Argentina

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If the phrase “Argentine paradox” had not already been coined to describe the country’s tumultuous economic and political history, I would certainly want to lay claim to it. It is essential to grasp the broad outlines of recent history as context for understanding what’s happening today in the Argentine wine industry. The schisms are wide and volatile — dramatic shifts over many decades from abundance to scarcity, prosperity to poverty, growth to recession, democratic advance to military coup d’tat. It’s a minor miracle that a wine industry even exists!

Economic Volatility and Political Instability

Argentina’s first constitution was created in 1853. Five years later Argentina was unified as country. For the next 140 years, until 1995 when a president and vice president were first directly elected by voters, more than twenty “indirect elections” were decided by electoral college, not by popular vote, bordering on (and at times outright) dictatorship and election fraud. I find this pattern especially interesting on the heels of “super Tuesday” as March primaries unfold in the United States, and as the nuances of candidate popularity vs. delegate votes command headlines every day.

Stepping back in time to the 1930s depression era, Argentina dove headlong into persistent economic decline. A wild ride of inflation ensued, including six recessionary defaults, most recently in 2014. Inflation was chronic and volatile from 1976 into the late 1980s, culminating in a staggering peak of 20,000% in the early 1990s. It was reined in and stabilized for a brief period by pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar. Although this monetary policy was eliminated after a few years, and annual inflation more or less stabilized at an average of 10%, in 2015 it began to change almost daily and spiked as high as 27%.

Women were not permitted to vote until 1951, a privilege granted during the first term of Juan Domingo Perón (who served twice as president, 1946-55 and 1973-74 until his death). There were five military takeovers during a 50-year period, the most recent coup ending in 1983. In an interesting turnabout, the 1853 constitution was then reinstated, which led to more waves of economic and political instability.

Two excellent articles published in January 2016 by Mike Veseth, editor of The Wine Economist, covered the impact of Argentina’s turbulence on today’s wine industry. You can jump to his first article (“Whatever Happened to Argentina’s Wine Boom”) here, and the second one (“Will Argentina Wine Export Growth Return in 2016?) here.

Despite all of this drama, today Argentina is quite remarkably the fifth largest wine producer and the eighth largest consumer of wine. According to a March 2015 USDA foreign agriculture report, there are there are 1,250 registered wineries and approximately 4,000 labels in Argentina. In 2014, Argentina exported more than 2,300 brands to over 100 countries. United States, Canada and the UK top the consumer list. Although figures vary somewhat by source, it is estimated that Argentina exports 15-30% of total production. The six largest wineries — including big brands Catena Zapata, Alamos, Norton and Trapiche — account for 70 percent of the market.

Image courtesy of lahistoriaconmapas.com

Image courtesy of lahistoriaconmapas.com

Q: “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?” A: “Start with a big one!”

The pioneers who developed wineries in this context have been true visionaries, able to see far beyond the hurdles faced at every turn, focused on embracing the beauty and opportunity of the land. But the owners of most of the wineries we visited on the Argentina segment of a two-week South American BKWine Tour were not only visionary, they started with clear economic advantage: a labor of love launched by people who have been successful in other industries (or the wine industry in other countries).

AlpamantaLuján de Cuyo – Biodynamic

An Austrian and Dane of Ukrainian descent, Alpamanta CEO Andrej Razumovsky emigrated to Argentina in 2000 after a career working for multi-national companies in Europe, Russia and Latin America. He is descended from an 18th century Moldavian winegrower family, as is his business partner and cousin André Hoffman. The winery was established in 2005 by Razumovsky, cousin André, and their French friend Jérémie Delecourt. Alpamanta is one of seven certified biodynamic wineries in Argentina.

General manager Rocio Martin Bravo and biodynamics educator Emilie Giraud treated our group to animated walking tours among the fields and colonies of ants that inhabit every square inch of vineyard walkways. Our lessons in “dynamizing homeopathic preparations” invoked inspiring visions of Rudolph Steiner’s cosmos.

Biodynamic Vineyards of Alpamanta

Biodynamic Vineyards of Alpamanta 

On a sweltering day that reached nearly 100°F, our asado comida (charcoal-fired mixed grill lunch) hosted by the winery was quickly moved into the cool shade of a covered portico. Our (by now) traditional lunch included amazing empanadas, sliced tomatoes, roasted potatoes, a bit of green salad, blood sausages and chorizo, and a selection of grilled pork and beef followed by dessert (with dulce de leche almost always incorporated in some manner). Alpamanta makes three ranges of wines: Natal (basic), Estate and Reserva.

MendelLuján de Cuyo – Conventional

A member of an “established Argentine family,” Anabelle Sielecki is the winery’s proprietor. The winery is named for her father, Mendel, who had been a successful businessman in several different industries. She tapped prestigious Argentinian winemaker Roberto de la Mota to be her partner in developing the winery. Although the winery is relatively new, purchased from a previous owner in an all-too-familiar moment of economic crisis, some of the vines were planted in 1928.

Having been lost on poorly marked dirt roads in our quest to find Alpamanta, our tour group was similarly thwarted in achieving a timely arrival at Mendel. A warning to visitors: few wineries are situated in close proximity, and GPS doesn’t work if you can’t get cell service! Though it was tempting in the late afternoon, gratefully we did not give up! Our gracious hostess provided a brief tour of the vineyards and a glimpse of the rapid-fire mobile bottling operation for a previous vintage. If you visit, make sure to taste the amazing and unusual (for Argentina) Semillon. It was a show-stopper! The range of wines available from Mendel include Lunta, Mendel, Unus (a blend) and Finca Remota.

