Argentinean Wine: Striking a Balance

Old and New at Mendel Wines

Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:

  • Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
  • Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
  • Popular and successful Malbec versus TNGT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.

The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.

Thinking Global: Anabelle Sielecki

I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity,  local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new.  We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mendel is both very old and quite new.  The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.

The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.

That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.[1]

Old and New

The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big concrete (or were they adobe?) fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.

No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.

[Interestingly, I saw concrete tanks again during our visit to Achaval Ferrer.  Roberto Cipresso, the winemaker there, built the tanks because he uses them at his winery in Montalcino.]

Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad.  Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of  Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.

Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.

Acting Local: Roberto de la Mota

Local and Global

I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are  purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.

And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.  She is married to Héctor Timmerman, Argentina’s Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the United States, so her international interest comes naturally.

Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.

Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well.  It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.


[1] The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.

Riesling’s Rising Tide

The continuing globalization of wine presents many challenges and opportunities. The opportunities are fresh in my mind because I recently attended the third Riesling Rendezvous conference – an international gathering of Riesling makers from around the world (Germany, Austria, France, Canada, Australian and New Zealand) and across the U.S. (Washington, Oregon, California, Michigan, New York and New Jersey).

It was a real love fest. Riesling is the fastest growing market segment in the United States right now and the rising tide raises all boats. There was a strong sense of good will and collective achievement.

International [Wine] Relations

The meeting was organized by Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle (CSM), the number one U.S. Riesling maker, and Dr. Loosen, a leading Mosel producer. Their partnership was really at the core of the event — you could see evidence of it everywhere. Loosen and CSM have collaborated for a dozen years on a number of projects, the most visible of which is Eroica, consistently one of America’s top Rieslings.

It was interesting to listen to Ernie Loosen and Bob Bertheau, CSM’s head winemaker, talk about their work together and how much they have learned from each other. There was a real sense of mutual respect and pride of accomplishment – part of the feel-good feeling.

Another of Washington’s best Rieslings is also the result of international collaboration. I’m thinking of Poet’s Leap, the wine that Germany’s Armin Diel makes with Gilles Nicault, the resident winemaker at Allen Shoup’s ambitious Long Shadows winery in Walla Walla. I got the same feeling about this collaboration from Gilles.

Eroica and Poet’s Leap are wines I recommend to my students – exceptional wines, widely distributed and  priced at around $20. Loosen & CSM and Diel & Long Shadows have made their partnerships work very well.

The Ghost of Rieslings Past

But collaboration is difficult and partnerships don’t always work out so well. This was the case with the first attempt by an international winemaker to make Riesling in Washington State. I’m talking about the great failed (and now nearly forgotten) F.W. Langguth winery experiment.

The Langguth family has been making wine in the Mosel for over 200 years. F.W. Langguth is today best known mainly for its mass market wines – it purchased the Blue Nun global brand (see  the Curse of the Blue Nun ) a few years ago and makes many of the low cost wines that fill German supermarket shelves.

Langguth became interested in international expansion in the early 1980s (two of its current brands, made in Tunisia of all places, were born in this period). The success of Washington Rieslings from Chateau Ste Michelle and other producers caught Langguth’s attention and soon plans were under way for a major investment.

Langguth and local partners developed Weinbau Vineyard (now part of Sagemoor Farms) on the Wahluke Slope and built a $5 million 35,000 square foot state of the art winery in Mattawa. The winery was the second largest in the state at the time, behind only Chateau Ste Michelle’s big Woodinville facility.

A Simple Idea

The idea was simple – make German-style Rieslings in Washington State and ride the rising U.S. market tide. The first vintage (220,000 gallons) was made in 1982 and released the next year. The wines sold for $4 to $6 per bottle, equivalent to the $8 to $12 price band today. There was a heady feeling of coming success, both at Langguth and within the Washington wine industry generally, which I think was flattered and encouraged by the international attention.

It did not last long. By 1986 the bankrupt Langguth winery was being sold to Snoqualmie Vineyards, where Mike Januik and Charlie Hoppes made wine. Snoqualmie was eventually absorbed by CSM’s parent company and the gleaming stainless steel of the Langguth facility disappeared. The big building was eventually used for storage.

What went wrong? Well, as I said, collaboration is difficult and it seems that there was a great failure to communicate in this one. The wine was made in Mattawa, of course, but I understand that all the decisions were made back in the Germany. The grapes were picked early at low brix and high acid, just like in Germany where climate and geography make this necessary, even though that combination didn’t make much sense in sunny Mattawa, where longer hang times are the current norm.

Remote Control Winemaking

The technicians back at the mother ship analyzed the data – wine by the numbers — but I guess they didn’t taste the grapes, as winemakers around the world always do. So they couldn’t tell that the resulting wines were soulless (as one critic concluded) and seemed over-processed. The market was under-whelmed by the wines when they were released.

Although Langguth wines improved in the following vintages, it was already too late. The market opportunity was gone. It is too harsh to say that Langguth was the Edsel of Washington Rieslings, but that’s the general idea I get from published accounts.

No one talked about Langguth at the Riesling Rendezvous – and I don’t blame them. Why dig up old skeletons?

