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October 24, 2007

A veteran wine maker who bears watching

By Holly Hubbard Preston
Friday, October 19, 2007

OAKVILLE, California: 'The life of a vintner is probably the most personally life-consuming of all businesses that I know of," said Agustin Huneeus, settling into an upholstered armchair in the high-ceilinged living room of his Napa Valley home. "Your person has to be out there."

That may go a long way to explaining why after nearly five decades, Huneeus, 73, is still in the game. The Chilean native has turned around troubled wineries in Chile (Concha y Toro) and California (Franciscan Vineyards, now owned by Constellation Brands) and restructured the multibillion-dollar wine division of Seagram.

Today, he and his wife of 44 years, Valeria, a viticulturist with a doctoral degree in biochemistry, own Huneeus Vintners, which owns the well-regarded Veramonte vineyards in Chile and Quintessa Estate in the Napa Valley.

The couple and their son, Agustin Francisco, actively manage both wineries, dividing their time between Chile and Napa. Veramonte, a winery created in 1990 with its flagship label Primus, pushed Chile's Casablanca Valley into the limelight, while Quintessa, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, has secured a place among the Napa Valley's top estate wines.

Those who know wine, and Huneeus's career, say that his moves bear watching. Huneeus is a "quiet kind of planner," said Karen MacNeil, author of "Wine Bible" and an authority on all things grape. "He combines phenomenal business acumen with an almost intuitive sense of where the wine industry is headed."

"Agustin Huneeus is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the wine business," said Chris Fehrnstrom, president of Icon Estates in Napa, formerly known as Franciscan Estates until it was purchased by Icon's parent, Constellation. His "intuition and intellectual curiosity results in his ability to 'see' opportunities where others don't."

The son of a Chilean fishing industry magnate, Huneeus entered the wine business in 1960 at the age of 23 by purchasing a majority stake in Concha y Toro, which was founded by one of his ancestors in 1883. The move was intended as a short-term investment: Huneeus, as acting managing director, planned to liquidate the winery and hold onto its land. But the more he studied the winery, the more excited he became by its export prospects throughout the Americas.

Over the next 11 years, Huneeus transformed the winery from a jug wine producer into an export label, complete with foil-sealed corks and European-style glass bottles.

When Huneeus gave up the winery in 1971, it was not for profit but politics: Salvador Allende, a Socialist, had been elected president of Chile. Huneeus handed the winery over to the state and left for a job in Argentina working for Seagram, taking his young family with him.

"At that time, we thought maybe socialism was a way to give these people a better life," he said.

Seagram quickly tapped Huneeus to lead its global wine division, a sprawling fiefdom of 16 wineries spread across eight counties. After creating the first consolidated balance sheet for the division, he discovered it was losing money.

"It was a time when the corporate strategy among beverage companies was to buy whatever it could," he said. "The digestion part was not being done adequately."

Huneeus stayed at Seagram for six years, during which time the wine division became profitable.

Perhaps because of his dual background in private wineries and big beverage companies, Huneeus is circumspect on the subject of corporate ownership of wineries, a hot topic in world wine making centers.

"The instincts of the corporation run counter to wine industry," Huneeus said. "The corporation wants to have brands and market share and control of the distribution channel, and the wine industry does not inherently operate that way."

He believes that modern beverage corporations understand the importance of personal history and local flavor in wine making, which is why, he said, they are now making greater efforts to give autonomy to their individual wine holdings.

As for his own business, Huneeus wants his son to take over and grow it as he sees fit. His own preference, though, is clear.

"The corporate way," he said, "is not how I want to go."


Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or admin@studio-707.com
[Posted: 10/22/2007]

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October 3, 2007

How many people does it take to crush a grape?


Not every cluster of grapes is as perfect as the ones you buy at the market.

A dozen people stand on Quintessa’s crush pad at dawn during harvest to usher every single grape through the winery roof, into the gravity-fed tanks below.
Grape-filled bins arrive from the surrounding estate vineyards and Hugo, the crush foreman and Quintessa's longest employee with 17 years, drives the fork lift and dumps the quarter-ton bins onto the first sorting table.


Just after they're picked from Quintessa vineyards, the grapes make their way to the cluster sorting table, any imperfect clusters are removed.

Every bin of grapes harvested at Quintessa goes through a rigourous sorting process.After the grapes clusters are sorted, they go through the destemmer to remove the stems.

Eleven others stand around the two conveyor tables which move slowly as they hand sort individual clusters and grape berries not once, but twice, removing unripened or overripened grapes and any stems that remain on the belt.
After all that love, those grapes get a light squeeze as they pass through the roller crusher through the winery roof and into the oak or steel fermentation tanks below.


