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Facing fraud charges, Agustin Huneeus gives up control of his Napa Valley wine empire to his 85-year-old father

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Agustin F. Huneeus has given up control of his Napa Valley wine empire to his 85-year-old father as he fights federal criminal charges that he committed fraud and conspiracy in an attempt to get his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California.

Huneeus, 53, of San Francisco, has relinquished the chief executive position of Huneeus Vintners to allow his father to take the helm, said Larry Kamer, a spokesman for the company.

He appeared in a Boston courtroom Friday on charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and was released. Prosecutors allege that Huneeus worked with conspirators in assisting one daughter to cheat on her SAT exam and then make a $50,000 contribution to a fake charity that ultimately would go to USC athletic officials to help her gain admission as a water polo recruit. Huneeus has two daughters who attend Marin Academy and play on the water polo team, according to the school’s website.

His move to surrender the CEO job to his father, Agustin C. Huneeus, came two days after Huneeus was charged March 12, as part of a nationwide college admissions scandal in which wealthy parents allegedly helped their children cheat on the college admissions standardized tests as well as bribe university officials in attempt to gain entrance into elite colleges.

The CEO shuffle came as Huneeus’ control of the winery could be placed in jeopardy because both state and federal regulators take into account criminal convictions for those who own licensed wineries.

In past years, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has revoked the licenses for those who have been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, spokesman Matthew Hydar said. Such crimes range from the serious, such as murder and rape, to lesser violations as burglary and receiving stolen property.

“This list is always changing — and may be subject to debate depending on legal interpretations and factors surrounding each case,” Hydar wrote in an email.

The Huneeus wine company was founded by Agustin C. and his wife, Valeria. The father came from his native Chile in the 1970s to make his mark in the U.S. wine industry.

In 1990, the couple bought property near the Silverado Trail and started the Quintessa brand that eventually morphed into Huneeus Vintners. It then grew in the marketplace, most notably by acquiring Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, known for its premium flight pinot noir.

The company made major news almost three years ago when it sold its The Prisoner brand to Constellation Brands Inc. for about $285 million, a sale based much on the popularity it derived from its label based on an etching by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.

Kamer declined to comment Friday on Agustin F. Huneeus’ ownership stake in the family wine company or other family members stakes.

A former employee who asked not to be identified said the son addressed employees after The Prisoner sale and told them he had full control of the company and would be in charge of the decision-making, but did not specify if he had full ownership.

“He did this whole happy dance,” the former employee said of the meeting.

The company’s website on Friday was down. “We are making improvements and will be back up in early April,” a statement on the site said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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