The Road Less Traveled
In textbooks, America is a land of opportunity, a place where hard-working folks can forge their own futures. In the wine sector, that’s largely still true—witness the burgeoning number of winery startups across the United States.
Despite that, these four Americans have chosen to pursue their dreams overseas, in countries as varied as Argentina, France and New Zealand.
They’ve faced different challenges and made their own paths along the way to success. Here are their stories.
—Joe Czerwinski, Michael Schachner and Roger Voss
Pyramid Valley Vineyards | Canterbury, New Zealand
These days, we might call a guy with degrees in English and Art History a barista, but Mike Weersing, then in his mid-20s, decided to become a winemaker.
“I was intrigued by Pinot, so I went to Oregon to do a harvest,” he says.
After his experience at Evesham Wood in 1992, Weersing was hooked, but hesitant.
“Having already done a BA and an MA, the last thing I wanted to do was another four-year degree,” he says.
Casting about, his educational search fell on Burgundy, where he enrolled in a two-year wine program in Beaune.
For a few years, he served as a sort of itinerant winemaking assistant, working his way from south to north as the harvest progressed.
“I kind of felt like I was fathering children all over the world and never seeing them grow up,” Weersing says of the wines he made.
After meeting Australian writer and vintner James Halliday, Weersing worked a harvest at Coldstream Hills, in the Yarra Valley, then moved on to Neudorf, in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island.
He stayed for three and a half years, but yearned to begin his own project.
“I chafe a little at the idea of defined possibilities,” says Weersing. “I wanted to do something new.”
By 2000, when he and his family purchased a 300-acre sheep farm in Canterbury, the search had almost cost him dearly.
“I was looking at geological maps of Uruguay, and Claudia [his wife] was looking at divorce papers,” he says.
Even after that, the first few years were tough, says Weersing.
“We’re on very tight spacing and established the vineyard biodynamically, so just getting the plants up was hard,” he says “We had to do everything by hand.”
The first commercial vintage was in 2006, and things looked promising, says Weersing. “But then the GFC hit and everything changed overnight.”
Now the biggest challenge is selling the wine.
“We can’t sell it all locally,” says Weersing. “We sell 3,000 cases in 30 different markets across more than 20 countries.”
Vines of Mendoza | Mendoza, Argentina
After the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Democratic operative Michael Evans went to Argentina for a much-needed vacation.
Wowed by the country’s gregarious culture, and especially Mendoza’s natural beauty, Evans chose to stay in the land of tango, beef and Malbec.
A decade later, Evans, along with Argentine partner Pablo Giménez Riili, runs Vines of Mendoza, a multifaceted operation based in the Tupungato section of the Uco Valley.
It offers private vineyard and winemaking opportunities, a high-end resort, a cutting-edge restaurant (Siete Fuegos, by renowned chef Francis Mallmann) and more.
“I came to Argentina after working four consecutive presidential campaigns, from [Bill] Clinton through John Kerry,” says Evans. “I needed a break. After a few days in Buenos Aires, I came to Mendoza to see the Andes and taste wine. From the start, the synergy and good fortune were magical.”
Evans met Riili by chance at a casual wine tasting in a Mendoza bookstore. The meeting would change his life.
“If I hadn’t [met Riili], I most likely would have had a good time for a week or two and went home,” Evans says, “But within a day of meeting him, we were driving the back roads of Mendoza together and discussing ways of going into business.
“I went to an asado at his family’s house, and even got to taste with important wine guys like Carmelo Patti and Santiago Achaval. Add in some late-night drinking, and Pablo and I decided to form Vines.”
Today, Vines of Mendoza has 750 acres of vineyards, about 70% planted to Malbec. With 135 private owners, Evans says that he, winemaker Pablo Martorell and Santiago Achaval, Vines’ consultant, are making 500,000 bottles a year.
That figure comprises over 300 different wines, including Recuerdo, Vines’ 25,000-case commercial label.
“Down deep, I always wanted to own a small vineyard and make wine,” Evans says. “But this goes beyond what I ever had considered. We are giving people a shot at having the same amazing experience I had when I first came here.
