“It’s not really very safe.”
Hearing those words, from winemaker Marcelo Retamal in a barrel area that is little more than a small warehouse on the Isla De Maipo estate of De Martino, surrounded by support beams that have been twisted and broken like so many toothpicks, and overshadowed by a ceiling that looks as though parts of it could drop on top of our heads at any moment without warning… well, let’s just say I was hoping that whatever gods dole out the karma points were forgiving me for my initial reaction of “Well… f*cking DUH!”
In California, I’d have had to sign a 37-page waiver just to look at this building, and here we were traipsing about inside of it without even wearing hardhats. But this dark-haired, olive-skinned, brown-eyed winemaking guy had me totally at ease despite the less-than-secure surroundings. Marcelo carries an almost ego-less assurance in his laid-back manner, no doubt a side effect of his fifteen-year tenure at De Martino (one of the longest stretches in the modern history of a country where most winemaking staff turnover is closer to 15 months than it is to 15 years).
De Martino’s current barrel aging area is, of course, a victim of the February 27, 2010 8.8-magnitude earthquake that in other regions of this long, thin country, had squashed enormous stainless steel tanks of wine as if they were empty beer cans at a college fraternity party. Our visit trails the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan by only a few days, and the resilient Chileans feel a kinship to the Japanese quake victims that is mostly unspoken but still palpable whenever the topic of The Quake comes up (though it doesn’t take a shared disaster for one to feel the emotional impacts of the devastation near Tokyo: one report, which told of parents finding the bodies of a class of Ishinomaki kindergarteners huddled together after their school bus was engulfed in flames triggered by the recent earthquake’s resultant tsunami, had me privately shaken and withdrawn). Chileans are a forward-looking bunch, and are quick to talk about The Quake, a situation in almost polar opposition to the way that they seem to avoid direct talk about their political past, referencing it only in the abstract (Augusto Pinochet is never mentioned by name, sort of like how Hitler never ever comes up in conversations in Germany).
We’re not here to look at barrels or taste aging samples, though. We are here to look at Marcelo’s clay amphorae. The ones in which he (almost crazily) plans to ferment and age País (the grape of low-end boxed wines) from the cooler Itata region in the south, using carbonic maceration and adding as little sulfur as possible, burying them in the ground à la how they used to do things in the Jura in Spain…
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Do wine certifications really matter? And which ones give you the most bang for the buck? Watch to find out (well, to find out my views on it, anyway). The moral of the story: experience trumps all, but certs. are a great way to enhance experience, gain knowledge, and help build that all-important network.
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Tim Mondavi’s eyes betray almost everything in their expressiveness; probably more than he realizes.
One moment, when recalling some memory or detail of spearheading the development of Opus One, they might be bright, almost dancing, even though his demeanor is serious and workmanlike – as if there’s something fond and comforting about revisiting the time for him. The next, they’re sharp and piercing despite his relaxed posture and polite phrases (in this case, when I mentioned someone in the CA wine industry with whom I suspect Tim doesn’t see eye-to-eye).
Occasionally eyes, words, and demeanor align like stars in a constellation: for instance, when Tim recounts – using a rather damn good Godfather impersonation – his frustration in once having to hold up a large canvas over a series of days in Mondavi’s famed To Kalon vineyard so that his daughter, Chiara, could finish painting the image (titled “Light of the vine”) that would grace the label for his budding high-end red wine project, Continuum.
I spent the better part of five hours picking Tim Mondavi’s brain on a sunny day in late February, when visiting Continuum’s Pritchard Hill estate as a lunch guest; as far as Tim knew, I was coming to get a taste of the 2008 vintage of a wine brand that I’ve already publicly praised as being well-worth seeking out even if it is pricey. But as far as I was concerned, class was in session, the topic was the history of Napa winemaking, and I was the student. I just had to convince Tim – who has been around since the earliest days of the development of Napa’s modern fine wine industry – to start teaching. Not easy – but turns out it was well worth the effort.
Lesson one: the only living things in the Valley with more wine-related history than the Mondavis probably have wood for arms and grapes for children; that history doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt your chances any.
Sunny days on Pritchard Hill, in Napa’s eastern ridge, provide for a glorious view (Oakville and Lake Hennessey are a stone’s throw away, and on a good day you can pick out buildings in downtown San Francisco), so we took to a 4×4 and toured the forty-odd acres of Continuum’s vineyard plantings, on land that once belonged to a former marine biologist. Stopped for a moment at a spot that overlooks the estate’s farmhouse, Tim recalled how his father reacted to the site.
“In 2008, just before my father left for the great vineyard in the sky, we took him up here to see the vineyard, right before we purchased it,” he said, pointing directly to the spot where he helped an ailing Robert Mondavi take in the view. “He was in a wheelchair by then, and he couldn’t talk much. But when he saw this vineyard, his eyes lit up.”
That explains the eyes, right?…
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