Next, the grapes are ushered to the shaker table, a vibrating table that lets tiny unripened or
shriveled berries drop away. Hand sorting continues to remove any remaining shot or dehydrated
berries and stem bits.


Finally, after no fewer than a dozen hands have touched them, the grapes fo through th roof, fed by
gravity, to the fermentation tanks inside the winery.


Where is the best place to get up-close and personal with the Napa Valley grape harvest? It’s at Quintessa, where every morning and some early afternoon tours see the action on every by-appointment only tour.  
 

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0
The Winery at Quintessa      

In 2002, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus' dream of the Quintessential Wine Estate, one vineyard that produces one singular estate wine, was realized with the opening of the winery at Quintessa. Walker Warner Architects of San Francisco designed the winery to reflect Agustin and Valeria Huneeus' desire for an inconspicuous structure that would blend into the contours of the property. The graceful crescent-shaped design was carefully considered for its environmental sensitivity and fits snugly into an eastern-facing hillside, disrupting little in the way of the aesthetics or natural beauty of the property. A facade of indigenous stone and natural landscaping of native plants and oak trees creates a subtle presence amidst the diverse terrain.

Winemaking Facilities 

Quintessa is truly a "winemaker's winery." The design facilitates a gravity-flow process and a state-of-the-art winery specifically tailored with fermenters and tanks sized to match the diverse blocks in the Quintessa vineyard. Additionally, the winery at Quintessa is outfitted with the latest in winemaking technology. French oak and stainless steel fermenters stand tall along the winery's front wall, providing the winemaking team with a choice of characteristics adding complexity and subtlety to the blend. Two Vaslin-Bucher JLB automated basket presses, designed to retain the benefits of gentle basket pressing while incorporating new efficiency and precision, are situated at the center of the tank room to receive the grape must following fermentation and maceration. At the heart of the winery and overlooking the tanks and presses below, sits the glass-enclosed blending room and adjoining modern lab where the winemaking progress is painstakingly monitored daily.

Behind the press hall lies the main entrance to Quintessa's caves, 1,200 linear feet (17,000 square feet) of caves and tunnels carved into the volcanic ash hillside directly behind the winery. Here the wine is left to age in French oak barrels in ideal cellaring conditions for 16-20 months before bottling. Quintessa's caves can be entered through one of four porticos from the winery and have a capacity to store up to 3000 barrels.

Address: 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, CA 94574
  P.O. Box 505, Rutherford, CA 94573
   
Telephone: 707-967-1601
   
Tasting appointment: Visitors are welcome by appointment only. Tasting fee is $35 a person. Tours are offered at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.
 
Website: www.quintessa.com
 
Architecture: Walker and Warner Architects
 
Proprietors: Agustin and Valeria Huneeus
 
Acreage: 280 acres of which 170 acres are planted
 
Consulting Winemaker: Aaron Pott
 
Director of Vineyards and Winemaking: Charles Thomas
 
Viticulturist Michael Sipiora
 
Varietals planted: Classic Bordeaux grape varieties in 26 vineyard blocks as follows: Cabernet Sauvignon (129 acres), Merlot (26 acres), Cabernet Franc (7 acres), Petit Verdot (4 acres), and Carmenere (4 acres)
 
Sales Inquiry: Jim Sweeney, Managing Director
 
Marketing Inquiry: Gwen McGill, Director of Marketing and Public Relations
 
Hospitality Inquiry: Lora McCarthy, Director of Hospitality
   


Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or admin@studio-707.com
[Posted:10/3/2007]

Posted by Pamela at 2:48 PM | Comments (1) | Share on Facebook | Biodynamic Farming, Napa Valley Wines, Quintessa, Rutherford


 

September 13, 2007

Harvest check list for Quintessa

Sauvignon Blanc harvested, fermenting nicely
Silverdale South Merlot night harvest in progress
September 22 Equinox fast approaching

Was this Michael Sipiora's check list upon waking in the pre-dawn today?  

It might have been.  Last week’s high temperatures have everyone on the move here in the wine country.   As a biodynamic and organic farmer at Napa Valley's Quintessa Estate, he has a few additional considerations in mind.


The vines ready for harvest at Quintessa on August 31, 2007.

