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Can Eric Trump Make Wine?

Smart business moves helped Donald Trump buy Virginia’s Kluge Estate for a song. Now his son Eric is in charge of the newly named Trump Winery. But will oenophiles fizz over a wine named Trump?

BY James Conaway | Apr 1, 2015

The sleek black Sikorsky helicopter makes a slow turn into the wind, TRUMP in white letters three feet high clearly visible from the ground, and settles onto a manicured expanse too broad to be called a lawn. In the background, orderly vineyards are sculpted into 1,300 acres of the Virginia piedmont south of Charlottesville. This is the Trump Winery, or, as it was known until 2011, the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyards. It sits in the shadow of the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains just eight miles from Monticello, where the soft contours of the land and the lovely oblique light bring locals as much pleasure today as they did Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago.

The copter rotors slow, then halt. The doors open, golden seat belt buckles flashing against soft leather seats, and several people step out: the pilot, in a leather aviator jacket, two suits from Manhattan, a petite blonde woman dressed in black, and a tall young man with swept-back strawberry blond hair in a blue shadow-plaid shirt and light gray pants.

Thirty-one-year-old Eric Trump strides smiling toward what was once a very large stable and is now the offices of the largest winery complex in Virginia, 200-plus acres of the usual suspects in the global drama of premium wine: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir. But what preceded Donald Trump’s acquisition of the estate in 2011 was a modern, high-stakes real estate play. And just four years later, Virginia’s preservationists are girding themselves for a battle with the Trumps, whom many of them consider interlopers. The issue isn’t wine, but golf.

The figure at the center of this drama is not multimedia billionaire and philanthropist John Kluge, who built the mansion and outbuildings and died in 2010, nor his former wife, Patricia, who had these vines planted, nor The Donald himself. It’s Eric, the youngest child of Donald and first wife, Ivana, emissary from Manhattan to the Old Dominion, and now the president of the Trump Winery.

“He chooses the designs for everything from the bridal suites to the wine labels. He’s a guy’s guy who can also pick out patterns for throw pillows.”

Sitting in the Barn—that’s what they call it—with his back to the gorgeous view, Trump, like his father, talks a good game. “We now own the biggest contiguous vineyard on the East Coast,” Trump says. (The “we,” of course, refers to his family and the Trump Organization, where Eric is an executive vice president for development and acquisitions.) “People think we’re only into big buildings, but iconic houses have always been the real interest. We own 11 of the world’s top hotels, and all the support services needed to keep them running. Trump properties have to be the best—clubs, hotels, houses. We pride ourselves on this, and we’re concentrating on the smaller properties.”

He cites Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 58-bedroom Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach and Seven Springs in Westchester County, N.Y., which was built by former Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer in 1919 and was Eric’s home for a time. In 10 years, Trump adds, the organization hasn’t sold anything except, in 1995, the Plaza Hotel in New York for $325 million—too good a deal to pass up. “We’re into all these properties for the long haul.”

At the Trump Winery, outbuildings include a collection of rentable “country chic” ballrooms that can accommodate wedding parties or corporate boards. In one, the Pavilion, the custom-made mahogany bar is identical to those in other Trump buildings on several continents. The 30,000-square-foot Grand Hall that once stored antique carriages from the Jefferson era collected by the Kluges is now a series of more ballrooms (Grand Cru, Sparkling, Reserve), overseen by Eric. “He chooses the designs for everything from the bridal suites to the wine labels,” says Ashley Rutter, the winery’s sales manager. “He’s a guy’s guy who can also pick out patterns for throw pillows.”

Albemarle House, the former Kluge residence, an over 23,000-square-foot Neo-Georgian manor on a hillside, was built in 1985 in the style of homes built by titans of industry at the turn of the 20th century. A small army of tradesmen is converting it to a 10-bedroom B&B with the theme “Southern charm with a Trump flair.” Eight bedrooms are named for American presidents from Virginia; all the new mattresses bear the Trump label.

None of the Trumps will have a home here, however. None seem much interested in Charlottesville society, or for that matter, in vineyards—Donald Trump is said to actually dislike wine. So why buy a property steeped in Southern traditions and wine culture, so different from the gilt and bling of other Trump properties?

“Because wine’s sexy,” Eric explains. “It fits in with our company. It’s luxurious as well, particularly when combined with a grand house.”

