Owners of NHL's Canucks scoops up entire offering at Red Mountain auction

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BENTON CITY, WASH. — A Canadian company has scooped up about a fifth of the land available for sale in a prime wine grape growing area on Red Mountain near Benton City.

Aquilini Properties, owned by a family who also owns the Vancouver Canucks, bought all 670 acres of undeveloped land that Kennewick Irrigation District offered for sale Saturday during a five-hour live auction in Pasco.

The 31 parcels that KID has held onto since 1943 will cost the Vancouver, B.C., limited partnership more than $15.9 million.

In an auction that was compared to a high-stakes poker game, Aquilini Properties outbid about 15 other wine grape growers and companies from Washington and California’s Napa Valley. The winning bid was $8.3 million.

Aquilini Properties also will pay a 5.5 percent fee on its winning bid to Musser Bros. Auctions of Pasco, which ran the auction for KID, said Chuck Freeman, KID’s manager.

The company also must pay $7.6 million for its part of KID’s $20.2 million local improvement district project to bring Yakima River water to Red Mountain.

Red Mountain is the state’s smallest American Viticultural Area, also called an appellation. That means it’s a governmentally recognized wine grape growing region.

About 1,400 of its acres are planted vineyards, and it’s home to several wineries. Dozens of other winemakers throughout Washington use Red Mountain grapes.

Recently, one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries, Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., announced plans to open a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused winery using grapes from there.

Freeman told the Herald that KID officials were satisfied with the auction results. The board can decide to use the one-time revenue for projects such as canal lining, automation, pump consolidation and other safety and efficiency projects.

The sale is expected to close by Jan. 7, Freeman said. Then KID will no longer own any land within the local improvement district, although it will still own property on Red Mountain.

“There is a new player on Red Mountain,” Freeman said.

But what the new player plans for the land is unclear.

Andy Perdue, editor of Great Northwest Wine, told the Herald that Aquilini is a bit of a mystery for those in the wine industry.

“We see this acquisition as a great opportunity to enter the viticulture business in one of the best growing regions in Washington state,” Luigi Aquilini told Perdue via email Monday evening. “We are in the process of determining the best grape varieties to grow in the region with the intention of developing and planting the land as soon as possible.”

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

The company was founded about 50 years ago as a construction and real estate business and has ballooned into a conglomerate that media reports have valued at more than $5 billion in 2007.

The company has an interest in agriculture. It owns blueberry and cranberry farms in Canada and Sunnyside’s Aquilini Dairy, which had about 670 active dairy cows, according to the Vancouver Sun.

It also owns more than 4,000 acres in Washington, developments and rental properties across Canada, hospitality services and a hotel empire, the Vancouver Sun reported.

On Saturday, members of the local and Napa Valley wine industries increased bids on various parcels to try to outbid Aquilini Investment Group, Perdue said. Aquilini Properties is a subsidiary of the investment group.

There was frustration on the part of those who failed to buy the single 20-acre parcels they had hoped for, Perdue said.

Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain, who attended the auction but did not bid on any of the parcels, said inaction on the company’s part will not have a negative impact on Ciel du Cheval or other Red Mountain wineries. But the land, which could become high-end vineyards, represents an opportunity for the local economy and tourism.

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