Local Realtor buys troubled vineyard


As a teenager, Tareq Salahi grew up helping his father plant and cultivate the vineyard he started in 1975 on a postage-stamp parcel in Fauquier County. Salahi, 38, became enamored with the wine business, gaining apprenticeships at vineyards in Australia and Napa Valley, and helping to build Oasis Vineyard near Hume into an operation that sold 18,000 cases last year.

In recognition of his passion for making wine, his father pledged to sell the vineyard to him one day for a dollar, Salahi recalls.

Last month in a Fauquier County courtroom, a year long feud over the ownership and operation of Oasis came to quiet closure. During a hearing in circuit court, attorneys presented Judge Jeffrey W. Parker with an agreed order that all parties had approved N. Casey Margenaus offer to buy the property and assets of Oasis Vineyard Inc. for $4.15 million.

Margenaus offer apparently exceeded that of Tuscan Ventures LLC, a holding company widely believed to be controlled by Miami Heat basketball player Shaquille ONeal, which bid $4 million.

This is not charity, but I am helping a friend. Im just giving Tareq a vehicle to realize his dreams, said Margenau, a McLean Realtor who is one of the top brokers on the East Coast, and who currently holds half the total listings for newly constructed homes in Alexandria.

Margenau, 48, acknowledged that what he knows about the wine business could fit in Tareqs pinkie, adding that if this vineyard left family hands, hed be crushed.

ONeals manager, Mike Parris, did not return phone calls for comment.

Justice prevailed at the end of the day, Salahi said.

Thus ended a family saga which Tareq likens to the soapy 1980s television series, Falcon Crest. My dad and I started side by side making the wines, he said. I planted my first vines when I was eight years old and this is the only thing I know … Bushogging and bottling all these years.

The new owner has pledged to lease back the 108-acre vineyard for him to run. To me this is a real estate deal, Margenau said. Its more like buying a shopping center and leasing it back to skilled managers.

A vineyard grows
After receiving a degree in business management and oenology from the University of California at Davis, Salahi became managing director of Oasis in 1994, helping to direct operations while his father Dirgham coasted into retirement and his mother Corrine ran a Montessori school in Alexandria. My mother was never here, Tareq recalled. Shes only reappeared in the last two years.

The younger Salahi created the vineyards vaunted Meritage line, which won Gold Medals at 1994 and 1996 world wine championships, and in 1998 he launched a Cuvee Celebration sparkling wine, which also garnered top awards. With a brand of enthusiasm that would make P.T. Barnum blush, the prodigal son criss-crossed the world promoting the Oasis brand, playing polo at Windsor Castle against Prince Charles and hosting the world polo championships last May at Morven Park, featuring the band Journey.

By last year, the vineyard was producing as many as 18,000 cases per year, and Salahi had launched a successful limousine business, as well as a wine distribution and bottled water business. Wine Country Tours eventually grew into a 12-vehicle fleet, with limos, sedans, vans and motor coaches that delivered the vineyard 50 percent of its traffic last year. Tourism has become a big part of the picture, Salahi said.

Three Virginia governors were also impressed with Salahis plan to market Virginia wine to the world, naming him to the Virginia Wine Board and most recently, chair of the Virginia Wine Tourism Office. Over the past decade, the Virginia Wineway, Loudoun Wine Trail, Blue Ridge Wineway and Virginia Wineries Alliance were created, attracting 980,000 wine tourists to the state, of which 336,000 visited Piedmont wineries, according to a USDA study.

Baby boomers from the densely-populated suburbs began making weekend pilgrimmages to Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock vineyards. Many saw the day trips as an affordable and quick escape. We offer something for everyone at all price points, Salahi said. So we decided not to become competitors with each other, but to work together … Oasis became bigger and stronger as a result.