Sipiora is viticulturist for Quintessa Vineyards in Rutherford (Napa Valley), a piece of vineyard land that is in itself somewhat remarkable.  In 1989 co-proprietor Valeria Huneeus identified these 280 acres as the last great undeveloped property in the Napa Valley. On land never before farmed, she saw a great wine estate with rolling hills, myriad microclimates and a vast diversity of complex soil types. Now, 18 years later, Quintessa is home to a respected wine estate.  Valeria has been its vineyard master (or mistress?), laying out and planting the vineyard blocks and determining with certitude that Quintessa would be chemical free.



From L to R, these wooden boxes provide shelter for the bees at Quintessa. Stinging Nettle and Chamomile grow in their biodynamic gardens and are made into tea.

Today Michael Sipiora is the devoted steward of this property.  He lives in a world of Stinging Nettle tea, algae extracts, kelp meal,  and humic acids.  He thinks about vemicompost from the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm to add organic matter and micro-organisms to the soil. And yucca, aloe, algae and quartz to protect his vines from extreme heat, among other things.

EARLY JULY
Thinned as much as 3 tons per acre before the ripening process really kicked in.

Applied biodynamic 501 preparation on fruit days, a solution with quarts that is applied to foliage to stimulate the ripening process.  This application was made when the moon was in Leo.  Leo is associated with fruiting.  According to biodynamic theory, the processes in the plant are heightened during this period.
   
AUGUST
Applied stinging nettle tea with algae extracts, kelm meal and humic acids to combat leafhoppers in some blocks.

Used this same tea in the drip irrigation system to rejuvenate the soils, add nutrients, plant hormones and help the elements in the soil to bind.  This proved particularly beneficial on the rocky hillsides where organic matter is at a minimum.

SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER
Harvest.

SEPTEMBER 22
Summer Equinox.  With the help of the cows who reside permanently in the Quintessa vineyard, Michael will prepare horn manure and bury it in a small ceremony.



Tess, one of the Quintessa's two cows, provides manure for the compost pile and brings serenity to the property.

REPLANTING
After 17 years of grape farming, Quintessa has embarked on a re-planting schedule for some of its 26 different vineyard blocks. At the north end of the property, Michael is preparing the Limelight block for replanting.   His objective is to change the rootstock, clone, row orientation and spacing. Last year mustard, rapes, and many kinds of grasses and cover crops were planted.  In the spring the soil was tilled.  Biodynamic compost, rock phosphate and lime were added to introduce magnesium and raise the ph.  Now the land lies fallow for a year (no fumigation!) to reduce nematode populations. In Quintessa's continuing search for quality, Silverdale North will be ripped out at the end of harvest and added to the replant schedule.

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 5.0
The Winery at Quintessa      

In 2002, Valeria and Agustin Huneeus' dream of the Quintessential Wine Estate, one vineyard that produces one singular estate wine, was realized with the opening of the winery at Quintessa. Walker Warner Architects of San Francisco designed the winery to reflect Agustin and Valeria Huneeus' desire for an inconspicuous structure that would blend into the contours of the property. The graceful crescent-shaped design was carefully considered for its environmental sensitivity and fits snugly into an eastern-facing hillside, disrupting little in the way of the aesthetics or natural beauty of the property. A facade of indigenous stone and natural landscaping of native plants and oak trees creates a subtle presence amidst the diverse terrain.

Winemaking Facilities 

Quintessa is truly a "winemaker's winery." The design facilitates a gravity-flow process and a state-of-the-art winery specifically tailored with fermenters and tanks sized to match the diverse blocks in the Quintessa vineyard. Additionally, the winery at Quintessa is outfitted with the latest in winemaking technology. French oak and stainless steel fermenters stand tall along the winery's front wall, providing the winemaking team with a choice of characteristics adding complexity and subtlety to the blend. Two Vaslin-Bucher JLB automated basket presses, designed to retain the benefits of gentle basket pressing while incorporating new efficiency and precision, are situated at the center of the tank room to receive the grape must following fermentation and maceration. At the heart of the winery and overlooking the tanks and presses below, sits the glass-enclosed blending room and adjoining modern lab where the winemaking progress is painstakingly monitored daily.

Behind the press hall lies the main entrance to Quintessa's caves, 1,200 linear feet (17,000 square feet) of caves and tunnels carved into the volcanic ash hillside directly behind the winery. Here the wine is left to age in French oak barrels in ideal cellaring conditions for 16-20 months before bottling. Quintessa's caves can be entered through one of four porticos from the winery and have a capacity to store up to 3000 barrels.

Address: 1601 Silverado Trail, Rutherford, CA 94574
  P.O. Box 505, Rutherford, CA 94573
   
Telephone: 707-967-1601
   
Tasting appointment: Visitors are welcome by appointment only. Tasting fee is $35 a person. Tours are offered at 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m.
 
