Dirgham Salahi, Virginia winery owner and Montessori school founder, dies at 81

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 10:15 PM

Dirgham R. Salahi, 81, the founder the Montessori School of Alexandria and longtime owner of the Oasis Winery in Hume, died Oct. 6, his family said.

His wife, Corinne, confirmed the death but declined to provide further details. The Washington Post reported last year that Mr. Salahi had dementia.

Mr. Salahi was drawn into the headlines recently after his son Tareq and daughter-in-law Michaele appeared at a White House state dinner in November even though the couple had not been included on a published guest list.

The incident dominated media coverage for weeks and was investigated as a major security breach by the Secret Service. Tareq and Michaele Salahi have been featured on this season's Bravo television series "The Real Housewives of D.C."

The gate-crashing affair at the White House led to unwanted publicity about the family's bitter entanglement over control of the Oasis Winery.

Founded in 1977 on an estate about 65 miles outside the District, the Oasis Winery sits on a picturesque 108 acres in Fauquier County's hunt country.

Dirgham Salahi, who had studied geology, examined the loamy earth around his estate and carefully selected a group of French hybrid varietals to grow on his farm.

From his harvest, Mr. Salahi made red and white wines, including a riesling, cabernet sauvignon and gewurztraminer. He also made a sparkling wine composed of a combination of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.

At its peak, the winery shipped out 15,000 cases a year and grossed $1 million.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Salahi brought Tareq into the business, giving him 5 percent interest in the company and the title of general manager. Within a few years, the vineyard began to hemorrhage money. In 2005, Oasis filed a loss of $277,498 on $833,525 in revenue.

In 2006, Dirgham Salahi and his wife, the former Corinne Brouhon, sued their son for $1.5 million in damages and reimbursements stemming from Tareq's business, Oasis Enterprises, which was an event-hosting and limousine service.

Tareq Salahi countersued his parents a few months later, arguing that his business had raised the winery's profile and helped "increase sales."

Eventually, both businesses filed for bankruptcy. In 2007, Dirgham Salahi placed his property - included a four-bedroom French country-style home, tasting room, winery and vineyard - on the market.

Mr. Salahi's son challenged the Oasis Winery bankruptcy filing in court. Tareq Salahi, who claimed he was the rightful owner of the business and had power of attorney over his ailing father, said that his mother had "misrepresented that she had the authority to file this bankruptcy."

Last month, an Alexandria bankruptcy court judge denied Tareq Salahi's motion to dismiss the Chapter 7 liquidation.

A statement released by Tareq and Michaele Salahi after Mr. Salahi's death said, "In recent days, we have come together as a family."

Throughout the contentious and drawn-out legal proceedings, the wine-making business suffered.

Grapes shriveled on the vines, and empty vats collected dust. Of the idle barrels of his precious wine, Mr. Salahi said in 2008, "It's just vinegar now."

Dirgham Rida Salahi was born July 10, 1929, in Jerusalem to Palestinian parents. Early in his career, Mr. Salahi was an official at the Libyan Embassy in Washington and attended George Washington University, according to a Post news story.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include a son from a previous marriage, Ismail D. Salahi, who is a doctor and has a practice in Jacksonville, Fla.

In 1970, Dirgham Salahi and his wife founded the private Montessori School of Alexandria, but the endeavor soon encountered financial difficulties.

Mr. Salahi and his wife worked without a salary for several years and struggled to cut down the school's $155,000 in debt. They tried bake sales, garage sales and book sales - all to no avail.

One day, a student's parent suggested that Mr. Salahi organize bingo games sponsored by the school. When Mr. Salahi opened the games in the early 1970s, hundreds of participants lined the doors of a community building down the road from the school in Old Town.

The games had purses worth thousands of dollars and gave away cars as prizes. In 1977, the school made $240,000 from the games, a 43.9 percent profit for the tax-exempt organization. Of the success, Mr. Salahi said, "Bingo has been a miracle for us."

In 1978, Mr. Salahi was the key witness in a bribery investigation of William Cowhig, a Virginia commonwealth's attorney.

Mr. Salahi, who was not charged in the indictment, claimed that he had paid the state official $32,000 to protect the school's bingo games. Cowhig was acquitted in the trial and later resigned amid other allegations.

It was about this same period that Mr. Salahi started his wine business and retreated to Hume. Mr. Salahi told The Post that his home in the Piedmont countryside, surrounded by lush pastures and pristine views of the Blue Ridge mountains, was his personal oasis.

"When you work here, it's so quiet you talk to your vines," Mr. Salahi said in 1984. "It's very peaceful."

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