A feud erupts
One day last June, Shaquille ONeal, one of the worlds best-known athletes, showed up at the vineyard unannounced. Michaele Salahi, a former model whod known ONeal through charity circles, said, I just said to him What are you doing here? And he said, Ive been talking to Mrs. Salahi and Im thinking of buying Oasis.

Neither said they knew the vineyard was for sale, which Tareq said was a violation of their family partnership, naming the parents as 70 percent owners and Tareq and his brother Ishmael as 30 percent owners. His father, 80-year-old Durgham Salahi, has Parkinsons disease and suffers from dementia. She listed the place without my authorization, Tareq said. But we felt Shaq might make a good partner for our growth plans.

A meeting was arranged in which the Salahis shared with Shaq their secret marketing plan of building a luxury B&B, spa and hosting wine-tasting dinners. We figured hed be our secret partner at Oasis, Salahi said.

According to court documents, ONeal formed a company named Tuscan Ventures to buy the vineyard. However, Salahi said it eventually became clear that ONeal planned to own and operate the vineyard without him, and it was possible he might co-opt his ideas. We had positive, productive meetings with Shaq and his people, but then things went south, he recalled.

Tareq blamed his mother Corrine Salahi for causing turmoil at the vineyard, claiming she abused vineyard employees with bullying tactics and fabricated claims, and even wielding a pistol at times. Mrs. Salahi did not return calls for comment.

Since January  the Fauquier Sheriffs Office has recorded 26 incident reports at the vineyard, six naming Corrine Salahi, according to Major Paul Mercer, the Sheriff Offices Public Information Officer. We have sent deputies out there quite a few times this year, Mercer said. These cases involved everything from simple assault, motor vehicle theft, burglary and assault involving a family member.

According to court documents, allegations of fraud and embezzlement of corporate assets were made by both the younger Salahi and his parents since litigation began last November. In June, the court appointed Thorpe as receiver of Oasis Vineyard, and in a report filed in circuit court, Warrenton attorney T. Huntley Thorpe III Thorpe described operation of the winery as contentious.

There was an ongoing battle between Tareq Salahi [and his parents} Dirgham and Corrine Salahi for control of operations of the vineyard which led to numerous visits by the Fauquier County Sheriffs Office, Thorpe reported. Things were so bad that Thorpe recommended that operations be suspended or that the business be sold to Florida-based Tuscan Ventures LLC.

However, Tareq Salahis attorneys argued in an emergency motion filed earlier this month that the terms of the Tuscan LLC contract were not in the best interest of the corporation and that their clients offer to buy the business should be accepted instead. Both Margenau and Salahi said the bid contained multiple contingencies and would not close for six months, giving the buyer a chance to walk away from the deal completely.

The younger Salahi said his plans were to see Oasis grow, while his mothers plans were to downsize. Margenau said the vineyard is losing between $100,000 and $200,000 per year and had taken on debt, which triggered the court to appoint a receiver. The vineyard is losing money but its auxiliary businesses are doing well, Margenau said.

This was not the Salahis first fight. For years Tareq Salahi had been feuding with neighbors over noise complaints at the vineyard, and two years ago the Fauquier County Zoning Office limited event activities to 12 wine tas
tings per year.

Michaele Salahi registered as a lobbyist in Richmond and helped forged House Bill 2643, which removes the power of county zoning authorities to regulate customary or usual vineyard activities, such as wine dinners or weddings. The so-called buy-right legislation went into effect in July. Then Hurricane Isabella hit, wiping out their crop.

In between Fauquier Countys zoning abuse, Isabella and now this, weve gotten beaten up all around, Michaele Salahi said. Its all conspired to rip us apart, but weve stayed strong.

As for Casey Margenau, he hopes to close on the vineyard and the home owned by Dirgham and Corrine Salahi by the end of the year. Tareq and Michaele Salahi will hold on to the wine tour business, event planning firm and distributorship.

I didnt want to own or operate a vineyard, but I am in the real estate business and that part I understand.

Times reporter Alexandra Bogdanovic contributed to this article.