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Odfjell Vineyards

A big boutique winery

James Molesworth
Posted: April 5, 2004

Dan Odfjell and his son Laurence are making high quality, reasonably priced reds at their Maipo winery.
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Valette Fontaine

If you've watched the wine industry during the past decade, you're probably familiar with this story line: Wealthy entrepreneur picks a spot in a ritzy wine region, starts a winery as a side business and produces high-priced wine that few people ever taste.

Shipping magnate Dan Odfjell seems to fit this billing. The 65-year-old Norwegian, who does much of his business in South America, has the working capital needed to support his hobbies, such as breeding Norwegian fjord ponies. Odfjell put $6.5 million of his own money into a winery, designed by his architect son Laurence (who also designs the shipping terminals for their fleet).

"If you go cheap, it is cheap," says Dan in the breezy but matter-of-fact style that many boutique winery owners seem to have.

More than half of his stylish new gravity-flow facility is below ground, built into the hillside overlooking the estate. As it melds into the landscape from the outside, it looks every bit the fancy winery that handles a few thousand cases of high-end wine.

In this case however, the story line is slightly different. Odfjell is no small operation. It produced 50,000 cases of wine in the 2003 vintage, and the plan is to expand to 100,000 cases by 2008. The winery's range now includes a dozen wines, representing four different lines.

"By growing slowly, we can still be boutique," says Laurence when asked about the balancing act between growth and quality control. "This is why we start small with each line and expand the range both horizontally and vertically."

Another twist is Odfjell's pricing: Their basic Rojo line checks in at $8; the Armador line is priced at $12; and Orzada at $15. Even the top cuvée Aliara is still a moderate $25.

Before the winery venture, Odfjell used his property as a fruit farm, but that project eventually lost its charm.

"I wanted [to make] a product that I could control from the plant all the way to market," says the demanding Odfjell, who felt that the middlemen in the fruit business took away the pleasure and satisfaction of farming.

Committed to the property, which he'd purchased back in 1982, Odfjell shifted to wine, planting his first vineyards in 1991. Today, 210 acres are under vine. The location-in the northwestern corner of Chile's famed Maipo Valley, called Padre Hurtado-turned out to be an ideal spot for red wine production.

Quality has been consistently high since the first commercial releases from the 2000 vintage. The wines routinely score in the very good range (85 to 89 on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), topped by the Aliara, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère blend that rates 91 points in its debut vintage, 2000.

French-born Arnaud Hereau handles the winemaking, with Chilean Arturo Labbé overseeing the viticulture and Californian Paul Hobbs consulting. All of the Odfjell production is red wine, made from estate vineyards and purchased fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère are the stars, with Carignane, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot also in the portfolio.

The Odfjells have learned one lesson that seems common among most wealthy boutique owners, however: "I thought the fruit business was difficult and I know the shipping business is difficult," says Dan. "But I've learned the wine business is very difficult." -J.M.

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