Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What the Aquilinis are up to on Red Mountain

Aquilini Brands president Barry Olivier
Since 2013, when a mysterious man in a turban outbid a host of wineries at an auction for 670 acres of unplanted land on Red Mountain, the Washington wine industry has been wondering: who the heck are these people, and what are they up to?

The man in a turban, whose name I do not know, worked for the Aquilinis, a Canadian family of billionaires that owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and its arena. They're reportedly the world's largest farmers and processors of blueberries and cranberries, and they also own real-estate developments and several fine-dining restaurants in Vancouver. (Here are more details on Francesco Aquilini's Wikipedia page.)

But this is their first foray into wine, and it's a huge one, with important implications for the Washington wine industry. The Red Mountain AVA is Washington's trendiest region, responsible for many of its highest-rated wines. But Red Mountain is tiny: only 4040 acres total, with about 2400 planted. Of the Aquilinis' 670 acres, 535 are in the AVA. The Aquilinis are now Red Mountain's largest grape farmers by volume, and they will play a huge role in determining how Red Mountain is perceived in the future.

But when the Aquilinis harvested their first crop last year, they couldn't find buyers because they have so few contacts in the industry.

Hence this blog post. I did a story for Wine-Searcher about Red Mountain AVA for consumers because the wines merit it. This post is basically for the Washington wine industry. I spent a whole day with both Aquilini vineyard teams last month. Everybody else I talked to before or after asked, what are the Aquilinis up to? Well, I'll tell you.

There are two separate Aquilini wine operations

Francesco (left) and Luigi Aquilini, with cranberries. Courtesy Ric Ernst/Vancouver Sun
One of the first things the Aquilinis did was engage Washington terroir expert Kevin Pogue to figure out which of their vineyard holdings were the best.

"We came up with 60 acres that we wanted to farm differently: farm for super-high quality," said Barry Olivier, president of Aquilini Brands. Olivier is in charge of the smaller high-end wine operation while Arianna Bozzolo, formerly a research viticulturist, is in charge of the much larger grapes-for-sale operation.

The Aquilinis plan to make high-end wine under their own name from the 60 acres Pogue chose. They recently hired Andrew Schultz, who has his own vineyard management company Brothers in Farms, to manage it. They're calling it Aquilini Elite Vineyard; some of it is across from Kiona's old block. The soil is so sandy that 95% of the vines are own-rooted. They're planning to make a 100% Cabernet; they're also going to make a red blend with Cab, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot, and they have a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc. They plan to cap production from the Elite Vineyard at 10,000 cases.

I'll give more detail on the plans for the high-end Aquilini-brand wines later. What I think is most interesting and important to other Washington wineries is the Aquilinis' massive grapes-for-sale branch, Aquilini Family Vineyards, which has an entirely different management team. Nobody, not even the individual family members, oversees both.

The Aquilinis have some bulk wine to sell right now and plenty of grapes to sell in autumn

Here is how badly Aquilini Family Vineyards needs grape customers. I went to a Taste Washington after-party at RN74 on a Saturday night, I got a lot of good wine in me, and ran into Bozzolo and her right-hand man, a Franciacorta, Italy native with an impressive stack of dreadlocks, sitting at the bar. They don't know any winemakers, and she told me she had come to Taste Washington specifically to meet some.

So soon enough, my inhibitions lowered, I'm introducing them to a few of the Washington winemakers I know. One looked like he struck a deal for grapes; the other kind of dressed them down. I've been a wine journalist for a while but I never attempted grape brokerage before. And for billionaires! The Aquilinis need my help like the Canucks need to learn to skate.

Arianna Bozzolo
I don't feel sorry for the Aquilinis: of course not. If their whole Red Mountain investment is a disaster they can absorb it as a tax writeoff. But I like Bozzolo, who used to teach viticulture at University of Missouri and has published viticulture research papers. She's a straight talker and a wine person. She and her colleague seem to know what they're doing in the vineyard. (The colleague doesn't speak English, though he seems to understand it, and I didn't even get his name. One of the few things he said in English was, "No spray." He's very much into discing and cover crops, rather than pesticides.)

