Napa Vintner Pleads Guilty in College Admissions Scandal

Facing jail time, Agustin F. Huneeus apologized to "students who work hard to get into college on their own merit"

Napa Vintner Pleads Guilty in College Admissions Scandal
Agustin F. Huneeus, center, headed into a federal courthouse in Boston to enter a plea. (Michael Dwyer/AP Images)
May 23, 2019

Standing in a federal courthouse in Boston, Napa vintner Agustin F. Huneeus pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud on May 21. The plea came two months after Huneeus was arrested in "Operation Varsity Blues," a federal investigation into parents trying to get their children into some of the nation's top universities through schemes of fraud and bribery.

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a 15-month prison sentence and a $95,000 fine for the owner of Huneeus Vintners. Huneeus stepped down from his position as CEO of the company in March, handing control to his father, Agustin C. Huneeus. Both the federal government and the state of California could potentially revoke the licenses of Huneeus Vintners' wineries if a convicted felon is in an executive position.

Huneeus Vintners did not respond to requests for comment.


Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator's free Breaking News Alerts.


The younger Huneeus, 53, stands accused of paying $50,000 to college counselor William Singer to have a proctor improve his daughter's SAT score by correcting some of her answers. A criminal complaint filed by the FBI also alleges that Huneeus agreed to pay both Singer's foundation and a coach at the University of Southern California (USC) a total of $250,000 to secure his daughter a spot on the school's water polo team, even though she was not a top athlete and with the understanding she would not have to play.

Court documents filed at Tuesday's plea hearing showed Huneeus paid $50,000 to Singer and an initial $50,000 to USC's coach. He is among 14 parents who have agreed to plead guilty in the scandal, including actress Felicity Huffman.

Outside the courthouse, Huneeus read a statement: "With my plea today, I am taking full responsibility for my wrongful actions," he said. "My life has been devoted to my family and the people I have worked with and for. I have disappointed them all and brought shame on myself and the people I love. While I wish I could go back and make different and better choices, of course I cannot. What I can do now is to say: I am sorry and I apologize. Beyond my circle of family, friends and colleagues, I also apologize to students who work hard to get into college on their own merit, as well as to their families."

Huneeus Vintners was founded in Napa Valley by Agustin C. Huneeus and his wife, Valeria. He had built the Chilean winery Concha y Toro into an international success before immigrating to the United States during political unrest and creating a small empire around Franciscan Winery. After his father sold Franciscan to Constellation Brands in 1999, Agustin F. Huneeus stayed on board, eventually becoming chief executive of Constellation's fine-wine division. He's known for his intelligence, drive and brashness.

The family had held onto Quintessa Vineyard, which became the foundation of their new enterprise, Huneeus Vintners. Today the company also owns Faust, Flowers Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma and Benton Lane in Oregon. Their biggest splash came when they bought The Prisoner wine brand from Dave Phinney in 2010, expanded it, and then sold it in 2016 to Constellation for $285 million.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani will sentence Huneeus on Oct. 4.

—With reporting by Aaron Romano.

News Crime Napa

You Might Also Like

What Do You Do with 1,000 Bottles of Cooked Wine? Zachys' Insurer Is Suing Shippers over Alleged Mishandling of Wine

What Do You Do with 1,000 Bottles of Cooked Wine? Zachys' Insurer Is Suing Shippers over Alleged Mishandling of Wine

The wine auction house's insurance company has asked a federal court for compensation after …

May 27, 2020
The Mediterranean Diet, Including Wine, May Decrease Frailty Among Elderly and Improve Gut Health

The Mediterranean Diet, Including Wine, May Decrease Frailty Among Elderly and Improve Gut Health

Researchers found those who stuck to the diet for a year enjoyed a more diverse microbiome …

May 26, 2020
U.S. Restaurants Start Reopening

U.S. Restaurants Start Reopening

Select states are allowing dine-in service following months of lockdowns. Plus, Napa’s …

May 21, 2020
Big Star, Small Screen: A Live Chat with Emeril

Big Star, Small Screen: A Live Chat with Emeril

The superstar chef shares how he's keeping busy during the pandemic and how his team is …

May 20, 2020
Live from Lockdown with Danny Meyer

Live from Lockdown with Danny Meyer

The restaurant owner shares the latest news from Union Square Hospitality Group on Wine …

May 19, 2020
Oregon Wineries Open Doors

Oregon Wineries Open Doors

In recent days, several tasting rooms have reopened with new safety measures in place, but …

May 19, 2020