How did The Garage Wine Co. Begin?
The Garage Wine Co. began in a garage next to the house. It was a hobby with friends and family that quickly became an urban myth because of the wines we produced. At the time I was working in the persuasion industry with big brands and working with wine, and getting my hands dirty, helped me to balance my life — if not my soul. The garage grew until the operation didn’t fit next to the house anymore.
Today we make the wines in Caliboro (in the Maule) where our ploughman farmers of Carignan are located.
What wines do you make? How much do you make?
Garage makes 75 barrels of wine (about 1,800 cases today). We craft wines the old way by hand and horse working with small plowmen farmers to grow very special fruit and then age it in older barrels over two winters. We have grown from the days of the garage, a little, but we still use the same techniques: open top tanks that we punch down by hand. Pressing is strictly manual. We do have help with some of the physical labour from winemaking students. It is surprising how many students want to do their practical work term requirement for their university degree at The Garage Wine Co.— and not only us but all the members of MOVI – El Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes. Might this be a sign of generational change towards interest in “smaller” instead of “bigger” names? I certainly hope so.
Our measure of success is not size. It was never our idea to enter into a contest of who could grow the biggest, nor charge the most for an icon wine. We set out to make wine with an identity. That is why we work with Carignan. And that is why, with others, we helped form VIGNO – Vignadores de Carignan.
Why is Carignan so important?
Some say Carignan is rare or exotic, but that is only because Chile is perhaps too well-known for Cabernet and other varieties that sell well in supermarkets. With Carignan we carve a niche, and we hope this niche will help the world’s wine drinkers to re-think their limited conceptions about Chilean wine.
Chile, outside her borders and her own understandable bubble of pride, is far too well known for budget wines. This is a very difficult cycle to break. I worked with consumer products and focus groups in my last career and I no longer have interest in this commodity business. That isn’t where the opportunity for wine from Chile is today. The opportunity is with wines of identity made on a human scale. If these wines stand out or seem strange that is because preconceptions and prejudices about Chilean wine are erroneous. As Einstein said: it is easier to separate an atom than a man from his prejudices - so we have lots of work to do!
The very idea that the old-vines of the Maule are not well-known is a crime that history teachers should be flogged for. These vines have been worked by hand and horse since colonial times in the 1600s. Personally, I think they are some of the most interesting wines coming out of Chile — perhaps because they are not what is expected from us.
Historically speaking the well-to-do families of Chile, with their recently minted fortunes, wanted to make a better Bordeaux (Cabernet) and build a bigger house with prettier gardens than their cousins in France or Spain. They made a name for themselves and their wines, but in my eyes, always through comparing Chile with somewhere else. Perhaps that strategy worked at the time, but I do not think that is Chile’s challenge today— and thus it isn’t Chile’s opportunity either.
Carignan from the Maule isn’t a copy of anything. Old-vine Carignan is something Chile can do better than anywhere or anyone in the world. At least I think so— and I am not as alone as I used to be on the subject. I am sure that others will make the drinks industry news pages more than old-vines from the Maule but at Garage our “bottom line” is a lot more involved than P & L.
Garage Wine Co. is committed to social entrepreneurship in Chile. How did this begin?
After the earthquake in 2010, that affected the wine country of the Maule profoundly, I lived a personal odyssey with a photographer friend Matt Wilson. I saw first hand what had happened and I was inspired to do more. I proposed creating a means for Carignan and old-vines to help the Maule region get back on her feet after the earthquake and I won the Geoffrey Roberts Award. We began to work with small farmers farming ancestral lands with original methods by hand and horse. Don Nivaldo and Señora Otelia and others were selling their fruit to the coops for blending into cheap jug wines. They had some terrific fruit and with some investment and a re-orienting I was sure that together we were capable of farming better fruit than anyone.
It soon became an overland adventure and my kids got attached to travelling with me in the little red truck in the Maule and one day I realised that wine had become interesting for them for the first time. Accuse me of child-labour abuse if you will for getting my kids involved helping work in the fields, but when I saw the effect of this work on my children’s faces, I knew it was worth pursuing!
At first we used the funding from the prize to get started travelling and selecting and characterizing fruit. We made it in small batches so we could compare and tweak the results. The following year, just when we were ready to give up, out of nowhere a Chilean berry grower: San José Farms reached out to us with finances to help. There are those who say social entrepreneurship does not exist in Chile, well I am here to say it does. It just needs more ‘ñeque’ — oomph.
This was about the time we began work with Bibendum in earnest and together we are growing the Ploughman Farmers Programme as part of the Ethical Trading Fund. Today Ploughman’s Carignan improves people in the Maule’s lot by getting them involved in the fine wine world. They are no longer a cheap source of commodity fruit to be exploited by a corporation’s buying table. These are proud farmers of supreme quality fruit. We are partners and I am proud to work shoulder to shoulder— and you should know that I have gotten pretty good with the plough over the years.
Does the idea of an ex-ski coach ploughing the old-vines of Maule sound crazy? Maybe it does, but I think things have to change, and the only crazy involved in making change is doing the same old things as always and expecting change to come of it. For my part, I am just happy that a company like Bibendum agrees with me.