|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks|
Oasis Vineyard last Friday. During a visit by a reporter, there were
few visitors, while other nearby vineyards were packed with
Thanksgiving weekend day tourists,
HUME, VA. - 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, Va. into an operation that sold 18,000 cases of their wine in 2006.
|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks|
A lion stands sentry at the entrance to
In recognition of his passion for making wine, his father Dirgham Salahi pledged to sell the vineyard to him one day for a dollar, Salahi told me in an interview in December, 2007.
But two years ago this week, 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 Nov. 27, attorneys presented Judge Jeffrey W. Parker with an agreed order that all parties had approved N. Casey Margenau's offer to buy the property and assets of Oasis Vineyard Inc. for $4.15 million.
Margenau's offer apparently exceeded that of Tuscan Ventures LLC, a holding company widely believed to be controlled by Miami Heat basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, which bid $4 million. "In a game of one-on-one I took Shaq on and won," Margenau said at the time.
Margenau, a McLean, VA. Realtor and Local Kicks contributor who is one of the top brokers on the East Coast, has in recent days been speaking about his longtime friends on ABC's Good Morning America and CNN's Larry King Show after the two were said to have "crashed" a White House state dinner. On Monday they went on NBC's 'The Today Show' to deny they're crashers, though neither has been able to produce one of those much-sought-after embossed invitations.
|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks|
The wine tasting pavillion at Oasis sits empty
last Friday. The vineyard is in bankruptcy.
At last week's State Dinner, they appeared in photos with President Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Vice President Joe Biden, which Michaele posted to their joint Facebook page. They have sent the Secret Service into a frenzy regarding the President's security.
So, just who are the Salahis?
Tareq 41, is the polo-playing scion of the Israeli-born Dirgham Salahi and his wife, Corinne, who co-founded Virginia's Oasis Winery in 1977. Corinne founded the Montessori School of Alexandria in Alexandria, VA. in 1980 and still runs the school. During a visit to the Oasis Winery on Friday, she was cordial to this reporter in the winery's empty tasting room, but offered no comment.
"Tareq is blood, like the wine that flows from the grapes we produce here," said an Oasis Winery employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She would never speak ill of her son. She and Dirgham are very private people...But, they are heartsick about this whole matter. All I can say is that Tareq has not been welcome at the vineyard since February."
|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks |
Tareq and Michaele Salahi at the International
Gold Cup Races, October, 2008.
Last February, Salahi declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the Eastern District Bankrputcy Court of Virginia in Alexandria, effectively wiping out $1 million in debts. In the filing, he listed $300,00 in assets.
Michaele Salahi, 44, is Tareq's willowy wife. Her biography remains unclear. Michaele claimed that she was a cheerleader for the Washington Redskins and a Victoria Secret supermodel, but the Redskinettes and Victoria Secret have disputed that. She's under strong consideration to be cast for Bravo TV's upcoming reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C." to be broadcast in January.
Casey and his wife Molly introduced Tareq to his now wife Michaele at their holiday party in 2000, and both were in their wedding, two of the 28 grooms and bridesmaids at an extravagant wedding which this reporter attended. "Tareq has spent 30 years of his life trying to make the vineyard something," Margenau said at the time. "Shaq liked his ideas so much that he tried to buy the vineyard without him."
O'Neal's manager, Mike Parris, did not return phone calls for comment. Margenau said he was a long time friend and confidante of the Salahis. Last week, before appearing on Larry King, he told this reporter that he was in contact with the couple almost daily
In 2007, Margenau, 48, acknowledged that what he knows about the wine business could "fit in Tareq's pinkie," adding that "if this vineyard left family hands, he'd be crushed."
|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks|
The sleepy country village of Hume, VA.,
where the Hume Postmaster is the brother
of Fox News Channel's Brit Hume.
"It was not charity, I was just trying to help an old friend friend," Margenau said. "I was just trying to give Tareq a vehicle to realize his dreams."
However, negotiations to purchase Oasis for Tareq to run broke down after appraisers and experts Margenau said that he had hired discovered that the condition of the vineyard was "in a dilapidated state."
"A lot of [wine making] equipment was broken down and a lot of Tareq's promises did mpy hold true," Margenau told me at the time. "The deal was untenable."
It was not Margenau's first angel investment in Fauquier County. He also owned 80 acres in Bealeton that he said that rented back to a church for a nominal sum to run a program for at-risk youths. He also said he owned two rental properties in the county.
