Wasserstein & Co., L.P. (search) , the private investment firm founded by legendary Wall Street deal maker Bruce Wasserstein (search), is nearing a deal to buy the owner of specialty gift-basket maker Harry and David (search) for roughly $260 million, The Post has learned.

The New York buyout firm is in exclusive talks to purchase Bear Creek (search), the country's largest direct marketer of fruits and food gifts, from Japanese drug firm Yamanouchi (search).

The proposed deal is in the late stages of negotiations, but is not yet finalized and could still fall apart, sources warned. Other interested bidders, such as buyout firm Ripplewood Holdings and Thomas H. Lee Partners, may reemerge if the two parties can't hammer out an agreement.

However, sources say, if talks proceed on track, a deal could be inked in the next several weeks.

A Bear Creek spokesman referred calls for comment to Yamanouchi, which couldn't be reached at press time. A Wasserstein official declined to comment.

As The Post first reported, Yamanouchi put Bear Creek up for sale in October, when it instructed Citigroup to run an auction for the possible sale of the business.

Medford, Ore.-based Bear Creek, which is part of a family of companies owned by its Japanese parent, has several different business subsidiaries that sell consumer goods through mail order, retail stores, the Internet and wholesale outlets.

Its Harry and David subsidiary includes its catalog unit, which offers its trademark gift baskets stuffed with gourmet foods; its Harry and David retail operation, and Bear Creek Orchards, which produces such fruit varieties as its signature Royal Riviera Pear.

Bear Creek also owns Jackson & Perkins, a mail-order nursery specializing in roses, and rose wholesaler Jackson & Perkins Wholesale.

Wasserstein & Co. is attracted to Bear Creek because of its strong, well-known brand names, such as Harry and David - by far the biggest name in direct marketing, food and gift products - and the company's stable cash flow. But the company is currently experiencing only modest growth.

Wasserstein & Co. seems to be betting it can change that.

The buyout firm, which has a history of investing in branded food and consumer products companies such as Maybelline cosmetics and All-Clad cookware, appears to see huge growth prospects in the gift company.

Such growth could come from successfully expanding the brand through creative marketing, better catalogs, and freshened product offerings.

Bear Creek, which will be purchased by Wasserstein's U.S. Equity Partners L.P., is just the latest company to be brought into the Wasserstein fold.

The veteran dealmaker, who in his day job is chairman of the advisory firm Lazard LLC, recently grabbed headlines by purchasing New York magazine (search) from Primedia with his personal funds.

The Wasserstein & Co. buyout fund owns American Lawyer, The National Law Journal, and the mergers-and-acquisitions trade publication The Deal.