Domaine Bousquet Tupungato, Uco Valley – Organic

The third generation of the French winemaking Bousquet family first came to Argentina in 1990 to investigate vineyard properties in Mendoza. It took a few years of research, but in 1997 the founding family members identified what they considered to be ideal property in cool-climate Tupungato, and they relocated to Argentina. Today, two members of the fourth generation Bousquet family are involved in operations — Anne (CEO) and Guillaume (European sales manager) — along with Anne’s husband, president Labid Ameri .

After a tutored tasting of six wines hosted by chief winemaker Emilio Abraham, our group adjourned to a spectacular six-course lunch at Gaia Restaurant where a sparkling rosé and Pinot Noir were added to the mix! Do plan to dine at Domaine Bousquet.

Lunch at Gaia Restaurant, Domaine Bousquet

Lunch at Gaia Restaurant, Domaine Bousquet

Finca SOPHENIA – Luján de Cuyo – Conventional

Named for the youngest daughters of founder Roberto Luka and his business partner, named Eugenia and Sophia respectively, SOPHENIA was founded in 1997. Luka’s extensive wine experience include managing the largest Argentine export company and serving as president of Wines of Argentina.

Situated at 4,000 feet in the foothills of the Andes, in the sub-district called Tupungato, SOPHENIA is neighbor to the better-known large producer Salentein, The district is well known for growing apples, pears and plums as well as wine grapes. SOPHENIA makes three ranges of wine: Altosur (“high in the South”) which is the basic line, E.S. Vino (for the daughters) varietal wines, and two labels of “Synthesis,” one a varietal Malbec and the other a Malbec-predominant blend.

After a tasting of a 2013 varietal Synthesis and 2012 Synthesis blend, and a discussion of strong tannins and high alcohol, we were advised that all young red wines from Chile and Argentina need to be decanted.

Bodegas Krontiras Lujan de Cuyo – Organic and Biodynamic

Also Demeter-certified as biodynamic, Bodegas Krontiras was founded in 2004 by Greek businessman Constantinos Krontiras and his Argentinian wife Silvina Macipe. He hired Bordeaux-trained Panos Zouboulis as consulting winemaker. Mericruz Antolín, an agronomist, is training as on-premises winemaker. Although the winery is relatively new, some of the vines are 80-120 years old. He built a winery facility in 2008 in the shape of a half moon that is almost entirely underground — there are no 90° angles!

Offering a unique horseback riding experience to visitors, Krontiras is also experimenting with a new spiritual artistic presentation for guests. A one-woman “play” starring gods from mythology to explain biodynamics and how wines connect to one’s soul demonstrated the power of a blended wine to elude love, power and peace in measures equal to each person’s own needs. For both horseback riders and the performance audience, it was a magical (if unusual) treat!

Krontiras currently produces three lines of wine, Doña Silvina, Doña Silvina Reserva, and Solar del Alma Malbec. Our “breakfast wine” (at 9:00 am!) was a clean, fresh 2014 Malbec followed by a stunning 2009 Malbec.

Altos Las HormigasUco Valley – Organic and Biodynamic (vineyards only)

Back to the ants… That is the translation of “hormigas.” It turns out that ants love to feast on the roots of young vines. We heard more than once that vineyards must learn to live with them (if not love them). There is an expression “un trabajo de hormigas” or “a job for ants” — metaphor for the humble, patient work it takes to build an ant colony or nurture a vineyard. It takes two to tango…at least in Argentina!

Tango image courtesy of Pintrest

Tango image courtesy of Pinterest

Born in Florence IT, Altos Las Hormigas founder and general manager Antonio Morescalchi started his career as a winemaker in 1988 at his father’s winery in Tuscany. He founded Altos Las Hormigas in 1995 with renowned winemaker Alberto Antonini. Reversing the Malbec trend and heading back to Southwestern France, Antonio has started a new project in Cahors, the grape’s spiritual home. During the last three years, the winery has converted vineyards (but not winemaking operations) to biodynamic. According to our guide, himself a former winemaker at Altos Las Hormigas, “we just supervise in the winery.”

A special treat for our final winery visit: sparkling Bonarda Brut Rosé 2014, and a 2014 “Colonia les Liebres” (hares) Bonarda, as well as a varietal Malbec sampler across classic, terroir and reserva ranges.

More about Argentina and Malbecs…

Wine writer Eric Asimov’s recent New York Times review of Malbecs from Argentina emphasizes the considerable influences of soil variation and oak on the finished wine. Included in his review, published just a few days before our BKWine group toured Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley, were two of the wineries we visited: Mendel and Altos Los Hermigas. I share his view of the beautiful result from limiting the use of new oak.

To experience another wine writer’s recent trip to Argentina, which he characterizes as the “anti-Napa,” and some elaboration on both history and market dynamics, read “Mendoza the Home of Malbec” by Grape Collective’s Christopher Barnes.

New Realities for Chilean Wine

Vina Vik Hotel and Restaurant

Viña Vik Hotel and Restaurant

It’s amazing how long it takes for new realities to pierce the membrane of old truths and commonly held beliefs. That’s Chile in a nutshell. It’s time for the rest of the world to catch up with what’s really happening in one of the world’s most pristine wine growing countries. Entrepreneur Max Morales, owner of AndesWines.com based in Santiago, hopes to do just that as an energetic ambassador connecting consumers to the hidden gem of a wine scene in Chile.