Within the Trump Organization, Eric was drawn to construction, an essential part of the global firm. “I get a sparkle in my eye when we talk about redoing a property soup-to-nuts,” he says, and that includes the many golf courses. As an exalted general contractor he travels the world, concentrating on South America and Europe, where he keeps an eye on Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg, Ireland, among other duties. (The controversial Trump course in Aberdeen, Scotland, fell under the aegis of his older brother, Don, who handles sprawling Trump commercial real estate.)

The Kluge estate in Virginia “fell naturally into our acquisition strategy,” says Eric, an outgrowth of the new Trump National Golf Club D.C., on the banks of the Potomac, which is “in the neighborhood.” Apparently the winery and mansion were less attractive than the prospect of a unique golf course among vines, in countryside inseparable from America’s formative history, wine just another high-end enhancement of the family moniker.

When asked by his father to oversee the winery, Trump knew little about the business of winemaking—hardly the only vineyard owner of whom that could be said—and he avoids the usual paeans about clone selection and soft tannins. He suggests that the strength of Virginia wines lies in their “seasonality,” by which he means the effects of Virginia’s volatile climate. “I’ve always liked sparkling wine,” he adds. “Rosé, too.” Younger wine drinkers make more personal choices, Trump says. “There’s been a major shift away from Europe and California. I’m more likely to turn to the Finger Lakes, or Virginia, and to pick an odd wine.”

Younger wine drinkers make more personal choices, Trump says. “There’s been a major shift away from Europe and California.”

He has learned from his Virginia experience. “In the beginning, if we needed something quick, like a tractor, a neighboring winery would loan us one. I asked myself, ‘Why would a guy help a rival when it’s against his own interests?’ Then I realized this is a community, there was camaraderie—a beautiful thing.” When a Trump sparkling rosé won a gold medal last year, Eric says, winery owners here wrote thanking him for raising the profile of Virginia wine. “In Manhattan, developers don’t write thanking us for putting up a building.”

The Trumps aren’t the first New Yorkers to descend upon the neighborhood; Patricia Kluge herself was something of an arriviste who had acted in a racy 1969 British film called The Nine Ages of Nakedness. Before marrying John Kluge, founder of Metromedia and once reported to be the world’s richest man, Patricia met her first husband when she worked for him as a nude model. She and John met on a trip to New York, married in 1981 and lived at Albemarle much of the year, often entertaining extravagantly. When they divorced in 1990, according to Forbes, she received a settlement of $1 million a year—not much, considering her husband’s estimated $5 billion wealth—and Albemarle.

Convinced that great wine could be made in Virginia, Kluge transformed the estate into a vineyard in the late 1990s. She got good advice from Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, and from Michel Rolland, probably the most costly winemaking consultant on earth. Expectations were low, and the wines surprised everyone. “Patricia was committed,” says Rausse. Other winery owners now “understood that it was time to stop playing around … I respect her for what she did for Virginia wine.”

But Kluge Estate Winery was soon producing far more than it could sell. Rising debt led Farm Credit, an agricultural lending network, to pull a $34.8 million loan in 2011, and other creditors, notably Bank of America, quickly followed. Kluge defaulted on her debts and was forced to sell off $5 million worth of jewelry, and paintings and furnishings worth $15 million, including an imperial Chinese clock worth almost $4 million, all auctioned by Sotheby’s.

One of the people involved in the settlement was Donald Trump, who had known the Kluges in New York. “We gave to the same charities,” Kluge said later. “Social Manhattan’s even smaller than Charlottesville.” Trump bought a 300-acre parcel in front of the main house and eventually all the land, including vineyards, outbuildings, winery, machinery and wine inventory, with the sole exception of the mansion.

Albemarle House went on the market in 2009 for $100 million, but the price dropped to $24 million during the recession. Put up for auction, the house attracted no bidders, primarily because Donald Trump owned the front yard. For the bargain price of $6.5 million, he soon acquired the house, too. Patricia was allowed to stay for a year as general manager of the winery, after which she moved back to New York.

“John Kluge was a great friend of my father’s,” says Eric. “Patricia was a friend, too. I can’t imagine what she went through, or what it felt like to fall from the height of the capitalist system to the bottom.”Today, Eric claims, sales of Kluge wines are many times what they were when the Trumps bought the property, though most of the wine sold so far was made by Kluge. Eric has since hired a young winemaker, Jonathan Wheeler, but while the resplendent visitors’ center hums on weekends, the winery remains a scruffy, out-of-sight amalgam of trailers and rudimentary structures. It’s also unclear whether wine aficionados will embrace a bottle with the word “Trump” on its label.

