I sat down earlier this week with Chile’s Álvaro Espinoza, arguably one of the country’s best winemakers, who also guest-blogged for us during the 2009 harvest. He still runs his own small winery, Antiyal, while also overseeing the Concha y Toro-owned organic operation at Viñedos Emiliana. But now he’s getting involved deeper in developing his project Geo Wines, along with his partner Sergio Reyes, who also joined us. [You can reference more background on Espinoza from my February 2007 blog entry.]
While Geo Wines is now producing wines under several labels, including Rayun, Chono and Cucao, it didn’t start out that way.
Espinoza first met Reyes when he was winemaker at Viña Carmen and Reyes was the export director at Carmen’s sister winery, Viña Santa Rita, back in the mid-‘90s. Reyes left in ’97 and took a break from the wine industry, before returning in 2000, connecting with Espinoza to set up a consultancy company.
“There were so many growers who didn’t have access to a qualified winemaker or a good facility, and so we saw an opportunity to work with many different clients,” said Reyes.
The pair worked with numerous wineries, helping to start Viña Haras de Pirque, Viña Quintay and Quinta de Viluco, among others. But more often than not, it seemed just as they helped get things going, the winery would be sold to new owners or the relationship would end for some other reason.
“It was frustrating, because we wanted something long term. So that's when we started to develop our own brand, Chono, using fruit from my family vineyard, the San Lorenzo estate,” said Espinoza. “And it grew from there.”
The duo doesn’t own any vineyards outside of Espinoza’s San Lorenzo property. Instead, they work with growers and direct the viticulture, sourcing fruit from Chile’s various valleys, aiming for specific varieties that perform well in certain areas—Sauvignon Blanc in the Casablanca Valley, Carmenère in Maipo, Syrah in the Elquí and Limarí valleys, for example.
“We have good control of the vineyards,” said Espinoza. “Now, as we grow, the next step is to get control on the winery side.”
For now, Espinoza and Reyes are renting space at facilities in both Casablanca and Pirque, which can make logistics difficult. So they’re looking to either buy or build their own facility, probably in the Maipo Valley close to Espinoza’s home.
“It’s been a big change from consulting, where you don’t need capital, to producing, where not only do you need capital, but you wind up reinvesting everything back into the operation. From 2005 through 2008, it was a tight few years,” said Espinoza.
“Our hair was definitely darker before we started,” said Reyes with a laugh.
Currently, Geo Wines produces 100,000 cases annually, with 25 percent coming to the U.S. Plans are to grow to 125,000 cases, a level the pair feels is manageable, while being able to focus on value and quality. The majority of the portfolio retails for under $20, including some excellent values, such as the Chono San Lorenzo Estate Maipo Valley 2007 (87 points, $10), made from a blend of Carmenère, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, or the Syrah Limarí Valley Palin 2006 (85, $15).
The latter wine has become a quandary for the pair in terms of their marketing: "Palin"(pronounced pay-LIHN) is actually a Mapuche Indian word for an ancient form of field hockey, played by competing tribes as a way of settling differences as opposed to going to war.
“But with the name ‘Palin’ in the U.S market, we were getting a lot of questions,” said Reyes, with a wry smile. “It did well in some areas, not in others. We might have to change the name.”
Espinoza is also one of Chile’s biggest proponents of both organic and biodynamic viticulture. While all the vineyards he’s using for Geo Wines are not currently organic, he does try to get his growers to convert.
While the brands from Geo Wines are modestly priced, Espinoza and Reyes have had their struggles getting established in the market.
“When you’re new and from Chile, it’s tough, even when the wines are value wines,” said Reyes, before adding with a wink, “But ‘Chono’ comes from the name of a tribe of natives down in Patagonia. They were the only tribe not to be conquered by the Spanish. So we’re hoping it will be a strong brand down the road.”
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
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