It is commonly understood that 80% of all wine in Chile is produced by four big companies: Concha y Toro, San Pedro, Santa Rita and Santa Carolina. The data get a little fuzzy after that. Chile is not as hyper-organized as other countries, so the exact number of wineries is an estimate of around 150 (90 of which are members of a promotional trade association called Wines of Chile). The “big box” figure may — or may not — include boutique operations such as biodynamic Emiliania which is privately owned by the founders of Concha y Toro and marketed as part of the Banfi portfolio of wines.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that a reasonably high percentage of the wineries producing the remaining 20% of the wine are “conventional” winemakers. That is the strongly held perception among Chilean winemakers with whom an international group of wine enthusiasts met during a five-day BKWine tour of nine Chilean wine properties.  It likely leaves a small share of wineries practicing sustainable (holistic), organic or biodynamic farming and winemaking methods, making it all the more remarkable that six of the eight wineries we visited practice these methods with great pride of place and process.

Chile: The Perfect Place to Grow Winegrapes

I have learned, taught and shared events about the magical terroir of Chile. It’s one thing to understand the map. It’s altogether enchanting to see first-hand how the thin Central Valley is nestled between cordilleras (Coastal Range) and the foothills of the Andes Mountains, a green carpet of grapevines. Long, thin Chile encompasses 1,000 miles of pristine growing area.

Chile is unique in that many vines were imported pre-phylloxera, so they are not threatened by the killing louse. Even so, many wineries have grafted vitis vinifera grapes onto American root stock as a form of insurance. Sunshine is frankly the key factor of terroir: 150 days per year of cloudless blue skies near the coastal areas, 250 days in the Central Valley. As you might expect, slope and aspect also play a large part in vineyard decisions. Some vines are planted east-to-west, others north-to-south. The most special places are where the cordilleras and Andes foothills are within walking distance, creating small webs of biodiversity, but they are never out of sight. Like most places, Chile’s soil variation creates great opportunities for matching the right grapes to the best places.

Image courtesy of chilean-wine.com

Image courtesy of chilean-wine.com

Meet the Winemakers

Clockwise from top left: Marcelo Retamal, De Martino; Gonzague de Lambert, Vina Vik; Patricio Celedon, Vina Viu Manent; Eugenio Lira, Vina Las Ninas; Juan Pablo, Antiyal

Clockwise from top left: Marcelo Retamal, De Martino; Gonzague de Lambert, Viña Vik; Patricio Celedon, Viña Viu Manent; Eugenio Lira, Viña Las Niñas; Juan Pablo, Antiyal

It’s summertime in Chile. Winemakers are busy inspecting vines, testing grapes for ripeness, planning for harvest, making sure all systems are “go” for one of the most important decisions made in the annual vineyard life cycle. Yet these five men took precious time to share their winemaking philosophies and their wines! Each has a unique story, personally and about the vineyard, much abbreviated for this Chilean experience. Following the order of the photo:

Marcelo Retamal, enológo jefe of De Martino, is spearheading an amazing experiment making wine using amphorae (Viejas Tinajas) that have been collected “house by house” from previous owners. They are essentially extinct. The only other areas well known for using amphorae are Sicily and Georgia (the country). 100% natural wines “from the clay pot to the bottle,” the 2011 Cinsault and an amazing dry Muscat (de Alexandria) were simply delicious. An outdoor parilla (barbecue) on the winery’s beautifully landscaped property is breathtaking, providing testimony to De Martino’s “gastronomique” wine style.

The magnificent Viña Vik — a “design, wine and art-centric escape” including a hotel and restaurant (featured above) — has been lovingly created from scratch over the last decade by a team including Norwegian entrepreneur and owner Alexander Vik, head winemaker Patrick Vallette, and Gonzague de Lambert, winemaker and director of sales/marketing. Viña Vik farms sustainably (holistic) and makes just one wine, a Bordeaux-style blend, paying homage to the French winemaking heritage of both Vallette and de Lambert. Sign up for a unique experience: taste the component parts of the blend and then the finished product (2011). A multi-course tasting menu lunch in the restaurant is a divine experience.

Following a short tour of the Viña Viu Manent vineyard property launched with a ride on a horse-drawn carriage, our group was treated to a WSET-quality professional wine tasting of seven wines by head winemaker Patricio Celedón. Despite the late hour of the day — the winery was essentially closed to visitors by the time we concluded our review of the wines — Patricio walked us through the showcase of seven red wines: two blends branded “ViBo” because it is made by the third generation (Viu Bottini); single-vineyard Syrah (El Olivar Alto); 100% Malbec; single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (La Capilla); a Carmenere blend called El Incidente to pay homage to the “discovery” of Carmenere in Chile some two decades ago; and the winery’s iconic “Viu 1” made from a selection of hand picked grapes.

The property of Viña Las Niñas in the Apalta sub-region of Colchagua was purchased in 1996 by three French families who also own wineries in France and Spain. The name signals leadership by a second generation, the daughters who fell in love with Chile and created the winery. Nearby neighbors include the large producer (and fellow French family) Casa Lapostolle. In an interesting nod to global tastes, head winemaker Eugenio Lira manages both certified organic and conventional vineyards at Viña Las Niñas.

Antiyal and its winemaker/owner Alvaro Espinoza are modern legends. Alvaro is credited with working with an ampelographer, helping to discover Carmenere, and with pioneering biodynamic winemaking in Chile. Assistant winemaker Juan Pablo provided an in-depth review of biodynamic practices in the vineyards and in the winery, including some amusing stories about the roles that chickens and cattle play in the vineyard life cycle. Antiyal means “sons of the sun” in the language of Mapuche, an indigenous people. Because Antiyal is a family affair, we also met Alvaro’s wife, Marina, and two of their three sons at an alfresco lunch prepared at the small guest house where visitors can stay.

