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Canadian billionaire to build Mid-Columbia tasting room and wine facility

Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards site work begins

An excavator begins clearing the future site of the Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards wine processing building and tasting rooms off Highway 224 across from Antinori Road near Benton City. Editor's note: no audio.
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An excavator begins clearing the future site of the Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards wine processing building and tasting rooms off Highway 224 across from Antinori Road near Benton City. Editor's note: no audio.

The prominent Vancouver, B.C., family that owns the Canucks hockey franchise is preparing to build a major wine production facility and tasting room near Benton City.

Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards, a holding of Aquilini Investment Group, will build a 170,000-square-foot wine production facility, tasting room and a home for the owners at its property in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area, according to plans submitted to Benton County.

When built, the winery and tasting room will employ about 30.

Aquilini intends to grade 17 acres and take about four acres of vineyard out of production to accommodate the facility, according to a review under the State Environmental Protection Act.

Tasting rooms are common in the Red Mountain AVA, but full-scale production facilities aren’t because of the premium that grape growers put on the land.

The Red Mountain AVA is one of the smallest but most productive wine grape growing areas in Washington.

Its southwest-facing slopes get more daylight than their Napa Valley counterparts and Red Mountain grapes regularly command three times the average price for Washington grapes, according to the Red Mountain AVA Association.

The Benton County Planning Department determined the development will not damage the environment, but Aqulini will have to comply with a long list of requirements before it can proceed with a project that will cost many millions.

It must secure a grading permit, conditional use permit and map out its plans to comply with state regulations covering transportation, archaeological preservation and management of wastewater from its wine making processes.

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Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards plans to build a 170,000-square-foot wine production facility, tasting room and home for its billionaire owners at the Red Mountain property it bought in an auction five years ago. Benton County Assessor map

The project site is a former gravel pit immediately southwest of Highway 224 and Antinori Road, in an unincorporated slice of Benton County between Benton City and West Richland.

A private driveway on Highway 224 will provide access. A 400-foot, on-site well will draw 3.5 million gallons annually for domestic and production use.

Wine effluent will be processed at an on-site septic drainfield and applied to existing agricultural crops.

Aquilini has owned the property since it prevailed in a high-stakes 2013 bidding war, when the Kennewick Irrigation District put 31 parcels covering 670 acres up for sale.

Aquilini bid $8.3 million for the undeveloped property, though auction fees and capital costs nearly doubled the price tag.

To close the deal, Aquilini paid a 5.5 percent auction fee and $7.6 million, its share of KID’s $20.2 million that brought Yakima River water to Red Mountain.

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Clusters of plump Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ripen in a Red Mountain vineyard, awaiting harvest. Andy Perdue Great Northwest Wine

That pushed the final price above $15 million, according to Tri-City Herald records.

The acquisition instantly made Aquilini a major player in the Red Mountain AVA.

Aquilini officials could not be reached Monday about their winery plans.

Since purchasing the land five years ago, Aquilini added about 300 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills to its Mid-Columbia portfolio.

It has planted 647 acres on Red Mountain with a mix of cabernet sauvignon grapes and bordeaux varieties such as malbec and merlot, said Andy Perdue, editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine.

It has produced two red wines and a syrah rose — the former with grapes from Red Mountain grapes and the latter with grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills.

The vintages are being released into the Seattle market under the Aquilini name.

With an estimated net worth of $3.3 billion (Canadian), the Aqulini family was Canada’s 27th richest in 2017, according to Canadian Business.

The company’s varied interests include sports and entertainment, real estate, hospitality and agriculture. Francesco Aquilini is a major supporter of plans to bring a NHL expansion team to Seattle, saying it would be good for Vancouver.

Its Northwest holdings include blueberry and cranberry operations, a dairy and grapes and wine.

J-U-B Engineers is the consultant for the project.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514
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