There's no formal title on Aurelio Montes' business card—neither president nor chairman, not even head winemaker. It simply reads "Guardian of the Spirit."
One of Chile's most talented and peripatetic winemakers, Montes, 65, is among the fathers of Chile's modern wine revolution. His company, Viña Montes, which he started from scratch with three partners in 1988, now surpasses the 1 million case–production mark annually. Besides the Montes winery in Chile, which exports 95 percent of its wines, there is Napa Angel, in California, and Kaiken, in Argentina (where Montes' son Aurelio Jr. makes the wine). Overall, the brands are sold in 110 countries around the world.
These achievements are yet more striking because Montes is a self-made man, on the short list of successful Chileans of the postwar generation who did not have the luxury of a family fortune to help them. "We started with $50,000 and reinvested everything. I had to work to make a living," he says. "When you come from a rich family, you are fat like a cat and want to sleep."
Montes is a man on the go, seemingly in constant motion. In addition to wine, his passions include flying (he recently received his instrument flight certification in the United States) and horseback riding. A native of Santiago, he studied enology at Catholic University, graduating in 1971, then built a career working in the cellars of historic companies such as Undurraga and Viña San Pedro. But a change of ownership at San Pedro in 1988 left him jobless. Deciding it was time for a change, Montes set out to make his own wines—wines that would represent the best from Chile.
"It was a dream of what I wanted to do, and I knew how to do it," he says. But it was not an easy row to hoe. Besides the startup challenges, the then-39-year-old Montes had a wife and five children to support.
"It was a big risk. Some nights I just couldn't sleep and needed to take sleeping pills," he recalls. He started with no land, but quickly zeroed in on the best vineyard sources across the country.
With Montes in charge of winemaking, partners Alfredo Vidaurre and Douglas Murray handled finances and marketing, respectively. A fourth partner, Pedro Grand, worked on the technical side until the early 2000s. Initially called Discover Wine, the winery was established in the Curicó district. Murray was a dynamo, pushing to brand the wines to appeal to an international audience. After surviving a series of car crashes, Murray settled on the motif of an angel for many of the Montes labels.
Murray died from cancer in 2010, three years after Vidaurre also died from illness. Montes still feels the loss. "We laughed a lot and gave weird names to a lot of our wines," Montes says. Among them are Purple Angel Carmenère; Montes Folly, a pure Syrah; and the Outer Limits series, for new and experimental bottlings.
In late 2004, Viña Montes opened a showcase winery in the Apalta district, a facility that is in part a reflection of Murray's vision. A large wood-carved angel stands in a foyer, and the winery uses feng shui in its design. The entrance features a large, tranquil pool of water bordered by delicate Japanese maples. In the barrel room, Gregorian chants play softly over a sound system as the wines age. Montes icon wines—Purple Angel, Alpha M and Folly—are made here, as is the Alpha line of premium wines. A separate winery down the road handles the Montes Classic, Limited Selection and special-release wines.
In winemaking, Montes aims for an easy-drinking and approachable style, without harsh tannins. And he is an unabashed Francophile. "We were trained in university to love Bordeaux," he says. "If you want to sum up my approach in one word, it is elegance."
Still, Montes doesn't shy away from more concentrated fruit flavors. "I like Napa, with its ripe and massive wines. You can drink them from the beginning with pleasure."
Montes first bought land in Apalta, now one of Chile's most prized appellations, in 1991. He was the first to plant Syrah in Apalta and was a pioneer in hillside vineyard development there. Today, Montes farms almost 2,000 acres in Colchagua alone, both at the Apalta estate and in the Marchigüe area, closer to the coast.
And he is not slowing down. Late last year, Montes released a super-premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Marchigüe called Taita, whose 2007 release rated 92 points ($300). He is looking at plots high in the Peruvian Andes for vineyard development and is also intrigued by Portugal's Douro River Valley.
"I never dreamed of doing wines abroad and making them with a certain amount of success," he says. "Life is great and fantastic."