Fantastic Wine Education

The story of Emiliana is unique among the wineries we visited, and may represent a small fraction of winery entrepreneurship in Chile. The family who owns Concha y Toro, Guilisasti, founded Emiliani in 1986 as a private enterprise dedicated to organic farming. Premium Emiliana Gé and Coyam blended wines (primarily Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvingnon and Syrah) are made in accordance with biodynamic principles.

Rooster patrolling biodynamic vineyards at Emiliana.

Rooster patrolling biodynamic vineyards at Emiliana.

MontGras Winery has planted a multi-variety vineyard used exclusively for educational purposes. Each leaf and berry has a story, and the staff at MontGras does an exceptional job of conveying many vineyard concepts in a short walkabout. The best part of a visit to MontGras, however, is a blending workshop! Guests are provided with samples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere, a beaker and funnel, and an apron. Each person blends a wine to his/her taste, then each table holds a competition, and then the top wines from each table compete for a “gold medal.” Of course there is quite a lot of sampling going on…

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MontGras owns Ninquén Vineyard, high atop a hill that requires four-wheel drive vehicles to reach. With spectacular views of vineyards as far as the eye can see, lunch al fresco is an amazing capstone to an already envigorating day.

Several things stand out about Neyen, also a certified organic winery. One is that the owner of this property also owns Veramonte, a large brand well known in the United States, and Quintessa, a Napa property. Another is that many of the vines are 125 years old, coinciding with the launch of the oldest winery in Colchagua Vally starting out as a co-operative called Apalta Winery. Perhaps owing to the influences of the larger wineries rather than its traditions, Neyen is a sophisticated winery, seen in this photo of the winemaker evaluating harvest conditions.

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South America’s (Wine) MVPs

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My first wine tour of South America begins today. In every region, everywhere in the world, there are always a critical few people who lead the shift from bulk to quality wines, and show the pathway into global markets.

Absent major political and economic deterrents, it’s true that winegrapes can grow reasonably well without much human intervention. Many would argue that less is more. But personal touches matter, especially today because we know so much about terroir, agriculture, chemistry and other key process factors. Selecting a good site, planting grapes well suited to that site, nurturing the vineyard through Mother Nature’s life cycles, healthy practices in the vineyard and during winemaking operations, and knowing when to pick in good conditions and bad. These are all human decisions that make a difference in the quality of finished wine.

Every New World country was propelled onto the global stage by a late 20th  century catalyst. The infamous 1976 “judgment of Paris” was a dramatic turning point for wine development in the U.S. In 1994, the end of South African apartheid unleashed 25 years of private entrepreneurship for white and black owners. New Zealand found its international magic in ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc. Australia overcame a poor reputation owing mostly to a glut of sweet and fortified wines, first by grubbing up vines and later by investing in production technology and enforcing quality standards. At various points during a twenty-year period (1970s-90s), key individuals in South America made the dramatic moves that reset the game board for quality winegrowing in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. (This same story can be told about some European countries, notably Spain, which took great advantage of advances in equipment, technology and labeling regulations to restore eminence to an historic wine producing reputation.)

Without further ado, introducing South America’s “Most Valuable Pioneers” (MVPs), a small collection of the most influential people who helped to propel the “big four” countries into the modern era of the global wine trade!

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Only one in ten winemakers in South America is female. The grand dame is most certainly Susana Balbo who has dominated the wine scene in Argentina for more than 35 years. In 1981, she was the first woman to graduate from the school of oenology in Mendoza. She has served three times as elected president of the trade group Wines of Argentina. Launching her own winery in 1999 in the Luján de Cuyo region, and recently joined by her two children, Balbo makes three ranges: “nosotros” single vineyard 100% Malbec, signature reserve, and crios (“children”).

The undisputed patriarch of fine wine in Argentina is third generation winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata, widely credited with reviving Argentina’s industry in the 1990s. Among his revolutionary moves was to hire renowned international consultants, including Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland, to share their deep knowledge with winemakers in and around Mendoza. For example, they pioneered extended maceration and use of new oak barrels in Argentina. Catena was named “Man of the Year” in 2009 by Decanter Magazine. His daughter Laura joined the family enterprise in 2001 to manage R&D, and the next year created Luca Wines named for her oldest son – a 5th generation on the way?

Antonio and Rinaldo dal Pizzol are considered to be leaders of the boutique wine movement in Brazil since 1974, focusing on direct sales to customers (consumer and trade) rather than large-scale production. Even today, the Dal Pizzol winery sells more than half its wine independently without distributors.

Reinaldo de Lucca is the current generation of an Italian immigrant family that began making wine in Uruguay in the 1940s. He was one of the leaders of the so-called “reconstruction” of the wine industry at de Lucca winery 20 years ago. With multiple wine-related and business degrees from prestigious higher education institutions around the world, he is one of the most highly trained winemakers, certainly in Uruguay, and perhaps in South America. Enjoy Alder Yarrow’s recent Vinography post sharing his October visit to de Lucca winery.

Although his influence was felt a full century before the modernists in this blogpost, no story about MVPs would be complete without Don Pascual Harriague. He is credited with bringing the Tannat grape to Uruguay in 1870 from the Basque region near the Pyrénées, specifically Madiran. Today, Tannat is the signature grape of Uruguay, occupying nearly 50% of all vineyard area.

Adriano Miolo is Brazil’s largest grower and producer of fine wine. According to Evan Goldstein in “Wines of South America,” Miolo is the Catena of Brazil in his “visionary outlook and focus on quality” and is known for pioneering new winegrowing areas such as Campanha Gaúcha. Miolo Wine Group, formed in 2006, has assembled more than 100 products from national and international partnerships, including 8 wine projects in Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Spain (in addition to Brazil).

