality services and a hotel empire.

Windy Ridge and Aldercreek vineyards in Klickitat County were auctioned off Friday by Musser Bros. Auctions and Real Estate of Pasco, the same company that handled the recent action of Red Mountain land near Benton City.

The auction of the Horse Heaven Hills land was quick, with bidding going from $4 million to $6.89 million in about 15 minutes, said Scott Musser of Musser Bros. About 60 people attended the auction, held at Musser Bros.' Pasco office.

Overall there was a good level of buzz about the vineyards even though they didn't have quite the same wide appeal as Red Mountain, Musser said.

Unlike the undeveloped Red Mountain land, about 335 acres are already planted with grape vines. Some vineyards date back to the mid- to late 1990s, but 70 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted as recently as last year. The vineyards also feature more Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The wine grapes are under contract with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates through 2017.

The Horse Heaven Hills is the state's largest wine grape growing area with more than 11,000 acres of active vineyards -- about a quarter of the state's acreage. Wines from Horse Heaven Hills have received acclaim, and Forbes recently named the area one of the top six "exciting" wine grape-growing regions to explore this year.

Shelly Crocker, a Seattle consultant who has been in charge of operations and marketing the property, told the Herald she was pleased with the auction's results.

The sale will be enough to repay Rabobank in full, but she said it won't be enough for all of the vineyards' creditors to be repaid. Rabobank sought a court-appointed receiver to oversee the vineyards after vineyard owner Dave Groth died.

Some money will be left after the bank recoups its costs from the loan but will most likely pay taxes, she said.

Marshall Edwards of Northwest Vineyard Management has worked hard during the last few years with onsite farm manager Oscar Gonzalez to get the vineyards in good shape, Crocker said.

The sale still needs to be approved by Klickitat County Superior Court. Musser said the sale is expected to close on or before May 9.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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