“It’s an incredibly complex business to run, but how many people drop everything and are now making wine in a place like this?”
Clos de Trias | Ventoux, France
What causes a veteran winemaker with stints at California stalwarts like Landmark and Matanzas Creek to pull up stakes and head to the south of France?
“I was looking for a climate similar to California,” says Bakke. “I’d never faced rain during harvest and was terrified at the prospect—now I know better.”
It didn’t hurt that he had grown up on the East Coast, influenced by his Norwegian parents and was a confirmed Francophile when it came to wine.
While bouncing in and out of college, Bakke helped his mother—a chef—open a restaurant. She put him in charge of the wine program.
“One of the great things about being on the purchasing side is the amount of wine you get to taste,” says Bakke.
Fascinated by wine, he headed for California and knocked on doors until he landed a bottling-line job at DeLoach.
“A bottling-line job is like the dregs of the wine industry,” Bakke says, but it was a start.
From there, he went to work with Eric Stern (another East Coast transplant) at Landmark and consultant Helen Turley.
“She told me, ‘The only way you’re going to make great wine is if you know what great wine tastes like.’ ”
A brief attempt at importing wines “was an important awakening for me,” says Bakke, and he started to scour the south of France for the right spot.
“We first looked in Côtes de Provence, but rosé is a very technical wine—I’m much more focused on the viticulture side—and it has an expiration date, like milk,” he says.
After visiting 65 properties and a failed attempt at purchasing an estate in Les Baux-de-Provence, he ended up in the Ventoux. It’s a fashionable address for second-home buyers, but less so for wines.
“We got the keys to this place three days before the harvest in 2007,” says Bakke.
Today, Bakke manages the 63-acre estate and its 43 producing acres with just two full-time employees, one in the vineyards and one in the cellar, and a part-time office assistant.
The vineyards are mostly Grenache, with an average vine age of 43 years, and a sprinkling of Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache Blanc and Clairette.
Bakke credits the Triassic soils—limestone clay with sand—and altitude for healthy acid levels and relatively thick skins in the Grenache.
It makes for powerful wines that he prefers to age in tanks and demi muids of 600 or 700 liters for several years before bottling. The current release of the estate red is the 2009.
“When I showed my parents the property and its 49 or 50 vineyard parcels, my mom said, ‘That’s crazy!’ And I said, ‘No, Mom, that’s complexity.’ ”
Clos de la Meslerie | Vouvray, France
Coming to France to make wine for love is not unusual. Many expatriates dream of making wine in France.
In Peter Hahn’s case, it was a woman’s love that brought him to own a French vineyard.
Having worked in finance in New York, Australia, London, and finally, Paris, Hahn came to realize that his calling was to be outdoors—in nature—not on airplanes and in meeting rooms.
He wanted to make wine, but while working in Paris, he met his wife, Juliette, a native of Normandy. He realized that his wine future was in France, not the United States.
Initially, he was drawn to Languedoc and the prospect of producing red wine.
“Through an odd set of circumstances, I ended up making white wine in Vouvray in the Loire,” says Hahn. “I think it was fate.
“And then I found Chenin Blanc. Now I realize that I’ll be learning about Chenin for the rest of my life. It’s complex, finicky and endlessly surprising.”
Now, he’s practicing organic wine production in Vernou-sur-Brenne, a tiny collection of houses in the eastern part of Vouvray, where he bought Clos de la Meslerie in 2002.
Despite his corporate background, the complications of the business of producing wine have astonished him.
“The biggest surprise for me was that after all of the blood, sweat and tears involved in making the wine, you have to sell it, which, in the beginning with no established client base, is tough,” says Hahn.
He’s already assembling a memory bank of wine production in Vouvray. His first harvest, in 2008, was his strongest.
“To see the results of the tremendous amount of work come to fruition, to see my first barrels filled with juice… I felt like a kid whose dream had come true,” Hahn says.
Asked what his greatest skill is in winemaking, Hahn answers like a true French wine producer.
“It’s the ability not to intervene. To me, the wine is made in the vineyard.”
- 2Mike Weersing
- 3Michael Evans
- 4Even A. Bakke
- 5Peter Hahn