Aurelio Montes is a pioneer and the modern patriarch of quality wine in Chile. With three other partners, in 1988 Montes founded the winery originally called Discover Wine. Soon their Cabernet Sauvignon wines, rebranded as Montes Alpha, were being sold in 100 countries worldwide. Other growing regions, vineyards and varietal wines soon followed, and are widely considered benchmarks for quality Chilean wines. Iconic wines include Montes Alpha M, Montes Folly and Purple Angel. Son Aurelio Montes, Jr., runs Kaiken, a premium winery established in Argentina in 2002.

Continuing the Spanish tradition of exploring the new world and building on three centuries of family winemaking in the Penedès region of Spain, Miguel Torres “discovered” Chile in 1979. He declared it a viticultural paradise. Looking back 35+ years, Torres considers that initial foray to be stage one of a decade-long journey that helped to catapult Chile’s international reputation starting in the mid-1990s. The hallmarks of a second stage of development included identifying new growing areas, planting additional vines, and taking advantage of viticultural technology. Today the Torres empire includes nearly a dozen brands in Chile.

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzo brothers; de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Morio

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzol brothers; Reinaldo de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Adriano Miolo

Andes photo courtesy of tripwow.tripadvisor.com.

Balbo, Catena, Montes and Torres photos courtesy of vineconnections.com; catenawines.com, wine-searcher.com, wsj.com.

dal Pizzol, de Lucca, Miolo and Don Pascual wine bottle photos courtesy of dalpizzol.com.br, vino-pasion.blogspot.com, pautasdeguarda.com, bonde.com.br.

 

South America’s Big Four: Argentina, Brazil, Chile & Uruguay

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Rodney Strong Winemaker Rick Sayre: Lucky, But Deserving

 

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Rick Sayre, Chairman of the 2016 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

On a warm, sunny Sonoma day in January, Rick Sayre generously spent four hours touring, tasting and telling the story of his journey at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Toward the end of our interview, Rick confessed that he would have preferred to be fishing for steelhead trout during this relatively quiet vineyard winter season. Fortunately for me, the rivers were too muddy for fishing from so much (welcome) rain in previous weeks! Also fortunate for me was that Rick agreed to a personal and in-depth interview even though he has a well-documented pet peeve about wine writers who seem to forget that wine is above all an experience to be enjoyed. Thank you, Rick, for your warmth and trust that this interview would go in a different direction…lucky for me, and I hope deserving.

Rick Sayre is proud of how Rodney Strong Vineyards has evolved during his 36-year tenure. Yet he is so humble about his role in the winery’s growth in size, sustainability, sophisticated use of eco-friendly technology, and the quality of the wine.

I would add patience, focus and adaptive skills to a long list of personal attributes. Born in Michigan, his parents left the family farm and moved to Southern California. As a young SoCal teenager living near Huntington Beach, Rick learned how to surf. When he was a sophomore in high school, his father moved the family to Northern California and farmed prunes – then the major Sonoma crop.

Entering the wine industry at age 19 was a happy accident, followed by more strokes of good fortune that have made for a rich career. Lucky, but deserving.

As a young husband and soon-to-be parent, Rick took a path away from college science and forestry, which he loved, and took a seasonal forestry job. He was after a job at a lumber mill north of Healdsburg, but as luck would have it, Rick happened to see a job posting for a position at Simi Winery. He took a leap of faith, filled out the application, and got the job! His new boss saw in Rick a person who would work hard even if he didn’t yet know anything about managing vineyards or making wine. In less than a month his title was Cellarmaster  and Assistant Winemaker to Robert Stemmler.

In early 1973, things took a very interesting turn. A change in winemakers had Rick reporting to legendary (then recently retired) Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker André Tchelitscheff who worked as a consultant with Rick for seven years. Rick’s in-depth tutelage in growing grapes, making wine, and the foundation of his respect for place began there. Rick was André’s “first wine kid” post-BV. He was one of many aspiring winemakers that André mentored as protégés. Today, Rick carries that legacy forward and is equally committed to mentoring young winemakers. His philosophy of winemaking stems from André’s influence and this period of his life: “Get out in the vineyards, get out in the market, visit consumers, experiment and taste wines often.”

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But this isn’t just Rick’s story. There are other key people, the most colorful of whom was Rodney Strong himself. Rick left Simi in 1979, compelled by these words from Rod: “I’ve got 1,200 acres of the best vineyards in Sonoma and they are yours to command. They’re yours and the bank’s!”

Rodney Strong, the Entertainer and Entrepreneur

In a tribute published after his death in 2006, Strong was described as “Debonair dancer. Witty man of the world. Small town boy. Cosmopolitan charmer. Fly fisherman. Mastiff breeder.” Others call him a visionary, and he was certainly a pioneer.

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Rod Strong grew up in Washington State loving both outdoor and competitive sports. During high school, he worked multiple part-time jobs, began studying dance, and performed in USO shows during the waning days of World War II. After a short college stint where he studied dance more formally, Strong decided to move to New York City where he was accepted into Balanchine’s American School of Ballet and later studied with Martha Graham. At the young age of 23, he took a successful show to Paris and reveled in the life of wine and food across Europe. Married in 1948 to a fellow dancer he had met in Miami, Rod and his wife, Dale, performed together in Europe for four years, returning to the U.S. in 1952.

There Strong met and married his new dance partner, Charlotte Winson, his wife until her death in 2003. They both retired from dance in 1959 and made a bold move to California, fortuitously just as the wine industry was just starting to take off. Their first winery, Tiburon Vintners, operated by purchasing bulk wines and bottling them on a smaller scale. In 1966, the Strongs founded a second business, Windsor Vineyards, and successfully pioneered “mail order” wine sales. During the next few years, they began to amass nearly 5,000 acres of vineyard properties in the Healdsburg area.

