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Updated: College Admissions Bribery Scandal Hits California Wine Industry

Federal prosecutors have announced that Agustin Huneeus Jr. will plead guilty in a case where he is accused of trying to get his daughter into USC through fraud and bribery
Agustin Huneeus Jr., right, leaves the federal courthouse in Boston on March 29, after a hearing.
Photo by: Brian Snyder/REUTERS/Newscom
Agustin Huneeus Jr., right, leaves the federal courthouse in Boston on March 29, after a hearing.

Mitch Frank, Aaron Romano
Posted: April 8, 2019

This story was updated on April 8.

Federal prosecutors announced today that 13 parents and one coach involved in the college admissions scam have agreed to plead guilty. Those parents include vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr., who recently stepped down from his position as CEO of Huneeus Vintners after he was arrested on March 12.

Huneeus Jr., 53, is one of 33 parents accused of trying to get their children into some of the nation's top universities through schemes of fraud and bribes. He was arrested in what the FBI dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues." He 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.

Shortly after his arrest and release on $1 million bail, Huneeus Jr. handed off control of the company to Agustin Huneeus Sr., 85. "To ensure smooth operations of Huneeus Vintners, Agustin Huneeus Sr., founder of Huneeus Vintners and Quintessa, has been appointed to represent the family's interest in Huneeus Vintners. Agustin Francisco Huneeus Jr. has stepped down from his position," Leslie Sullivan, estates director for the company, told Wine Spectator via email.

Huneeus Vintners was founded by Agustin Sr. and his wife, Valeria. Agustin Sr. 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.

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Huneeus Jr. has been just as ambitious. After his father sold Franciscan to Constellation Brands in 1999, the son 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 and 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.

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 Jr. faces charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. It's unknown which charges he will plead guilty to.

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