But they have no idea what they're doing in selling grapes and wine. And no wonder: Bozzolo is an expert in several aspects of the wine industry, but not grape sales. Before this job she worked in grower relations for Hogue Cellars. She knows growers: other wine grape sellers. She doesn't know buyers.

It's tempting for me to just put her phone number and email address in this post, but I'm not gonna for spam reasons. The Washington Wine Commission can put you in touch with her: call them.

The Aquilinis hire people who they think are good and let them learn the job

Bozzolo knows vineyards, but not grape sales. Olivier knows great wine -- he ran a fine-wine importing company in Vancouver, where he became drinking buddies with Francesco Aquilini -- but he had never run a winery.

That's fine because the Aquilinis, according to Olivier, don't care about relevant experience in choosing their top people.

"The Aquilinis said we know you don't have these skills now, but you know wine and you'll have good people and you'll learn," Olivier said.

(As an aside, they hired Samantha Stanway, a former health journalist, to be their director of marketing. She also had no experience and that might eventually hurt her, but the press kit she wrote is one of the best I've ever read: a coherent story that answered all my questions. AND she inadvertently came up the label design for their high-end wines after the family rejected proposals from several expensive design firms on at least two continents.)

Calling Olivier merely Francesco Aquilini's drinking buddy understates the relationship. Francesco, scion of the family, is the fine-wine enthusiast. He bought a lot of his wines from Olivier and also accompanied him on some wine buying trips to Italy. "He'd say, 'Some day we're going to work together'," Olivier said.

There is a downside to bringing in inexperienced outsiders, as Bozzolo discovered, even when -- on Olivier's side of the business -- you're not trying to sell anything yet. (The first Aquilini estate wines are still aging in tanks.)

"It's taken some time to break down barriers to show that we're not idiots," Olivier said. "That we're going to do right by this terroir."

Olivier's first hire was a winemaking consultant. He interviewed several big names before choosing Philippe Melka, who he said was the most down-to-earth of the group. Melka had experience working in Washington because he does a wine with Long Shadows.

Bringing Melka on board paid off immediately.

"Philippe wanted Taransaud custom-made tanks from France," Olivier said. "When we first went to Taransaud, they said, we don't have barrels for you. Then we got Philippe involved and he could get barrels, and the tanks."

Until their estate grapes are ready, Melka has been making Aquilini brand wines in small quantities from purchased fruit.

"We wanted to buy some Klipsun (vineyard) fruit and she didn't want to sell to me," Olivier said. "But then she said, 'Philippe's involved?' And we got some wine."

The Aquilini crew in winter. Philippe Melka is the man in the fur hat in the middle.
Schultz, the new vineyard manager, said, "I like assembling teams. Steve Jobs said, 'We have smart people to tell us what to do, not the other way around.' "

The Aquilini estate wines are going to be monsters, likely on Instagram

Olivier and Francesco Aquilini are fans of ripe, full-bodied wines. He loves Sine Qua Non, Saxum, Paul Lato, Araujo Eisele Vineyard. "I used to import those wines," he said.

Red Mountain is the right place for them. It's not that easy to make big, rich wines that are also balanced. Quilceda Creek established Red Mountain as a good source of such wines and now the AVA is known for them.

"Francesco's got Quilceda Creek in his cellar, he's got Leonetti, he's got Betz," Olivier said. "He says, 'Can you make me this?' I say, 'It's going to cost money.' He says, "Give me a 100-point wine.' "

Of course, lots of wineries make these kinds of wines, and 100-point wines are commonplace these days. But Francesco Aquilini has a marketing advantage. The family owns Rogers Arena and he likes to hang out backstage with visiting musicians. Everybody plays Vancouver. Olivier name-dropped Shania Twain as a friend of Francesco's, and said he recently turned down one of the Kardashians who wanted a large sum of money to Instagram a label shot. But other famous people might do it for free, or for some free wine, especially if they want prime concert dates in western Canada.