By 1970, Rod was ready to build a new wine production facility, becoming the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma County. The grand building was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. (As Rick and I said practically in unison, “that means the roof leaks”!) Drawing on his knowledge and experience in Europe, Rod applied a keen sense of terroir to choosing each vineyard purchase. The most special of these vineyards was Sonoma’s Chalk Hill, then and now a perfect location for Chardonnay.

Life Lessons in Winery Economics 1967-89

As early as 1967, Rod Strong needed to enlist capital from private investors to finance the development of his burgeoning wine business. Initially offering relatively small private placements, he took Windsor Vineyards public to build the new winery, later naming it Sonoma Vineyards. That worked for a few years until there was a major market slump in 1973-74. The following year, a national beverage marketing company helped the winery weather the down market in a venture capital deal. With an infusion of business acumen and capital, and with Rod still working as a vice president, the company recovered nicely.

In a bold step, Sonoma Vineyards entered into a joint venture with Piper Heidsieck in 1980 to build a sparkling wine production facility. Rick Sayre had just joined the company and speaks with both awe and humility about that experience as a new employee who not only had to figure out corporate ROI, but also had to fast-track knowledge of how to make good sparkling wine. (The wildly ambitious sparkling venture didn’t last long…Piper Heidsieck bought Sonoma Vineyards’ 50% share in 1987.)

An early-eighties cycle of growth and innovation lasted about three years. With capital from profits flowing again, in 1980-81 Sonoma Vineyards had acquired several wine-related companies in New York, Arizona and California. In 1982, the premium line of Sonoma Vineyards wine was rebranded Rodney Strong Vineyards.

But the growth spurt came to a grinding halt once again in 1983. The venture capital company bought back outstanding shares, took the company private, and in 1984 offered both the winery and vineyards for sale. Land holdings were reduced from 5,000 to 1,200 acres, mostly by shedding marginal properties. Bankruptcy was a real possibility. Rod Strong was moved back into action as the head of winery operations. Then a corporate roller coaster ride really got activated. The company was bought and sold three times in three years, finally coming to rest in 1988-89 in the hands of Klein Foods, a fourth-generation California farming family.

Terroir + Technology = Timely: 1989-present

Having paid a handsome sum for both Rodney Strong Vineyards and the mail order company Windsor Vinyards, the Kleins raised working capital by selling half of the remaining acreage. In 1991, Tom Klein became president of Klein Family Vintners, the parent company, and proceeded to invest heavily in winemaking innovation and production growth for the next decade. At that point, Rodney Strong Vineyards was producing about 350,000 cases per year. Today production is at nearly a million cases per year.

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With an eye toward increasing efficiency while boosting quality, Sayre oversaw the installation of new equipment such as whole cluster presses, rotary fermenters and automatic barrel processing lines. Facilities were built and outfitted for on-premise barrel and case storage. The Hospitality Center (tasting room and more) was renovated. Windsor Vineyards and other related companies were sold. Vineyard purchases restored nearly 500 acres to company holdings. Leading the way toward sustainable winery practices, Rodney Strong Vineyards installed what is – or at least was at that time – the largest winery-based solar energy system. In recognition of this effort, the property received a “Green Power Leadership Award” in 2004 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Center for Resource Solutions. Five years later, Rodney Strong became the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.

Starting with a 2001 sweepstakes win for the 1997 vintage Symmetry Alexander Valley at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Rodney Strong Vineyards has amassed a stunning number of medals and awards, literally hundreds. Perhaps a pinnacle among these many awards was being named 2013 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. With appreciation for the accolade, Tom Klein said “We are and have been family-owned for 25 years. This pride of ownership gives me the ability to farm the best vineyards and tools to make the best wines possible.”image

Rodney Strong Wines: “You Can’t Go Wrong with Rodney Strong!”

Today the company owns 1,500 acres comprised of 14 estate vineyards in premium locations across Sonoma County AVAs. This continues the tradition set by Rod Strong, who was the first to make a single-vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the first to produce a Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Tom Klein and Rick Sayre are in complete alignment about the importance of place, of terroir. (It’s probably also important to note that they are further in alignment about their love of fishing – a seeming requisite carried forward from Rod Strong!) Farmer-turned-vintner Klein sums it up like this: “Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing. When you discover a passion for something, whether it’s golf or jazz, politics or poetry, you want to live it and breathe it.”

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Rick Sayre believes firmly that consistency is the key to quality wine. He describes his own style as a winemaker like this: “I was called Super Cellarmaster in my early days and it speaks to the style of wines I like to make, ‘Strong’.”

Many consumers think they know the Rodney Strong Vineyards (RSV) brand well – with good reason! It’s a go-to wine for many people. In the Midwest, we see the brand for sale at a reasonable price (<$20) at Kroger’s and other grocery stores. But that’s not the whole story. Sonoma County is only one of RSV’s wine ranges. In addition, RSV offers:

  • estate collection wines from all 14 vineyards, generally selling for $25-35;
  • reserve “artisanal” wines made from specially selected grapes from small blocks of estate vineyards (including Symmetry, a $55 blend of all five Bordeaux varieties) which sell for $40-45; and
  • three single-vineyard Cabernets at $75 a bottle (Brothers, Rockaway and Alexander Crown).

Guests attending the Cincinnati International Wine Festival Grand Tastings, scheduled for March 4 & 5, 2016, will be able to taste wines from all four ranges of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Tickets are available here.