But I think remembering the failed Langguth experiment usefully helps us appreciate how truly exceptional these recent successful partnerships really are. Here’s to Riesling’s rising tide!

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle for inviting me to participate in Riesling Rendezvous. Information for this report was drawn from Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines & Wineries (2005), Ronald Irvine’s The Wine Project (1997) and Ronald and Glenda Holden’s Touring the Washington Wine Country (1983).

Flying Winemakers and the Glocalization of Wine

Glocal is one of my least-favorite words – it’s part of the standard vocabulary in the globalization literature, which is where I spend my time when I’m not working on wine.  Glocal is a combination of global and local and is meant to describe the exchange between global flows and powerful local influences.  It hurts me to say it, but wine is increasingly glocal and the flying winemaker phenomenon is a good illustration of how it works.

Aero Merlot?

Flying winemakers are winemakers and consultants with clients and interests on several continents.  They are the part of a longstanding global exchange of human capital in the wine industry. It is very common, for example, for young people in the wine business to take jobs in several regions or countries, building up a portfolio of experiences, expertise and network connections before settling in to work back home.

Flying winemakers are both an obvious extension of these initial connections and the logical consequence of global wine investments, which see Champagne makers, for example, producing sparkling wines in France, California, Argentina and Australia.  It makes economic sense that high level expertise would be exploited globally, especially as the winemaking seasons are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres.

The flying winemaker process takes Michel Rolland, the most famous wine consultant, all over the globe, but it also brought Katherine Williams, who I met through my research assistants Michael and Nancy Morrell, to Tsillan Cellars in Lake Chelan, Washington.  Katherine and her husband Adrian Lockhart are Australian winemakers who, having made reputations in Oz, now work abroad.  Adrian is head of Tohu Wines, New Zealand’s Maori-owned winery.  Katherine divides her time between New Zealand and Lake Chelan. Tsillan isn’t a high volume operation and Lake Chelan is what you might call an “emerging” wine region, but it’s linked in to the global wine network and can take advantage of international winemaker resources.

The Long Shadows Experiment

I began thinking about flying winemakers at a wine tasting at a local shop on Friday evening.  The wines were from Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla and a roomful of happy wine enthusiasts paid a tasting fee and queued up patiently to receive tiny tastes of five wines made from Washington grapes by some of the most famous winemakers in the world.  Long Shadows, you see, is the ultimate glocal wine experiment.

Allen Shoup, former CEO of the Chateau Ste Michelle group (and a legend in Washington wine), got the idea to use flying winemakers to draw global attention to Washington’s terroir. He built a cluster of wineries, hired Gile Nicault to be resident winemaker, and arranged for esteemed figures from the world of wine to fly in to Walla Walla and make one wine each. The tasting began with Poet’s Leap Riesling, which was made under the direction of Armin Diel of Scholssgut Diel in Nahe River Valley – a German take on Washington State’s bestselling varietal wine.  Next was Pedestal, a mainly Merlot blend by Michel Rolland.  Pedestal was followed by Pirouette – a classic Bordeaux blend by Agustin Huneeus and Philippe Melka – then a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon by Randy Dunn called Feather and a Syrah named Sequel by John Duval of Penfold’s Grange fame.  All the wines were from the 2005 vintage except the Riesling.

There are two other Long Shadows products that we didn’t get to taste.  Chester Kidder Red wine is an eclectic blend make by Giles Nicault and Saggi is a supertuscan blend made by the Folonari brothers, who should know how to make such a wine.  Poet’s Leap sells for about $20 and the red wines go for $45 to $60 per bottle according to my copy of The Wine Advocate, although the winery’s website says that they are sold out.  Tasting some famous “impossible to get” wines and the chance to buy a few bottles – that’s what drew a big crowd to the shop on a July Friday evening.

Blend it like Beckham

Big name flying winemakers like Michel Rolland are controversial because they are associated with the homogenization of wine – “international styles” are said to replace distinctive local wine qualities. That’s why Rolland is cast in the role of the devil in the film Mondovino. Long Shadows, however, aims to reverse the flow, to use global wine celebrities to highlight the quality of local terroir, so it is kind of a natural experiment in glocalism.  Which feature will dominate – the global or the local, or will some synthesis emerge.

Bringing Michel Rolland to Walla Walla is a lot like hiring the soccer star David Beckham to play for the  Los Angeles Galaxy.  The idea is to draw attention to the local team and help establish its domestic and international credibility, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  You’ve got to bend fan attention around the international celebrity back to the local product so the reputation eventually transcends the famous flying foreign connection.

I am not an expert wine taster (and this was not a good tasting opportunity), so I am not drawing any strong conclusions just yet.  The Riesling and the Syrah did impressed my research assistants (Sue Veseth and Anne and David Seago) as successful glocal experiments  – distinctly Washington wines but with an appreciable stylistic twist.  The other wines? Well, it is too soon to tell, in terms of the wines themselves, but they are obviously successful in drawing attention to the region and enhancing its reputation.

Note:  I’ll have a chance to meet a number of famous flying winemakers (and explore glocalization) next week at the Riesling Rendezvous meeting in Woodinville, Washington, which will bring together Riesling makers from all over the world  Watch this space for my report.

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