The Trump brand has appeared on any number of products, from suits to mattresses to shoes and furniture, with mixed results, and in any event such mainstream branding doesn’t typically appeal to wine connoisseurs. Though there’s a market for expensive sparkling wines, the competition is intense and sometimes as much about tradition as quality. The Trumps are brash newcomers.

Inevitably, Trump is developing alternative revenue streams. There were 65 events here last year, with more expected in 2015, which in conjunction with the B&B is a path of increased revenue. But those things are also potential problems, and not just for the Trumps. Of the roughly 250 wineries in Virginia, only a handful produce exceptional wine, and Trump Winery as yet isn’t one of them. Virginia hovers on the edge of recognition in the wine world, but its fragile reputation is threatened by “pop-up” wineries in the countryside hawking events, T-shirts and “shiners,” inferior bulk wine bought in bottles without labels.

Napa Valley, the inspiration for so much of America’s wine country, prohibits most such activities, but Virginia’s famously lax legislators have taken such decisions out of local hands. Still, the primary enterprise of all wineries is supposed to be farming, which is why they’re allowed to operate in agricultural areas, and despite the money earned from hospitality, Eric insists that farming is also paramount here.

“[The Trumps] are about real estate,” says Kerry Woolard, the general manager at Trump. “The family’s impressive hotels and golf courses are all over the world. They’re not about to do anything here that would hurt the property or their reputation.”

Not everyone shares that opinion. In early 2013, the winery applied to Albemarle County for a special-use permit for an 18-hole golf course to be developed on the property. A public meeting was held at the winery, as required by law, to announce the plans. “All we have to do is cut the grass,” Eric half-jokes, meaning that the terrain and artificial lakes already lend themselves to links.

But the Albemarle County board of supervisors never voted on the application. And there’s another obstacle: a conservation easement on the Kluge estate that prevents any changes to the topography. It’s held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation [VOF], which advised Donald Trump that his golf course was unlikely to get its approval.

So last year The Donald appealed directly to Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. “After many acquisitions and tireless efforts,” he wrote, “I reassembled the estate, reopened the winery, and invested tens of millions of dollars, far surpassing the magnificent property’s former glory.…We need a clear and direct statement from the VOF.”

Despite the fact that Trump had donated $25,000 to McAuliffe’s unsucessful race in 2009, the governor declined to intervene, and the VOF will do nothing until the board of supervisors acts. Eric intends to reapply and brushes off any suggestion that the board might ultimately oppose the golf course. “We know all those guys,” he says. “They’re wildly enthusiastic.” The Trump family could build houses on 100 adjacent acres instead, Eric adds, a none-too-subtle threat.

That isn’t sand that bulldozers—and eight-irons—would be cutting into, but terroir, and terroir with important historic provenance.

As for the conservation easement, “it doesn’t prevent the building of a golf course. We’re just going to mow in some fairways.” A precedent exists, he says, in a private nine-hole course— no longer in evidence—the Kluges had Arnold Palmer design for them.

When the subject of environmentalists comes up, Trump sounds increasingly like his father, who not long ago fought a pyrrhic battle to build a golf course on the environmentally fragile dunes of Aberdeen. “You always have groups that want to come after the big bad developer,” Eric says. “They don’t want to see anything done. Don’t disturb a blade of grass, just freeze the world in time.” His tone hardening, he adds, “It validates them.”

Environmentalists in Virginia are circumspect when they talk about the coming dustup over the Trump National Golf Course. The director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation declined to be interviewed, and Chris Miller, head of the powerful Piedmont Environmental Council, will say only, “We’re expecting a lawsuit.”

Aberdeen-like opposition could be a major PR problem for the Trumps. That isn’t sand that bulldozers—and eight-irons—would be cutting into, but terroir, and terroir with important historic provenance. And those aren’t weeds but cabernet and chardonnay vines across which the fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides required in large doses by golf courses would inevitably drift.

The incompatibility between growing fine wine and cries of “fore!” is another problem. Wine is as much about image as the most glamorous golf resort, but it’s not the same image. Selling at the high end demands not just expertise, but also evidence of authenticity bordering on the religious. In the ever-exacting world of fine wine, any distraction can be seen as lack of commitment to the holy of holies, and golf is a large distraction indeed.

Eric Trump disagrees. “We own the finest golf courses and hotels in the world. Now wine’s part of that world.” The golf course is a fait accompli, he insists. “It would be disheartening if a problem came up, after all the effort we’ve put in, but we’re emotionally committed. This isn’t just a name on a piece of property.”

For more information, visit trumpwinery.com.

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