Tangles in the Vine
A Storied Va. Winery Is Up for Sale, but a Complex Family Dispute Has Confronted Potential Buyers

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.

The wine operation was almost sold late last year. The three separate bidders were Tareq Salahi; his friend and real estate agent Casey Margenau; and a Florida-based limited liability corporation that the younger Salahi said was linked to O'Neal, now a center for the Phoenix Suns. Perry Rogers, O'Neal's agent, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to Tareq Salahi, O'Neal and his partners backed out of the deal with the elder Salahis after the investors learned they would not obtain the Oasis trademark or wine.

Margenau, who had introduced Tareq Salahi to Michaele at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, emerged as the potential lead buyer, offering to lease the property back to his friend. But he backed out, too.

"When I looked at the disarray of the property and vines, and looked at the financials, I said, 'Tareq, you can't make this work. You couldn't pay the rent. You'd be defaulting to me, and we wouldn't be friends,' " Margenau said.

In June, Tareq Salahi met with another potential investor from Hong Kong. The elder Salahis' real estate agent, Lynn Wiley, showed up for the meeting. In a lawsuit filed in August in Fauquier County Circuit Court, Tareq Salahi alleged that Wiley defamed and embarrassed him in front of the investor by saying he "did not know what he was talking about." The Hong Kong investor, Tareq Salahi said, subsequently bowed out. The son is seeking $3.6 million in damages.

In court papers, Wiley responded that her comments were "insufficient" to support a defamation claim. To this day, Tareq Salahi is wistful about O'Neal's visit to the winery last year.

"I would still love to do a deal with him, and it could be a better deal," Tareq Salahi said. "He came to Virginia because of a personal interest. I showed him my prospectus, but his businesspeople were going to deal directly with [my mother]. He's a very pleasant gentleman. He's articulate about wines, and they weren't looking to buy a vineyard and winery [just] to say they owned one. He loved the big reds."

Tareq Salahi said he is considering teaming up with investors in Northern Virginia or Los Angeles to buy his parents' share for $3 million. He wants to start growing grapes again, renovate the tasting rooms and transform the property's residence into a bed-and-breakfast, but he worries about the credit crisis. "Honestly, and candidly, we are 80 percent there with the investors in Northern Virginia," he said, declining to identify them. "Their hang-ups are the economy, their liquidity. And they ask, 'Will the mother still be there?' "

So the Salahis wait for a sale. One sunny October day, the property, which normally would have been busy with tourists and harvesting, was silent. As the parents walked past empty Italian concrete vats, they pointed to some barrels of old wine. "It's just vinegar now," Dirgham Salahi said.

As for the son, he has high hopes for the Salahi saga. He said he has met twice with a TV producer about using the dispute as the basis for a movie or miniseries.

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