As told to Ben Kaplan
I have spent 47 years together with my wife. Five kids and 19 grandchildren later and that, more than anything, feels like the mark of human achievement. People are like vines — we adapt to survive. That’s what I’ve learned after a lifetime in winemaking.
When you’re a young man, you never know where you are headed. My father worked in insurance, and my mother was a housekeeper. We had no fortune at all. But there’s value in that, because you quickly learn that the only way to succeed in life is with hard work.
The vineyard where I worked after college was only interested in making average wine, which is a shame. Management might not have cared, but I realized that wine is a noble product with a certain amount of mystery and sensuality to it.
That’s what I set out to demonstrate with my own wines. Granted, the early days of Montes were difficult. We had nothing except our dream. My son was born during that time, and I’m glad he saw our business from the beginning. Now that we’re successful, our lives can seem very pleasurable — we fly helicopters, steer boats, and ride horses. But he knows that business isn’t like that. He understands that a good life is not something to expect — it’s something to earn. It requires hands in the soil, every day, toiling in nature — working and sweating. It requires a refusal to let your dream die.
As we worked, we grew. We changed ideas about what Chilean wine could be. With that came fair prices. Now it’s not so easy to forget about Chile anymore. But still, you can never stop learning.
After Australia and South Africa experienced drought, I began growing concerned about climate change. I began to wonder what might happen to Montes if our vines go to hell. As a test, we didn’t irrigate a part of our vineyard, even though we were afraid that the grapes would die. In the end, they suffered, but they lived.
As we had to dig deeper into the soil, we kept being blocked by rock. I said, “What if we blow everything up?” Dynamite, sure — it sounds crazy. But we needed to take some sort of action, and we ended up discovering another layer of sediment under that soil. Then our vines, the following year, adapted! By the next year, they were better plants than they had been when we began. The experiment changed the way that Montes does business and cut our water consumption by a quarter — enough to give 20,000 Chileans water for a full year.
The son of an insurance worker and a housekeeper did that. I imagine my father looking down and smiling on his son and his wife, his family and his grandkids; the fireplace, the bearskin rug, a cigar, and a great glass of wine.
Chile is one of the world’s most prolific and least understood wine countries. Here are three definitive bottles to get you started:
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon
Roughly 1/3 of all Chile’s grapes are Cab Sav, and this is a complex, fruit-forward example of the form.
Tabalí Talinay Sauvignon Blanc 2016
With a sharp, mineral body, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (especially this one) is a perfect summer afternoon wine.