Website: www.quintessa.com
 
Architecture: Walker and Warner Architects
 
Proprietors: Agustin and Valeria Huneeus
 
Acreage: 280 acres of which 170 acres are planted
 
Consulting Winemaker: Aaron Pott
 
Director of Vineyards and Winemaking: Charles Thomas
 
Viticulturist Michael Sipiora
 
Varietals planted: Classic Bordeaux grape varieties in 26 vineyard blocks as follows: Cabernet Sauvignon (129 acres), Merlot (26 acres), Cabernet Franc (7 acres), Petit Verdot (4 acres), and Carmenere (4 acres)
 
Sales Inquiry: Jim Sweeney, Managing Director
 
Marketing Inquiry: Gwen McGill, Director of Marketing and Public Relations
 
Hospitality Inquiry: Lora McCarthy, Director of Hospitality
   


Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or admin@studio-707.com
[Posted:9/13/2007]

Posted by Pamela at 9:31 AM | Comments (0) | Share on Facebook | Biodynamic Farming, Napa Valley Wines, Organic, Quintessa


 

March 28, 2007

Quintessa Winery Family Celebrates Easter in Chile

 



Easter with Chile’s Wine Visionaries
Four generations of the Huneeus family give Easter a Latin accent with pork empanadas and herb-crusted lamb, all matched with their phenomenal (and inexpensive) wines.
BY IAN MOUNT
Food and Wine Magazine - April 2007

In Chilean wine, the Huneeus name is as famous as Mondavi is in the United States. Since the 1960s, the winemaking family behind the Veramonte label has helped turn Chile into a powerhouse of dependable, inexpensive reds, and more recently, they have pioneered fine single-estate blends in California. Now, as four generations gather for Easter at patriarch Agustin "Cucho" Huneeus and his wife Valeria’s house in the glamorous beach town of Zapallar, Chile, the family discusses its new mission: to show the world that inexpensive Chilean wine can be better than dependable—in fact, it can be stellar.

The day begins with an Easter egg hunt, organized by Valeria. After the granddaughters have searched and screamed through the house—an 1890s adobe villa with an inner courtyard full of hydrangeas, calla lilies and jacaranda trees—the family gathers in the front garden for an Easter feast. At a table overlooking a cove filled with red and blue fishing boats, Agustin Sr. and his son Agustin Francisco pour the wine. Delicate shooters of local king crab and sweet avocado are delicious with a crisp Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc. The main course is a juicy leg of lamb encrusted with bread crumbs, mustard and fresh herbs; it’s matched with Primus, Veramonte’s signature blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chile’s Carmenère. Valeria, who is a vegetarian, serves the lamb alongside crispy, puffy potato balls (papas duquesas) and a traditional Chilean tomato salad with sweet onions. "I always cook a meat because I cannot impose myself," she says in a voice that is both regal and breathy.

The Veramonte vineyards are in Casablanca Valley, 45 minutes northwest of Santiago. Not long ago, the area was nothing but pasture and scrub forest, and unlike the majority of Chile’s wine areas, it does not get water runoff from the Andes. Agustin Sr. bought land there in 1990 after noting the distinctive flavor of grapes from a small local vineyard. "When my father made his investment here, Casablanca didn’t exist," says Agustin Jr. "People thought he was insane." Because of its long, cool growing season, the valley is now a prized appellation—Casa Lapostolle and Concha y Toro both have vineyards there—producing richer, though far fewer, grapes than Chile’s warmer Central Valley. "We can hold off on picking the grapes to make the tannins smoother without losing fruit flavor," says Veramonte winemaker Rafael Tirado. The winery building—imagined by Agustin Sr. as a replica of Santiago’s central market, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel—is surrounded by 1,100 carefully planted acres of the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère grapes that become 200,000 cases of Veramonte and Primus wine each year.

The 73-year-old Agustin Sr. is a hands-on vintner whose closest encounter with retirement is a daily post-lunch siesta. As we walk through Chardonnay vines that have just been pruned, he stops and calls over Jorge Figueroa, Veramonte’s viticulturist, and points to bunches of grapes on the ground. "What’s your strategy with this?" he asks. Figueroa explains that they’ve cut the grapes to keep production to no more than seven tons per hectare in keeping with Agustin Sr.’s mandate of quality over quantity. As his father nods, Agustin Jr. says, "He hates that there are so many grapes on the ground. This is a lot of money."

