Emma’s Note: It’s that time of year… the grape harvest at Bill’s Gualfin vineyard is finished. We had grave doubts…
As Bill wrote about in these pages, the Argentine government shut the roads. So at first, they were unable to get pickers up to the ranch to harvest the grapes. And then, a late rain washed out the roads! It looked like the whole crop would be lost.
But they managed to salvage a few precious bottles…
Read on below as Bill details this year’s harvest and tells you how you can get your hands on a case or two of their exceptional Tacana Malbec before it’s all gone…
SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – We are still “quarantined” here in Argentina. We arrived just as the borders closed back in March.
We don’t know yet when we’ll be allowed to leave. But we couldn’t ask for a better place to “shelter at home.” It’s like being shipwrecked on a beautiful, desert island – with a full wine cellar! Since March 9, we’ve enjoyed the place… and the wine… every day.
The weather has been perfect – with clear, sunny skies and just (barely) enough water. This year’s grapes were excellent. And despite some severe setbacks [noted above], we were able to save most of the crop.
As longtime Diary readers may know, at more than 8,400 feet, the vineyard at our ranch in Argentina is nearly the highest anywhere in the world. Because our wine is not mixed with wine from a lower altitude, it is probably the highest pure wine in the world.
And since we’ve been marooned here for so long, we’ve gotten to know what separates a really good wine from an ordinary one.
The wine business is very competitive. “Commercial” vineyards are always under pressure to cut costs and increase volume. They make very little per bottle, so they need to be able to sell in large quantities just to break even.
This is why you can buy a decent bottle of wine for less than $10. But it’s also why the wine won’t taste very “special.”
This year, we had the great fortune to spend time with a real expert on wine. By our good luck (and, perhaps, his bad luck), he was locked down in the local hotel in Salta. The hotel was shut. But since he had nowhere to go (there were no international flights), they just gave him the keys and he and his wife stayed there, the only “guests”… until we arrived.
He is a top French neurologist. But his real passion is wine. He has a little vineyard of his own, where he makes only a few bottles that are sold to the best restaurants in Paris.
Over a long dinner, he explained what it means to make a good wine…
“Anyone can make wine. And anyone can make a good wine. But for a large, commercial producer, it is almost impossible. They need volume. Hundreds of thousands of bottles. That means they can make a good wine… with great commercial potential. But they can’t make a great wine.
“A special wine can only be made in a special place, where the grapes pick up the special qualities of the soil, the sun, the water, and the climate. And then, the winemaker has to be careful not to destroy it by mixing in other grapes… or putting it in a barrel that is too new… or adding chemicals.
“The trick is to bring out the particularities… the special qualities of a grape… and a place. That takes very careful attention… and must be done on a small scale.”
We hardly knew anything about making wine when we accidentally started out 10 years ago. Little did we know when we bought the ranch that there was a small vineyard of malbec vines tucked away in the remote folds of the Calchaquí Valley…
So we decided to try our hands at winemaking. And, unbeknownst to us, we were making a very special wine – mostly because we didn’t know any better.
Recently, we tried a French wine made from the same type of grape – the malbec. In comparison with ours, it was weak. Almost watery.
That’s the first thing you notice about an extreme-altitude Malbec; it’s strong… intense… and rich in flavor. And very special.
But there’s more to the story than just the flavor. All red wines have something called “polyphenol” in them. The American physician Dr. Joseph Mercola reports:
Polyphenols are micronutrients with antioxidant activity, found most abundantly in whole foods such as dried spices, fruits, vegetables, red wine, and cocoa.
Polyphenols play an important role in preventing and reducing the progression of diabetes and cancer, as well as neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.
Polyphenols also play an important role as a prebiotic, increasing the ratio of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which is important for health, weight management, and disease prevention.
In the human body, polyphenols have diverse biological properties, including:
Fighting cancer cells and inhibiting angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels that feed a tumor)
Fighting free radicals, and reducing the appearance of aging
Protecting your skin against ultraviolet radiation
Promoting brain health, and protecting against dementia
Supporting normal blood sugar levels
Protecting your cardiovascular system
Promoting normal blood pressure
We didn’t know any more about how polyphenols work than we did about how to make a great wine. And we certainly don’t claim any medical knowledge whatsoever. But here’s what they’re saying in a publication called WineKnows:
While red wine is known to exert a protective cardiac function, the exact mechanism has been unclear until recently. Research shows that red wine is a potent inhibitor of a detrimental substance that wreaks havoc on blood vessels. The villain, called Endothelin-1, causes blood vessels to constrict and fatty plaques to form. The hero, antioxidant polyphenols (found in skins of red grapes), block the formation of the harmful Endothelin-1.
