Yesterday, I caught up with Alejandro Hartwig, owner and winemaker of Chile’s Santa Laura winery in the Colchagua Valley, in my New York office. Hartwig is working his way back into the market after dealing with TBA contamination at his winery, which first showed up in his 2001 vintage.
It took Hartwig more than a year to pin down the problem and eliminate it, and he feels that since the 2005 vintage, his wines are totally clean.
“I’m happy to be back,” he says. “I figure nothing worse can happen to me. It was scary for a little while—we lost a key period of growth there [while dealing with the TBA issue].”
Hartwig’s winery has a little over 180 acres of vines. He sells about 80 percent of his grapes to other wineries, while keeping the rest to produce his own wine (about 11,000 cases a year). When they first entered the market about 10 years ago, Santa Laura’s wines quickly became some of Chile’s best value offerings.
The business has changed quite a bit since then. The biggest problem in Chile today is the surplus of grapes. The market for grapes is controlled mainly by the largest players in Chile—primarily Concha y Toro and Viña San Pedro—and when they set the price for grapes, that’s pretty much it. The fruit that Hartwig was selling for 65 cents per kilo last year is now selling for 25 cents per kilo.
“There are a lot of weekend farmers who will probably start pulling out vines,” says Hartwig, referring to the grape surplus and drop in prices. “People who came in 10 years ago and planted 10 hectares because grape prices were good aren’t going to last through this. Corn gets a higher price now.”
While the grape surplus effects Hartwig's bottom line, he says he isn’t planning to increase his own production to offset the loss of income. Instead he’s reinvesting in his own vineyards—grafting some spots over to different varieties and installing some drip irrigation.
Hartwig thinks that about 10,000 to 20,000 hectares of vineyards (1 hectare is equal to 2.47 acres) in Chile need to be pulled out to bring the grape supply back to normal. It always pains me to see grape vines pulled out, but if only higher-yielding, lower-quality valley floor vineyards are pulled out, then it probably can’t hurt the industry in general.
“It never has been an easy business,” he says.
No, it isn’t an easy business—but it’s good to see a guy like Hartwig make it back. I should be getting samples of his soon-to-be-released ‘05s soon.
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