When Donald Trump purchased the former Kluge Estate winery last April at a bankruptcy auction, speculation ran rampant over what would become of Virginia’s largest vineyard property. Trump gained an operating winery with about 220 acres planted to vines on Carter’s Mountain just south of Charlottesville. Many people had hoped that a major West Coast wine company would step in and buy the property; with Trump, the concern was that the vineyards might be ripped out and replaced with a golf course or luxury McMansions.
The speculation was understandable. The Kluge Estate bankruptcy played itself out spectacularly in the press over two years, with headlines dripping with schadenfreude as Patricia Kluge, the ex-wife of the late media mogul John Kluge, auctioned off her baubles, bangles and beads in an ultimately futile attempt to stave off her creditors. Her bank, Farm Credit of the Virginias, called her loans in October 2010 and essentially issued a stop-work order. The 2010 harvest – a very good one in Virginia – was sold off at bargain basement prices as the bank threatened to dispose of the property in parcels to various developers.
When Trump purchased the winery and vineyards for a song ($6.2 million, compared to more than $34 million on the debt that led the bank to foreclose), he installed his son, Eric, to run the winery business, while keeping Kluge and her husband, William Moses, to manage the property. The rechristened Trump Winery was unveiled in October.
In a telephone interview from his New York offices late last month, Eric Trump outlined his vision for the new Trump Winery – including a renewed focus on weddings and other events, but also increased investment in the winemaking part of the business. “We want to win the ‘best-of’ awards,” he said. “We like having the highest-quality products.” A Trump label wine will have a natural distribution network through luxury hotels, country clubs and casinos, playing off the Trump name. The winery had already expanded its distribution to 17 states, he said, with more on the horizon. “Distribution is through the roof!”
I visited the property a few days after my conversation with Eric Trump. Patricia Kluge’s staff showed me a new sparkling wine facility under construction, as well as a farm building under renovation for housing and maintaining vineyard farming equipment and tractors. The message was clear – infrastructure investment indicated the Trumps’ intention to focus on the quality of the wine, and not redevelop the property.
“We have no intention to rip out the vines,” Eric Trump had told me.
The infrastructure investment includes events facilities, of course. The wedding pavilion adjacent to the winery offices has been totally renovated. Trump’s events coordinator, Capi Appelstein, gave me a tour of the Kluges’ old Carriage Museum. Patricia Kluge had shown me this building, nestled halfway up the mountain with a spectacular view of the estate, four years ago when it still housed much of her art collection. Today it is barren and decrepit, with doors boarded up and rooms littered with debris, awaiting renovation. Appelstein saw only the building’s potential as a venue of wedding parties or diplomatic conferences. The view, even in December, was impressive.
The future of the winery is not entirely set, however. Albemarle House, the mansion where Kluge once lived, is still owned by the Bank of America, and the property includes about 20 acres of prime vineyard land and a quaint little chapel that are now being ignored.
My tour ended at the Trump Winery tasting room and market store, which will be familiar to those who visited before the signs changed. I met there with Patricia Kluge – who is now the manager, rather than the owner, of the estate – and her winemaking team. Gregory Brun remains the head winemaker, and Katell Griaud, a protege of famed winemaking consultant Michel Rolland, is in charge of the red wines. Rolland himself is still a consultant, as is famed Champagne producer Laurent Champs
for the sparkling wines.
I’ve always felt that Kluge Estate’s sparkling wines were its best, providing excellent quality and value and overshadowing the red wines. This impression was confirmed for me in tasting the sparkling wines from 2008, which had been disgorged and released for sale in the past few months. They showed excellent fruit and focus, and at around $30, are good values for sparkling wines.
Kluge explained to me that the sparkling wines will eventually be labeled under the Trump name, while her New World Red, a Bordeaux-styled blend, will remain under the Kluge Estate name, and the Albemarle line of wines, a red, white and rosé, will retain their current labels.
Kluge introduced me to Jonathan Wheeler, who had been her sparkling winemaker from 2006 through 2009, then was fired by the bank when it took over the winery last year. As we sipped and appreciated his 2008s, he described how he had worked the harvests this year in New Zealand and California. He was there for a job interview.
“We’re reassembling the team,” Kluge said, “after the – “ and here she fairly spit out the words – “Farm Credit of the Virginias tried to shut us down.”