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Famous Napa Valley Winemaker Takes New Job in Portugal

James Suckling
Posted: August 20, 1999

Remember winemaker Jerry Luper? He's the guy who helped put several great California Cabernet producers on the map, including Freemark Abbey, Chateau Montelena, Rutherford Hill and Diamond Creek.

For the last six years, he has been making wine in Portugal, where he recently landed the job of technical director for Real Companhia Velha, whose brands include Royal Oporto wines and Ports. In addition, he bought a small vineyard in the Douro Valley, which is best known for Port but is also earning a reputation for good-value table wines.

"Some people said that I fell off the face of the earth," said Luper while standing in a steep terraced vineyard overlooking the Douro River. "But I am very happy here in the Douro making table wines and Ports. This is where Napa Valley was 20 years ago. It's like starting over again. I really lucked out."

Luper left Napa Valley in 1993 and went to Slovakia to help modernize its wine industry. He lasted nine months there and then moved on to Portugal, where he spent several years with Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira until the company stopped making wine and focused on brandy. "I was overseeing the brandy production, which is not my thing, so I began to look around," Luper said. "I didn't want to go back to Napa. I've been there and done that. Then I had the offer from Real Companhia Velha."

His influence over Real Companhia's table wines can already be detected. A tasting of recent vintages of its whites and reds showed that the large firm's wines are much cleaner, fruitier and better structured.

"Real Companhia Velha has a 10-year plan for making serious table wines here in the Douro, and I am glad to be part of it," he said. "It all takes time, knowing where to make the best table wines. For example, the vineyards near the town of Pinhao have been making great Ports for decades, but we have no idea about how good the table wines can be."

Luper has enough faith in the Douro's potential that he bought his own vineyard, Quinta da Carolina, earlier this year. Although his land is authorized to produce about 800 cases of Port, he plans to focus on table wines instead.

For background on the Douro Valley, read The Wines of Portugal and Port.

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