Argentina boasts the world’s highest vineyards. Grapes grown in Argentina’s Andes have demonstrated significantly higher levels of these beneficial polyphenols. Vines grown as high as 5,000 feet have been shown to produce wine that is twice as potent in blocking the damaging Endothelin-1 in contrast to grapes grown in the country’s lower vineyards. In comparison to Chile, Argentinean grapes grown at lofty elevations provide more than triple the power in cardiac defense. Moreover, Bordeaux wine only afforded a mere 10% of Argentina’s high-altitude strength in preventing heart disease.
So, what is it about elevation that makes the difference? Higher altitude vineyard sites are closer to the sun. Grapes implement a defense mechanism against the sunlight intensity by thickening their skins, resulting in higher polyphenol levels.
And now, let us back up.
Too High, Too Dry
You already know about our ranch here in Argentina. As we’ve often explained in the past, it is not very productive or practical. It is too far, too high, and too dry.
It is marginal in almost every way. The cows are too thin (they don’t have enough grass). There’s not enough water in the seasonal rivers to irrigate much. And without water, well, it’s a desert.
It used to be marginally profitable (or at least, sustainable). Former owners used to be able to graze 2,000 head of cattle on the ranch.
But both the weather and the politics seem to have changed over the last 20 years. Each year brings less rain… and more problems. We’re lucky if we can support 500 animals.
And now, refrigerated trucks come up from the pampas, bringing more tender beef at reasonable prices. And because of the altitude and harsh conditions, we rarely get more than 250 calves. Each one sells for barely US$100. You can do the math yourself – not much money to pay for fuel, tractors, insurance, tools, vaccinations, and seven salaries.
We hope to solve this problem by growing hay down at a lower elevation, along the Calchaquí River, where we can irrigate year-round. But we’re just in the early stages of the project. We’ll drive the cattle down from the ranch to the valley farm later this month – for the first time. We’ll see how it works out.
To make matters worse, there is a political movement afoot, in which local activists – or originarios – want to take the ranch and turn it into a reservation for the Indians. It would be a disaster for the locals, who depend on the ranch as the only employer in the valley.
That is a long story, which takes more telling than we have time for today… But suffice it to say, it complicates things.
And to make matters even worse, Argentina is in the middle of a major financial and political crisis. After decades of mismanagement and mistakes, inflation is running at more than 50% per year. People were so fed up with price increases that, in the election last October, they put the previous regime back in power – the one that had caused the problems in the first place.
“We’re headed to Venezuela,” say the locals.
Of course, we could just pack up and move out. Buying the ranch was always meant to be an adventure and a learning experience (it has been more of both than we reckoned on!). We don’t depend on it for our livelihood. We don’t need it in our lives.
But the people who live here do. We’ve been here so long, the locals are like family. And you can’t leave family behind.
Gustavo, Pablo, Carlos, José – they, and their families, work on the ranch. We are the only employer within an hour’s drive. They depend on us to figure out how to keep the ranch going… or they will have to move out. (But with the whole economy reeling from depression, inflation, and a shutdown… there’s not really anywhere for them to go.)
Some of the ranch employees
And we count on the wine sales to keep the place going.
You may know the story already, but we’ll explain it for the benefit of our new readers.
A Simple Experiment
When we bought the ranch, we bought a cattle operation. That was what was interesting to us. Perhaps we read too many westerns as a boy, but we always wanted to be a cowboy.
And for the last 10 years, we’ve enjoyed the round-ups, branding, cattle drives… and all the rough life of a high-country cattle ranch.
The previous owner told us when he left that he had planted a few grapes “up in the valley, near Tacana” as an experiment. But we paid little attention.
A few years later, however, the grapes were ready to harvest. We took them over to a neighbor (lower in the valley, there are many wineries). He made wine with them. Simple. Malbec. No “oak.” No mixing grapes. No chemicals. Just pure malbec grapes from what must be one of the highest, most remote, and most naturally healthy vineyards in the world.
Finally, the bottles came back. We wondered what the wine would taste like.
It was strong. Intense. Rich.
“It’s very good,” our neighbor – Raúl Dávalos – pronounced judgment. “Easily as good as mine.”
Raúl’s winery, Tacuil, has been tested by famed wine expert Robert Parker. He gave it a 93 – near the top of his rating system.
“Great,” we replied.
Crushed, Cooled, Fermented
As we would learn, there are a few reasons why our wine is exceptionally good.
First, our vineyard is so high, so dry, and so far from other vineyards that there is no need to use a lot of chemicals to kill weeds, bugs, and fungus. The valley is naturally healthy.