Fishing is not the only tradition carried forward by Rick Sayre. As Head Winemaker, he is mentoring winemakers Justin Seidenfeld and Greg Morthole who joined RSV in 2010 to craft small production artisanal estate wines. And Rick is no doubt imparting the same wisdom he received as a young winemaker: keep an open mind, and be present in your place.

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

Resources: “Rodney D. Strong: A Tribute to a Sonoma County Wine Pioneer” (undated, preface by the former veteran New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial); www.rodneystrong.com; interview with Rick Sayre

Photo credits: unless otherwise noted, all photos provided by Rodney Strong Vineyards and Cincinnati International Wine Festival. Rodney Strong tasting room: winecountry.com; map of Sonoma AVAs: quentinsadler.wordpress.com.

Texas (Wine) Rodeo

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Huh? Texas wine? Isn’t that the home of “Chateau Bubba”?

Even though roughly 90% of all wine produced in the U.S. comes from California, today wine is made in all 50 states. It’s perhaps not surprising that Washington, Oregon and New York State (Finger Lakes, Long Island) are the other top producers of quality wine, collectively making up an additional 8%. So that leaves 2% for all other states. In 2014, Texas ranked 10th in production and 6th in the number of wineries. (My home state of Ohio is also in that ranking at 7th and 8th positions, respectively, in production and number of wineries.) Recent intel supplied anecdotally by local winemakers indicates that Texas moved up to 5th position in 2015.

Texas wine history mirrors that of other western states. Missionaries planted vines in the 1600s. German immigrants arrived in the 1800s, bringing homeland vines that didn’t grow well in the hot Texas climate. Like California, the Texas wine industry catapulted forward in the 1970s. Texas pioneers include Doc Clinton (Llano Estacado Winery), then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, who is widely considered to be the father of Texas winemaking. But it wasn’t until growers like Neal Newsom and Jet Wilmeth discovered that Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties love Texas that things really began to take off.

Recent growth in wineries has been meteoric. Texas Grape Growers Association documented 180 Texas wineries in 2009. Now there are close to 300. The Central Texas Hill Country, seated by the quaint (somewhat touristy) town of Fredericksburg, has 46 wineries, all with fancy tasting rooms. Local winemakers who keep a watchful eye on growth note that there are 25 more wineries under construction right now in and around Fredericksburg.

The Hill Country is often described — at least by locals — as the Napa Valley of Texas. The wine region’s growth in tourism popularity is booming. In the mid-2000s, Orbitz.com reportedly ranked the Texas Hill Country as the second fastest growing wine destination in the U.S. Local signage still proudly displays this somewhat dated piece of visitor propaganda. Perhaps more realistically, in 2014 Wine Enthusiast named the Texas Hill Country Wineries as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations in the U.S.

There are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas, with the Texas High Plains AVA in the panhandle around Lubbock supplying most of the grapes to Fredericksburg wineries. To a person, the staff serving up flights describe the climate as Mediterranean. It’s probably the closest description for this sunny, dry region in which vineyards must be irrigated to survive. The secret is the “High Plains.” Like many quality wine regions, Texas landscape includes an escarpment, the edge of which offers ideal winegrowing conditions — hot days, cool nights, (relatively) high altitude of 3500 feet.

Quality wine. That’s always the key. So what about Texas? Has it moved beyond its “Chateau Bubba” reputation? While I can’t attest to the merits of the whole lineup, on a recent drive from Austin through Johnson City and Stonewall to the historic Germantown of Fredericksburg, we stopped in the Texas Hill Country AVA for a wine and food pairing at Kuhlman Cellars, followed by a drive through LBJ National Historic Park and a tasting at Pedernales Cellars. Over the balance of the long holiday weekend we also visited Becker Vineyards and Grape Creek Vineyards.

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Opened in 2014, the wine tasting room at Kuhlman Cellars offers a unique wine and food pairing opportunity that is a fantastic addition to the wine trail along Hwy 290. Reservations are necessary for a guided tasting experience of five wines paired with “nibbles” that are carefully selected to bring out flavor nuances. Open Thursday through Sunday only. 18421 E. US Hwy 290, Stonewall; (512) 920-2675.

Featured Wine 2014 Calcaria (“cal-CAR-ee-uh”): 12.7% abv, unusual white grape blend of 75% Trebbiano, 17% Roussanne and 8% Viognier. $22.00. Kuhlman’s most popular wine, named for the deep calcereous soil on the Kuhlman Estate. Aromatic, round and full bodied; aromas of stone fruits and white flowers, crisp citrus acidity on the palate. Paired with grapefruit “tartare,” onion, jalapeño and cilantro in a Tostitos cup (salt and citrus bringing out those qualities in the wine).  The 2014 is sold out, but look for the 2015 vintage release the week of January 25th!

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Every winery has a big back story. At Pedernales Cellars, it’s earning a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for its 2011 Viognier Reserve, and taking the Grand Gold prize for its 2012 Viognier Reserve at the Lyon International Wine Competition (the only U.S. winery to win a top honor). Of course the 2012 vintage is long gone from the market — except for a precious bottle tucked away by friends in Austin — and it was a beauty of a classic Viognier. The Kuhlken family planted vineyards 20 years ago and are still operating as a family operation. Open 7 days a week, no appointment needed. All wines available through the tasting room are $29.99 to $49.99. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-8186.

Featured wine 2014 Viognier Reserve: Slightly more delicate in body than the 2012 vintage, with clear aging potential, this wine exhibits the body, perfume and floral essence of a quality Viognier. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla owing to 90 days spent on new French oak; aromas of rose petal and peaches. $39.99. Open 7 days a week. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-2037.