Agustin Sr., who combines an aristocratic bearing with hand-on-your-back bonhomie, is a descendent of one of Chile’s oldest families. His ancestors include the first president of the University of Chile and the wife of the founder of the legendary Concha y Toro winery. He has lived in both the United States and Argentina, where he fled after the election of President Salvador Allende. "Agustin and Valeria have traveled all over, so they have a vision of the world that is different from other people in Chile, who have been limited by geography," says writer Isabel Allende, the niece of the former president and, ironically, one of Agustin Sr.’s closest friends.

Agustin Sr.’s life swerved into wine in 1960, while he was managing his father’s fish meal company. As an investment, his stockbroker suggested he borrow money to buy the struggling Concha y Toro. He decided to change the wines from a commodity sold in bulk in just two varieties—red and white—into something more appealing. He improved quality, introduced new brands at different prices, and started selling wine in European-style bottles instead of caning-wrapped chuico jugs.

By the end of the 1960s, Concha y Toro was exporting $1 million worth of wine a year. That ended with the 1970 election of Allende, whose socialist policies were at loggerheads with large landowners like Agustin Sr. Hearing rumors that he was about to be arrested, Agustin Sr. fled with his family to Buenos Aires. He eventually came to New York to head international operations for Seagram’s. Agustin Sr. left corporate life the day after he received his green card in 1977.

After Agustin Sr. bought and sold several California vineyards in the 1970s and ’80s, vintner Peter Sichel called him to help sell the flailing Franciscan Vineyards. Agustin Sr. ended up staying on as a partner and starting Franciscan’s Estancia label, which turned heads when, at $14 a bottle, it won the 1991 Sonoma County Harvest Fair’s Sweepstakes Award. "There had been no real demand for quality wines at $10 before, and what came afterward—Kendall-Jackson and the like—started there," says Agustin Jr. The Huneeuses entered the high-end California market in the early 1990s after buying a Napa vineyard that now turns out a single wine: Quintessa, an opulent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that currently commands $125 a bottle.

Veramonte, like Quintessa, illustrates the potential of single-estate blends. A pioneer of this Meritage concept, Agustin Sr. says, "I don’t think for a minute that the variety of the grape defines the wine." One of the purest expressions of this is the robust, berry-flavored $20 Primus, launched in 1997. "Chile’s role is to make $20 wines better than any other place in the world," says Agustin Jr. "To do Primus in California, it would have to be a $100 wine."

With his mop of hair, bell-bottomed brown corduroys and MBA from Northwestern, 41-year-old Agustin Jr. is something of a foil to his Prada sunglasses-wearing father. Where Agustin Sr. is open and romantic, his son is intense and more businesslike, and what they call each other—Father and Augie—reflects this. After working on and off with his father throughout his life—one of his first memories is flying in his father’s plane over a vineyard, looking down on the grape pickers—Agustin Jr. came back to the family business in 2003. Says Valeria, "It wasn’t what I wanted, but I realized that it was what my son wanted. I always feared the electricity of the father-son relationship. But they work well." A self-described "finance guy" who reels in his father when he becomes too expansive ("Oh, Mr. Censor," Agustin Sr. responds with a smile), Agustin Jr. runs marketing and strategy while his father oversees planting and production. "As an MBA, Augie understands the business environment of wine today more than I do, since I got stuck in the ’romance’ part of the wine business," says Agustin Sr. In late 2007, Agustin Jr. will put his business acumen to the test with another venture: He will launch a boutique chocolate company based in San Francisco, sourcing the best cocoa from Venezuela.

Back at their Easter meal, Agustin Jr. is surrounded at the table by his three daughters—nine-year-old Antonia, seven-year-old Agustina and four-year-old Emilia—and his wife, Macarena, a clothing designer he met as a teenager. The family finishes their lunch with a delightful napoleon layered with flaky phyllo pastry, pillows of pastry cream and the delicious Latin American caramel called dulce de leche. While the girls scamper off in search of more Easter eggs, Agustins Sr. and Jr. talk about the future of Veramonte. They’re searching the best plots for what Agustin Jr. thinks is next: Pinot Noir. "Looking for the destiny of the land, that’s exciting," Agustin Sr. says, his voice dreamy. "There’s some land out there that’s our future. We have to explore. So we’ll have to build a road." His son sighs. "Great," he murmurs. "Because we’re so good at that."

Ian Mount has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Editor’s Note: For additional information contact Pam Hunter- 707-258-1699 x 15 or Pamela@studio-707.com

[Posted: 3/27/2007]

Posted by Pamela at 9:40 AM | Comments (0) | Share on Facebook | Organic, Quintessa