Had the Americans put the democrat John Kerry in the White House instead of re-electing George Bush in 2004, things might have been very different. How different is impossible to say, but it certainly changed the life of Michael Evans, one of Kerry’s campaign managers. Desperate for a break after the election defeat, Evans bought a return ticket from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. “I came literally for a vacation and just expected to be here a couple of weeks.” Eight years on, he’s still there.
The decision to stay was a gradual one as the weeks slipped into months following what was supposed to be a quick wine tour of Mendoza. “With every passing day I became more intrigued with Argentina, and just fell in love with the place.” Before going to Mendoza he had been given the name of Pablo Gimenez Riili, a member of an old wine family who could point him in the right direction. They arranged to meet for a coffee.
“In the States that would mean twenty minutes, a couple of tips on which wineries to visit, and the name of a restaurant or two for the evening,” he says, imagining a similar meeting in Napa Valley. With Pablo it meant two days of touring the vineyards together, having asados, meeting his extended family and becoming “best friends forever.” In 2006 they set up a private vineyard ownership scheme called Vines of Mendoza.
“I have always had this fantasy about owning a vineyard and making my own wine,” Evans explains, “but as it costs millions of dollars, it was never even a possibility.” It remained a pipe dream until he came to Argentina – “one of the few places in the world where there’s land suited to high-quality grape growing.” In other words, land yet to planted with the potential to make top-class wines. And thanks to the devaluation of the peso three years earlier, the cost per acre was about a fifth of what you would pay for a comparable site in California.
Sadly, as he soon realised, buying the land is just the start. Once you have factored in the expense of sinking a well, putting in an irrigation system, buying tractors and hiring staff, the initial outlay soon morphs into millions. Yet he also realised that he was not alone in his fantasy. If he could find a suitable plot, and enough willing investors to buy a few acres each and share the costs like an old-style wine co-operative, well maybe the dream could become a reality.
It’s a simple idea, but it must have taken miraculous powers of persuasion to get people to invest in a not-yet-existing vineyard in a country that few, if any, had visited. Luckily the new business was just about up and running before the financial meltdown of 2008, and today Vines of Mendoza has 650 acres of vineyards in Mendoza’s famous Uco Valley, and 111 owners. They come mainly from the States, Northern Europe and Brazil and currently pay US$76,000 per acre planted with the vines of their choice. To help them decide, each receive a case of 12 different bottles. “They’re unlabelled because people have so many predispositions about wine and what they think they like,” Evans explains. In year three, just before the first vintage, they are asked to pay an annual maintenance fee of US$3000 per acre.
To produce the wines, he managed to recruit one of the country’s top winemakers – Santiago Achával. When the idea was explained to him his eyes apparently lit up at the prospect of having so many individual plots to work with. “He’s able to play, experiment and create magical stuff,” says Evans. Though it is all very small-scale, with most owners opting to keep just a few barrels for themselves, Achával doubtless enjoys the freedom from the usual commercial pressures. He is currently working with one owner who has planted five different clones of Pinot Noir.
Evans insists that owners can get very involved as they gradually take on more decisions themselves. “This is not about us making the wine and them slapping a label on it.” That said, an annual trip to ‘oversee the vintage’ is not quite the same as tending a vineyard throughout the year and then producing the wine. But such is the privilege of ownership where you get to choose the name and design the label which is much more fun than pruning.
His latest venture, due to open early next year, is a resort of 22 villas next to the vineyards where anyone can stay and “have a real Argentine experience,” says Evans. “I want it to have a sense of place and to give people an idea of how and why I fell in love with Argentina.”
For more about Vines of Mendoza, check out this video:
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