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Tangles in the Vine

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Of all the luxury real estate for sale in the economic downturn, one property in Northern Virginia's horse country sticks out for its owners' magnum-size struggle to find a buyer.

The Oasis Winery in Fauquier County, one of Virginia's oldest, has been on the market since May 2007 and is now selling for $4.75 million. Such is the mystique of Oasis that basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, an apparent oenophile, and a group of investors were said to be on the verge of buying it last year. But infighting between members of the owning family has bedeviled attempts to sell the vineyard, winery, tasting room and four-bedroom French country-style home that sit on 108 acres.

On one side are co-owners Dirgham Salahi, 82, an Israeli immigrant, and his wife, Corinne Salahi, 63, who want to unload their stake and pay off debt.

On the other is their polo-playing son, Tareq Salahi, 39, also a co-owner, and his wife, Michaele, a former Washington Redskins cheerleader who is now a Richmond lobbyist. The son, a member of the Virginia Tourism Authority, is hurrying to team up with investors to buy what he views as his heritage before someone else steps in.

The family tensions are exposed in a civil suit in Fauquier County Circuit Court in which the parents allege that their son has interfered with the winery's sale and falsely advertised on the Internet that Oasis was closed. The parents also sought to evict him and his wife from an apartment on the property. The son responded in court documents with allegations that his parents' attorney assaulted him and a request that he be removed from the case. (The attorney, Thomas Brownell of the firm Holland & Knight, has denied those allegations in court papers.)

Both sides said in interviews that the lawsuit is dormant; Tareq Salahi said he expects a formal settlement soon without any monetary payments. But it's unclear who will buy the winery in this economic climate.

"My heart and soul is in Oasis. I am worried that someone will come in and try to buy it," said Tareq Salahi, who grew up planting vines with his father. "If you told me 10 years ago this was going to happen, I wouldn't have believed it. I would have told you that's the life of [the television show] 'Falcon Crest.' I am also concerned about the economy. Clearly, people who have money to invest in a project like this, there are less of them."

Corinne Salahi, who is founder and director of the Montessori School of Alexandria, said in an interview that the fight with her son is depressing and that she blames him for amassing unmanageable debt through enterprises related to the winery. The mother said she had hoped that after her son graduated from college he would join the family business, "learn the ropes and gradually take over, not create more work for me and his father." She said the family stress has caused her to develop a heart problem. "It's just depressing," she said. Blood is the most important thing. I used to call him my best harvest. I still do."

Among Virginia winemakers, Oasis, founded in 1977, has been known for its sparkling blended wines. In the 1990s it was also known for hosting large events that prompted battles with neighbors and Fauquier officials over noise and traffic. Oasis's tasting room boasts multiple wine awards, a framed Pittsburgh Penguins hockey stick -- Oasis was the team's official wine -- and photographs of former Virginia governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) touring the facilities.

But Oasis is not growing grapes this year and offers only a limited number of chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons for sale at its site and at stores, according to Tareq Salahi. It's still open for tastings, and the son said that if he gains control of the winery, he hopes to bottle 10,000 gallons from its 2007 vintage.

The winery's reputation as one of the state's more muscular producers and tourism pioneers was diminished by its large debt, according to the Salahis, and accounts of the family's spats and real estate troubles. (The son said most of a $1 million debt was paid off in September, but the mother said heavy debt remains.)

The elder Salahis said their son ran up too many expenses with tourism initiatives that could not be paid back. Tareq Salahi said the winery lost revenue because it was spending too much money in lawyers' fees -- $2 million -- battling Fauquier officials over zoning restrictions of the winery events.


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