This has to be one of those "too good to be true” moments. I'm sitting on a frothy white couch in the clearing of a lush vineyard staring at some of the most stunning vertical slopes I've ever seen; only a spot cloud here and there providing relief from the sharp rays on an 82-degree day at altitude.
I'm blending full bodied red wines that were grown with the consulting help of one of the world's top winemakers, and being told of an opportunity to pursue a dream without having to work all that hard to get there. In short, I can own a 3-10 acre vineyard producing premium grapes and leave much of the legal, logistical and branding challenges to someone else. (Or, in a fit of ego, I can also take control of that too.)
What is this, heaven? Some fictional vinotopia? A fermentation Graceland?
How about the Uco Valley, a subregion outside of Mendoza that is behind Argentina’s precipitous rise as an international oenophile destination. Those seductive peaks only a few miles away—think Salt Lake City-like proximity to the Wasatch Range on steroids—are the Andes, and the consulting winemaker around these parts is Santiago Achaval, who boasts four of the five highest rated wines in Argentina history from his own operation an hour away, Achaval-Ferrar.
More specifically, I'm at The Vines of Mendoza, a winery that offers private vineyard ownership opportunities and opened a modern 22-villa resort earlier this year in the midst of its 1,500 acres of hanging grapes. The new digs, which launched in January, are the final piece of a 10-year plan to turn wannabe vintners from the U.S. and around the world into high-level craftsmen, all the while giving them a taste of this South American wine region that is so friendly and open, it almost defies the laws of pretentious physics.
My blending session is a standard part of the start-up process for aspiring vineyard owners and is designed to shake out my true palate likes and dislikes before any vines are planted. “What we’ve found is that what you think you like isn’t really what you like,” says wine director Mariana Onofri. Case in point, my 60-percent Malbec, 40-percent Cab Franc was supposed to be a voluptuous, peppery tour de force perfect for pairing with a filet. Instead, it ended up being the most confusing, least appealing of the three blends we created. Had I planted five acres on this hunch, I may be watering my plot with tears (honestly, though, the blend was still damn good).
“It’s amazing how quickly you learn,” says Michael Evans, CEO and instigator of the The Vines concept. “We’ll have owners here in their second year of blending and they’re miles ahead from their first. Eventually, it becomes about tweaking things; adding a little here or there.”
Evans left the world of politics (he worked four straight Democratic presidential campaigns spanning Clinton to Kerry) after a visit to Mendoza in 2004, when he was struck by the quality of grapes, warmness of the locals, and the desire to share them both with other Americans. “I had friends that said, ‘If you’re going to buy vineyards down there, I want to buy some next to you,’” says Evans. “All of a sudden, I had 10 friends that wanted to do it. That’s when the light bulb went off.”
Why not buy an entire vineyard, and then sell small plots within the overall footprint to enthusiasts who wanted to make their own wine and share it with friends, or possibly even create actual wine businesses?
His guide on that 2004 visit was Pablo Gimenez Riili, a lawyer whose family ran the Gimenez Riili winery since the 1945 (it’s located next to The Vines’ present day location). In three days, the strangers became friends and, when the business plan took shape, the two were a perfect match, combining American capitalism with local Argentine guile.
One decade later, the two have made it possible for 150 owners to churn out more than 1,000 different wines using 25-plus grapes varieties. Most importantly, they’re outstanding, with first vintages often quite tasty despite winemaking wisdom suggesting they should be a wash.
Much of that is owed to the expertise of an All Star team that includes partners like Achaval. Another factor is The Vines’ crowdsourcing business model of sorts. “We make almost 300 wines a year,” says Evans. “The one across the street might do 15. We learn 20 times faster than anyone else because we have more data.” As chief agronomist Francisco Evangelista notes, “It’s like working for 100 different bosses,” each one with their own ideas, preferences, and goals that lead to experimentation and pushed limits that traditional winemakers might not dare.
The hardest part? “Waiting two and a half years for your vines to grow,” says Evans. Those same vines inspired by a foundational blending session in front of scenery so stunning, Ansel Adams might have reconsidered black and white.
Too good to be true? Sounds more like too good, period.
Photos by The Vines Resort and Spa