Argentina Lures Bankers Dreaming of Owning Their Own Vineyard

 
     Jan. 25 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- For his 50th birthday
two years ago, Phil Asmundson, vice chairman of technology at
Deloitte LLP, flew to Argentina for a vacation and ended up
buying a vineyard.
     As a long-time wine collector, making his own was a secret
dream. During harvest in March or April, he'll fly down from New
York to pick malbec grapes and play cellar rat.
     Asmundson bought 3 acres of land in the Uco Valley for just
under $200,000 from Vines of Mendoza, a five-year-old company in
Argentina that sells parcels of prime vineyard acreage, plants
them to owners' specifications, then manages caretaking and
winemaking. Owners can participate as much or as little as they
wish. The 87 so far come from 7 states and 9 countries.
     "There aren't many passions that are made easy to do," says
Asmundson. "This was turnkey."
     The other deciding factors? He loves the country's signature
malbec grape, and was persuaded that the wines could be "really
great quality" because Vines of Mendoza has the help of
well-known winemaker Santiago Achaval.
     When the deal was final, he and his wife celebrated with
bottles of Salentein Primus malbec ($45) from Argentina and Heitz
Trailside cabernet ($80) from Napa.
     Vines of Mendoza sent him a case of unmarked wines to taste,
and used his notes to help focus the style of wine he wanted to
make.

  Luxury Resort

     On a freezing December day, I caught up on the latest
developments with co-founder Michael Evans, 45, bronzed from days
in vineyard sun, at Manhattan's Topaz Thai restaurant. Over a
spicy salad lunch, he clicked through drawings on his laptop of
the company's new luxury resort, opening in 2012, where vineyard
owners like Asmundson can stay while playing vintner, and
tourists can be part of the wine lifestyle.
     Lots of glass, local stone, a tiny wine blending lab,
courses on Argentine wines—it looked like ambitious high-end Napa
with South American cowhide flair and a breathtaking snowcapped
Andes backdrop. What started in 2005 as a way for Evans, now 45,
to afford his personal vineyard-owning dream has expanded into a
range of ventures.
     "I alternated between working in wireless technology and
politics, but was also passionate about wine," he said.
     Exhausted by the John Kerry presidential campaign, he was
vacationing in Argentina when he was introduced to Pablo Gimenez
Riili by a bookseller in Buenos Aires. The two became business
partners and in 2006, after looking at 76 pieces of land, they
settled on 1,000 acres accessible only by horseback in the Uco
Valley south of the city of Mendoza, near top wineries Bodegas
Salentein and Clos de la Siete.

  Financial Crash

     They ran up credit card debt and tapped friends, family, and
angels for $5 million in costs and $500,000 in legal fees, and
started offering 3 to 18-acre parcels in 2007. More than 50 of
the total 100 sold quickly, but all stalled in 2008.
     "You don't know how hard it is to sell a $200,000 vineyard
when the financial world is crashing," Evans said. In 2010,
though, they unloaded another 25. Planting 1.3 million vines,
building a winery, and more has cost another $15 million.
     There are hundreds of wineries in the Mendoza region, but on
my first trip in 2001, there was no wine bar in Mendoza city
where you could taste the best. So Vines of Mendoza opened The
Tasting Room in March 2007, then a retail shop and wine bar in
the city's Park Hyatt hotel in 2008. They started a wine club,
with a warehouse in Napa and recently added a downloadable
insider's guide to the region on the Vines of Mendoza website.

  Mid-Life Crisis

     Judging from the emails I receive, the owning-a-vineyard
fantasy is especially popular among wine lovers in midlife crisis
mode looking for a life-change. There are now dozens of projects
catering to them.
     In Oregon wine country near McMinnville is just-launched
Hyland Vineyard Estates, a 154-acre project where winemaker
Laurent Montalieu is offering homesites with already planted
vines he'll manage for $700,000 to more than $1 million. Planned
communities of home-plus-vineyard are also being sold in
Portugal's Alentejo and France's Languedoc regions.
     Evans sent me a barrel sample of Vines of Mendoza's first
wine, a blend of owners' malbec grapes, that will be released in
March. It was smooth and balanced with lots of dark fruit and
earth flavors, though it certainly wasn't the best Argentine
malbec I've had.
     "It's not only people with 3,000 bottle cellars who buy,
says Evans. "These are investment bankers, doctors looking for
participatory vacations." And, of course the chance to make wine
they'd like to put their name on.

  Restaurateur Puck

     They also include restaurateur Wolfgang Puck and a Napa
vintner. London-based Nick Smith originally bought in for
investment but says owning his 3 acres has turned him into
passionate wine buff.
     Just after Christmas I received a holiday e-mail from Evans,
who was back home in Mendoza with his chocolate Labrador,
throwing meat on the grill for friends at his regular Sunday
asados. He sent a beautiful photo of sunrise over the company's
vineyards in Mendoza. Outside my door was a foot of snow.
     I remembered a comment from Asmundson, whose wine, from
bought grapes, is now in barrel and will be bottled in 2012 in
time to serve at Thanksgiving.
     "When I think about my vineyard, I smile," he said. "I just
wish I'd bought 5 acres."

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