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In order to experience the wines of Becker Vineyards, you will likely need to visit the Texas Hill Country! Although Becker is one of the largest Texas producers and its wines are widely available, the wines presented at the tasting room are only sold there, not via retail distribution. Becker also offers a club membership with wines available only to members. Vineyards were planted in 1992 on dolomite soil. The first wines were produced in 1995, and the tasting room opened in 1996. Becker was the first winery in Texas to commercially plan Viognier. Open 7 days a week. 464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; (830) 644-2681.

Featured wine 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Wilmeth Family Vineyard: 13.3% abv, 100% Cab. $40.00. Grower Jet Wilmeth is one of three farmers who contract vineyard-designated grapes for a reserve Cab. With top notes of earth, leather and tobacco, and dark fruit notes emerging in a second layer, the wine is a “late bloomer” (according to Becker staff).imageThe eponymous Grape Creek Vineyards sits on a 17-acre plot planted in 1983. Initially a grower, the founder began producing wine in 1989 — the oldest winery on the Hwy 290 wine trail — and built the first underground cellar in Texas. Current award-winning winemaker Jason Englert joined the winery in 2004. In 2006, the property was purchased and expanded by Brian Heath who has created a “Tuscany in Texas” look and feel to the experience. The picturesque winery campus is set among gnarled peach trees, blackberry bushes and herb gardens. Tastings, tours, lunch (pizza, panini pasta) at Stout’s Grape Creek Vineyards Trattoria. Open 7 days a week. 10587 E. US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg; (830) 644-2710.

Featured wine 2013 Rendezvous: 13.8% abv, Rhone blend (GSM plus Viognier). $26.95. Classic spicy notes, red fruit, rose petals; smooth, integrated tannins; well balanced. This lovely wine would be terrific chilled on a hot summer day.

Photos courtesy of: Pinterest (Texas Viticultural Area Map); stevestastingsandtravel.com (tasting table) and texasmonthly.com (wine bottle) at Kuhlman Cellars; pedernalescellars.com (logo) and expressnews.com (outdoor patio) at Pedernales Cellars; snooth.com (label) and winetrailtraveler.com (lavender) at Becker Vineyards; Grape Creek Vineyards logo courtesy of texaswinetrail.com. All other photos taken by or for Kathy Merchant.

Resources: “Crush” Hill Country Edition 1; “Texas Wineries: A Guide” (2012, no longer published)

Up next: profile of Kuhlman Cellars.

A Spectacular Chaine Holiday

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The Hilton Netherland’s Hall of Mirrors adds sparkle and festive vibes to any event. Monday’s holiday dinner for more than 100 members and guests of the Cincinnati chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was no exception. Greeted by glittering glasses of Roederer Estate Brut NV (Anderson Valley sparkling), canapes passed deftly by a charming staff among hugs and holiday greetings, we were eagerly ushered into the Hall where chef Todd Kelly’s extraordinary meal awaited our undivided attention.

Though the experience of quality fine dining is central to being part of the Chaîne, wine pairing plays an equal measure. This holiday dinner was “100/100” as one member described it in a Facebook post. I’m sure you will agree!

Chaine 1st course

First course: Seriously, I could have declared victory for the evening with an utterly perfect pairing of foie gras with Sauternes. Cleverly presented on a savory, peppery shortbread, the disk of silky goodness accompanied by classic pistachio accents and a cooling dab of Muscadine gel, was frankly inhaled by everyone at the table. Always a good match with salty undertones, the unctuous honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes lingered on the palate, lifting the punch of the pepper into a long spicy finish. Château Roûmieu-Lacoste Sauternes 2013.

Chaine 2nd course

Second course: Cleverly presented as a carrot-billed duck, our second course featured a Maitake mushroom strudel topped with whipped red wine, and plated with shaved truffles and root vegetables. What better to go with this earthy dish than Burgundy? The whipped wine dissipated into a lovely sauce for the savory strudel. While truffles can at times overwhelm a dish, this was a light touch preparation. The root vegetables were pickled, striking fear in the hearts of wine lovers who know what vinegar can do to red wine — but the acidity in the Pinot Noir made it work! Maison Roche de Bellene Gevrey-Chambertin 2011.

Chaine 3rd course

Third course:  Grilled swordfish medallions were accented by aged Wattle Ham and clams, plated on smoked butter and celery, and accompanied by red and white miniature potatoes. The wine selection for this dish was an oaked California Chardonnay, again causing some trepidation for the oenophiles. Named for roasted hazelnuts, our wine selection is considered the winery’s most “appellation-expressive” Chardonnay. Oak influences were modest (30% new French barrels) and the roasted/citrusy flavor profile was more like northern Burgundy than northern California. Kistler “les Noisetiers” Sonoma Coast 2013.

Chaine 4th course

Fourth course: It took some effort among several diners to collect a photo of this bacon-wrapped filet. Not because it wasn’t terrific, mind you; rather because the wine was so amazing! This very rich beef course was presented with smoked chicken hearts, pomegranate ragout, swiss chard, and a Champagne/tarragon sabayon. Most of us simplified the experience to its essence, focusing on the filet and the wine, a smooth “drink now” Cabernet Sauvignon with a unique and vibrant aroma of milk chocolate and licorice. Odette Estate Cabernet, Stags Leap District 2012.

 Chaine 5th course

Dessert course: It was a happy moment when the Sauternes made its way back into the final course anchored by a disk of fromage blanc custard. Geometrically pleasing to the eye, the top bar was caramelized white chocolate; the “balance beam” was a hazelnut praline; and a swoosh of cranberry gelee accented small marinated fruits. The Sauternes paired beautifully with each element of the dish.

Photos courtesy of Mary Horn, Jt Mayer, Michael Lancor