Father and son have different passions

Look at all those Aquilini vineyards
Francesco, the son, is into fine wine. Luigi, the patriarch, is into farming. He's the blueberry/cranberry guy, and he's the one overseeing the bigger grape-selling operation. The Aquilinis also recently bought some vineyard land in the nearby Horse Heaven Hills AVA because it came available and Luigi likes farming.

But with Luigi's farming operation, they're not currently planning to make any of their own wines. Bozzolo said they made some wine last year at a custom-crush center because they couldn't sell the grapes and thought the wine would show off what the vineyard is capable of.

They're bringing hundreds of acres of grapes online at a bad time for selling grapes or bulk wine in Washington. Chateau Ste Michelle, the massive winery that dominates grape buying in the state, had a terrible year last year with sales of its cheap wines way down. If CSM isn't buying as many grapes as usual, that means there's an excess of grapes from established vineyards with older vines.

At their grape-selling operation, the Aquilinis have Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They are willing to work with winemakers to farm the grapes as they want. They're open for business! This ends my online attempt at grape brokering. They're billionaires: they don't need my help.

I will say this, though: these grapes have the potential to redefine what consumers think of Red Mountain wines. There's just so many of them, and they might be for sale cheap (I don't know that). It would behoove the state's wine industry for these grapes to go places where they will be well-made.

The Aquilinis were looking all over the West Coast before the Red Mountain auction

Francesco wanted to get into fine wine. Luigi wanted to get into wine-grape farming. They had feelers out for several years but they didn't find exactly the right property. Then the Red Mountain auction happened, and they found the price too good to pass up.

Lots of wineries were bidding on some of the 670 acres for sale, but "no one wanted 670 acres," Olivier said, especially because 135 acres are outside the Red Mountain AVA. The mysterious man in the turban (Olivier said he was a last-minute substitution, and he was on the phone to Luigi and Francesco the whole time) simply kept bidding until everyone else stopped. The Aquilinis ended up paying an average of $12,000 per acre for the land, along with $12,000 per acre to the local water district.

"You can't buy real estate in Napa for $24,000," Olivier said.

When I'm interviewing new wineries in Napa that paid exorbitant prices for land, I often ask how long they expect it will take to break even. One vintner told me something I've never gotten over: "We don't need to make a profit for 100 years."

Sorry dear reader, I didn't bother asking Olivier that. For one thing, he's not the owners themselves. But mainly, maybe they'll make money and maybe they won't, but everything about the operation from the moment of acquisition to their willingness to accept a learning curve for key employees suggests they're in it for the long haul.

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TheDon said...

I believe this is going to depress the Cabernet Sauvignon grape market in Washington State for some for some time. Last year they put a lot of grapes on the market at reasonably good prices, for growers (I saw their ads on the internet), but I would guess much lower than what most established Red Mountain growers get. Gray reports they didn't sell a whole lot of them! One would understand, not having a lot of contacts in the industry likely contributed to their lack of sales. I am more concerned that lack of capacity in Washington State wineries may also be part of the problem!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the in depth.
They have a rep in the Red Mtn community of not seeking local knowledge. " rich, arrogant, assholes", I'm often called an arrogant asshole, just not rich!
Cab Sauv prices were due for depression in our state. They may drag Red Mtn down also.
We have had plenty of un harvested fruit the past three vintages. We all have a surplus of inventory. Traditionally Winter cuts our yields significantly every few years, hasn't happened for a while so inventory climbs.
Paul Vandenberg
Paradisos del Sol
World's first Zero pesticide vinifera vineyard

PaulG said...

"these grapes have the potential to redefine what consumers think of Red Mountain wines.” This makes it sound as if Red Mountain wines need an image upgrade. Au contraire my friend. If anything, the potential here is to drag the image down, drag prices down, drag a lot of little guys down. The huge block of land they bought had been slated to be shared by multiple winegrowers, keeping the overall mix on the mountain intact. This is a behemoth with (apparently) more money than taste. They want a 100 point Cabernet, they should have bought in Napa. Just sayin’...