Second, the temperature variation between day and night is extreme. It is very hot when the sun is out (which is almost every day). And the nights are cold. The grapes protect themselves with thick skins. These skins are where the flavors and sugars (the source of the alcohol) collect.
Third, the grapes are irrigated, but they get little water compared to most vines. What water they do get is absorbed into limestone rocks in the soil. As the roots pull out the water, they also get vital nutrients and minerals.
In short, the wine is exceptional because the location is exceptional. As our French friend (and wine aficionado) says, “It tells the story of the place it comes from.”
Plus, we called in an exceptional wine expert – Sebastian “El Turco” Saravia – who supervises all aspects of our grape production.
Once the grapes are picked, they go over to the neighbor’s winery. There, Raúl, a fourth-generation winemaker, makes sure the grapes are properly crushed, cooled, fermented, and bottled.
Over the last few years, we’ve gained more experience with the wine. We had local experts taste it – “Excellent!” We had experts in the U.S. try it – same verdict.
And when we shipped up a whole pallet of it to Maryland for our daughter’s wedding a couple years ago, it was a big hit. So much so that we had to ship another pallet up for a son’s wedding this past December.
And of course, during our enforced lockdown here this year on account of the coronavirus, we’ve made a big dent in our small inventory!
The wine supply at the ranch has dwindled during the lockdown…
But we have to get down to business, too.
Paying the Middleman
And it’s hard to make a profit in this one… The problem is the middlemen. You may pay $60 for a bottle of Tacuil’s RD Reserva wine in a restaurant in Buenos Aires. But the winemaker may only get 9 bucks. The rest goes to the distributor, the marketer, and the restaurant.
It’s worse when wines are shipped to the U.S. It’s liquor, so everyone has to be licensed. Competition is limited. You have to go through an importer, a distributor, a warehouser, a shipper, and a sales network… not to mention the taxes! The winemaker doesn’t end up with much.
Our vineyard can only produce about 10,000 bottles per year. In a good year.
This year, after the late storms… and the delays caused by the lockdown… our harvest was almost cut in half. If we sell in the normal way, the wine will be offered in restaurants at maybe $79 a bottle. But by the time the middlemen are paid, very little of that money will end up back at the ranch – not nearly enough to cover our costs.
Which leads us to our proposal to you…
Only 5,000 Bottles for Sale
Our vineyard can never be even close to profitable unless we can sell the wine directly to consumers.
We only have 5,000 bottles available to sell. But it won’t last long.
As a valued Diary reader, we would like to give you first crack at this year’s output.
And we’re going to make you an offer that no one else has ever made in the history of the wine business (as far as we know).
We’ve also got a very special present for you…
Last year, we had even fewer bottles to sell – only 4,500. We sold out in 24 hours.
And we offered a special guarantee: If you didn’t like it, we’d give you your money back. As far as we know, no one in the wine business had ever made such an offer. But we had confidence in our Tacana. And we knew we had to prove ourselves.
As it turned out, all 4,500 bottles sold… and only 2% of our customers asked for a refund, which we gladly paid.
Remember, our Tacana Malbec is more intense than the wine you’re probably used to. It goes great with meat. The Argentines drink it with their big steaks, for example. We drink it with everything, every day.
Other wines now taste weak in comparison. Offer it to friends and neighbors. See what they say.
And if, after you’ve gone through your supply, you think it did not live up to the promises and claims we’ve made for it, just say so. We’ll be happy to refund your money. Just as we did last year. No need to send anything back. We’ll take your word for it.
So, the very worst that could happen is that you drink our wine at our expense! You can’t lose!
Even Better Deal
But we told you we had an even better deal for you. For a limited time, we are offering a mixed case… 6 bottles of Tacana and 6 bottles of our special RESERVA wine.
Same grapes. Same place. Same harvest. But one big difference.
This wine has been “oaked” in barrels that we ordered from France. The wine stays in the barrels before being bottled. This takes a little of the “edge” off. It is smoother. Mellower. With more of a honey aroma.
Normally, this RESERVA wine is more expensive to produce – a single oak barrel costs us $1,200. If you wish to buy the RESERVA separately, it is $95 a bottle. But when you order a mixed case, that brings your price per bottle down to $50. That’s more than 45% off. At that price, you can’t beat the wine… or the deal.
Remember that our stock is very limited, so don’t delay. Reserve your wine in advance, before we offer it to other readers. It’s first come, first served.
We only have 450 cases of Tacana and 1,000 bottles of the RESERVA wine available. If you miss it this year, you’ll have to wait ‘til next year …
So, if you’d like to help us save the ranch, raise a glass and enjoy an exceptional Argentine Malbec. You can place your order right here.
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