Trump buys former Kluge-owned winery

April 7, 2011

First there was Trump Ice spring water. Then Trump chocolate and Trump tea. Now comes Trump wine.

The real estate mogul and much-buzzed-about GOP presidential contender snapped up a well-known Charlottesville winery for $6.2 million at a foreclosure auction Thursday, giving him a bottling facility where barrels of wine await the perfect final touch: a label with his name on it.

“It’s only Trump,” he declared by phone after the auction at the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard. “Everything is Trump!”

Trump, who is suddenly running behind only Mitt Romney in one GOP presidential poll, is one of the country’s most recognizable businessmen. His skyscrapers, hotels and golf courses stretch from Honolulu to Manhattan to Dubai. Seven years ago, he launched a wildly popular reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” and reveled in delivering his favorite line to those who had failed to please him: “You’re fired!”

He made headlines in 2009 when he made his first foray into Virginia real estate, purchasing a 600-acre golf club along the Potomac River in Loudoun County and promptly renaming it the Trump National Golf Club.

In recent weeks, he has begun wheeling and dealing in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, buying up bits and pieces of the historic Piedmont properties once owned by embattled socialite Patricia Kluge. On Thursday, he beat out other bidders for Kluge’s 776-acre vineyard at far less than its appraised value.

“I’m really interested in good real estate, not so much in wine,” Trump said. “This place had a $28 million mortgage on it, and I bought it for $6.2 million. It’s a Trump deal!”

He said he is likely to keep Kluge, 62, who has won awards for her wines, and her husband, former IBM executive William Moses, on to run the operation.

“She has a great instinct for wine, which I don’t,” he said.

Kluge — a statuesque Brit who was once married to the country’s richest man — did not attend the auction at her former property, where a garden party atmosphere reigned. Her former neighbors and farmhands came to watch the proceedings, sipping sparkling water and noshing on tiny ham-filled biscuits as the auctioneer bellowed. Some of them even brought their dogs.

Later, Kluge declared herself “thrilled that Donald owns the company” because he has assured her that he wants to continue making wine.

“We are committed, and he is committed,” she said, “and great things are going to come from the Kluge Estate and for the Virginia wine industry.”

Kluge, whose divorce from billionaire media magnate John Kluge left her with $15 million, dreamed of making a world-class Virginia wine when she planted her vineyard in 1999. She spent lavishly on about 200 acres of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and other types of grapes and hired a famous wine blender, Michel Rolland, from Bordeaux, France, to mix her red wines.

At first, the investment seemed to pay off: Kluge sparkling wines and its blended reds won accolades and were served at the White House and at the rehearsal dinner for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding last summer.

Over the years, Kluge and Moses gained somewhat controversial reputations in the close-knit wine industry, with some vintners sniping that the two were rich self-promoters whose success had more to do with their well-connected friends than the quality of their wine.

In the past two years, as the pair aggressively tried to expand the winery during the economic downturn, they fell on hard times. Kluge began selling her art and antiques, then listed her vast English-style manor, Albemarle House, for $100 million last year. She lost the vineyard to foreclosure in December and the estate this year.

At that time, Trump — who has known Kluge since they were in their 20s — stepped in and began negotiating to buy some of Kluge’s properties at bargain prices. But it is still unclear what he will do with his expanding Virginia fiefdom.

For example, he has the rights to buy the sprawling Albemarle House, with its wine grotto and helicopter pad, but hasn’t moved forward because he says the bank’s price of $16 million is too steep. However, the Trump Organization recently completed the purchase of the home’s sweeping 200-acre front lawn, which overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one time, the land was an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, but it is fallow.

“We’ll be happy on the front lawn,” Jason D. Greenblatt, executive vice president and general counsel of the Trump Organization, quipped at Thursday’s sale. “Who is going to pay that for a house with no front yard?”

Exactly, his boss agreed. “That’s why I’m Trump!” he said.

Todd Haymore, the state secretary of agriculture, said he was “very pleased” to hear of the mogul’s foray into winemaking. Industry officials had long said they hoped that the Kluge vineyard would be preserved amid the financial chaos. In recent years, the Virginia wine industry has grown to more than 180 vineyards and, although small, has a growing reputation for quality.

“It appears Mr. Trump has taken the first step toward making Virginia wine,” Haymore said. “We believe if he’s successful, he’ll help take Virginia wines to greater heights.”

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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