Much of his real estate business is in Fairfax County, where his ReMax-associated firm, Margenau & Associates, books an average $120 million per year in real estate closings. For the preceding five years, he was ranked one of the top ReMax agents in the world.
|Photo by John Arundel/Local Kicks|
Tareq and Michaele Salahi at the America's
Cup of Polo, September 2009.
"Justice prevailed at the end of the day," Salahi said at the time. "My mom was trying to ruin it and there was nothing good about Shaq's offer because it contained so many contingencies. Casey wants to preserve Oasis. We're very grateful for his support."
Corrine Salahi was not available for comment. "I'm not speaking with my mom," Salahi said. "She wants to put my dad away in a nursing home and she has betrayed the whole family. She can't be forgiven for this betrayal."
Thus ended a family saga which The Washington Post likened to the soapy 1980's television series, "Falcon Crest."
"My dad and I started side by side making the wines," Tareq 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."
Margenau said he pledged to lease back the 108-acre vineyard for him to run. "To me this is a real estate deal," Margenau said. "It's 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 the Montessori school in Alexandria. "My mother was never here," Tareq recalled. "She's only reappeared in the last two years."
The younger Salahi created the vineyard's 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 America's Cup of Polo over the last three years, featuring the rock bands "Journey," "Huey Lewis and The News" and "Mya."
By 2006, the vineyard was producing as many as 18,000 cases per year, and Salahi had launched a 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 in 2006. "Tourism has become a big part of the picture," Salahi told me at the time.
The Salahis are prone to legal issues. Locally, their names have appeared in at least 16 civil suits. Mother and son battled for control of Oasis Winery in 2007, supposedly winning it after a nasty legal battle between Tareq and his mother. But the winery ran into debt and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last February. Winery employees said it was the last time they saw Tareq and Michaele set foot on the property.
Salahi told me once that he considered the Piedmont wine-making region "the Napa valley of the East Coast," and said he had big plans for the vineyard, such as a high-end bed and breakfast and a culinary school.
"It was a very grandiose plan that could take in a lot of money," Margenau said. "Tareq has been a brilliant marketer who has made Oasis the biggest brand in Virginia."
Three Virginia governors were also impressed with Salahi's plan to market Virginia wine to the world, naming him to the Virginia Wine Board and chair of the Virginia Wine Tourism Office. Salahi even traveled to Europe with Gov. Tim Kaine to promote Virginia wines.
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 pilgrimages 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 at the time. "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 O'Neal, one of the world's best-known athletes, showed up at the vineyard unannounced. Michaele Salahi, who said she knew O'Neal through charity circles, said, "I just said to him 'What are you doing here? And he said, 'I've been talking to Mrs. Salahi and I'm 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, Salahi said. (The Washington Post on Monday placed Tareq's 2009 ownership interest at 5 percent). His father, 80-year-old Dirgham Salahi, has Parkinson's 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 he'd be our secret partner at Oasis," Salahi said.
According to court documents, O'Neal formed a company named Tuscan Ventures to buy the vineyard. However, Salahi said it eventually became clear that O'Neal 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 for causing turmoil at the vineyard, claiming she "abused" vineyard employees with "bullying tactics" and "fabricated claims," even wielding a pistol at times. Mrs. Salahi did not comment on the claims.
In 2007, the Fauquier Sheriff's Office recorded 26 incident reports at the vineyard, six naming Corrine Salahi, according to Major Paul Mercer, the Sheriff Office's Public Information Officer. "We have sent deputies out there quite a few times," 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 in November, 2007. In June, 2007, the court appointed Warrenton, VA. attorney T. Huntley Thorpe III as receiver of Oasis Vineyard, and in a report filed in circuit court, 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 Sheriff's 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's attorney argued in an emergency motion that "the terms of the Tuscan LLC contract" were not "in the best interest of the corporation" and that their client's 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, a clause that Margenau exercised on the second month.
"When I walked away from the deal, the hardest part was seeing Dirgham cry," Margenau recalled. "A long time ago, this was his dream."
The younger Salahi said his plans were to see Oasis grow, while his mother's plans were to downsize. Margenau said the vineyard was 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 were 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 tastings 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 County's zoning abuse, Isabella and now this, we've gotten beaten up all around," Michaele Salahi told me in 2007. "It's all conspired to rip us apart, but we've stayed strong."
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