Robert Benmosche, 65, was the CEO of MetLife when he retired in 2006 to become a vintner in Croatia. The Empire State native had built a wine collection of a few thousand bottles when a trip to Dubrovnic sparked an interest in making Zinfandel. The transition to winemaking will have to wait, however. Last August, coinciding with his first harvest, Benmosche accepted the position of president and CEO of AIG. He sat down with Wine Spectator at AIG headquarters in New York to discuss why he chose Croatia and what he’s drinking these days.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine?
Robert Benmosche: I was in Dubrovnik in Croatia back in 1997 and found it was a beautiful place. I said to myself, "Bob, what do you want to do when you retire?" I had read an article that said Zinfandel may have come from Croatia. And so I said, "that is an interesting idea." In 2006, I was able to get two pieces of land. One where [my vineyard manager's property] is, and another, about 12 acres, right on the sea. I chose it because it had these yellow flowers called broom. They say where the flowers grow is great for growing grapes.
WS: Who says that?
RB: It's an old wives' tale. I asked Marija Mrgudic [my vineyard manager], "Did you ever ask your mother if that's true?" And her mother said, "That's what we hear."
WS: Tell us about the operation.
RB: I met Marija, and her mother and son, Boris, who is now the manager [of their family winery]. He is the 21st generation [in his family] to make wine. Marija and her brother, Niko Bura, make some of the best wine in the country, but they only produce maybe 3,000 or 4,000 bottles. It's like one of those cult wines in America. What I said I would do is help invest in the winemaking. We're working on permits to see if we can get a winery built so we can have state-of-the-art winemaking, not only for me, but for them as well. We're trying to bring them to a whole new level over the next couple years. It’s been a great relationship.
We were able to clear enough land for about 1,500 Zinfandel plants that were imported from Napa Valley. We got some help from the University of Zagreb. The woman who pulled all this together is Dr. Carole Meredith, formerly of UC Davis, who was responsible for the DNA testing for [Zinfandel]. In order to build room for more plants, we had to keep building rock walls because it's on a very steep slope. Marija's husband noticed a grapevine growing wild. They stopped the construction. It looked like the original Zinfandel. They’re not supposed to be alive. They had found two near Split. On my property they found three more, alive. It was tested in Germany. It’s a legitimate father of Zinfandel.
WS: How are you managing this from afar? AIG is a pretty big job.
RB: It wasn't so bad [before] because I was there six months out of the year [during] my retirement. [But] in August , the folks at AIG asked me to come out of my retirement. I told them I couldn't start until October and they said look, the current CEO, he wants to retire. We need you to start. I said I have to go back for my first harvest of Zinfandel; my son is coming with my granddaughter and his wife so I've got a family thing. I said I don't know how I can do both. So we agreed that I would start early but then I could go finish up my Croatia stuff. It is difficult but the team I have there—no place else in the world can you find people like these people, they’re just fabulous; they’re helping me in every way they can.
WS: When you're not drinking Croatian Zinfandel, what are you drinking?
RB: Most of the time I'm drinking Cabs and some of the strong Meritages, like Insignia. I enjoy Araujo, Barnett Rattlesnake Hill, Bryant Family and Harlan, but also I like some of the smaller unknowns. I went around and asked people, "Who are the vineyards that sell to the big names?" So I found people who sold to Opus One, Far Niente and Caymus Special Select. I looked for the source and they were making some of their own wines.
I know Sonoma less well. Just started to learn the San Luis Obispo and the Santa Barbara regions. There, they grow Zinfandel the same way they do in Croatia. They call it dry farming.
WS: It sounds like you know a fair amount about winemaking. Had you been studying up?
RB: I have a casual interest. [The Croatians] think that I'm blessed. They were shocked to find out the soil was great. They were shocked that I found the original Zinfandel plants. I was fortunate enough to listen. People think I don't. And sometimes, you should take stock in old wives' tales. That's my skill: listening to grandma.