Increasingly these days, some of the best wines in the world are produced in Chile. The country’s cool, arid, and mountainous landscape provides the perfect environment for growing grapes in a tradition that dates back as far as Western civilization itself. During the last few decades, Chile’s wines have gained increasing popularity in the American market, as wine makers discovered the country’s potential and Americans discovered what Galileo described as “sunlight, held together by water.”
And Chilean company Viñedos Emiliana S.A. has been right on the cusp of that burgeoning popularity of Chilean wine. Founded in 1986, Viñedos Emiliana has used its 1,379 hectares of prime wine-growing Chilean valleys to produce some of the best wines in Chile, and some of the most popular brands in the U.S.
For Viñedos Emiliana, however, that wasn’t enough. Wine making goes back almost to the beginning of Western civilization, sure, but back then there was an important difference: no chemicals were used, and the vines and vineyards interacted in harmony with the surrounding environment. In its bid to get back to that kind of natural winemaking, Viñedos Emiliana has stumbled upon something else: the market’s growing thirst for organic products.
Viñedos Emiliana was founded in 1986 with the humble purpose of producing and marketing Santa Emiliana, a very popular domestic brand of Chilean wine owned at the time by Concha y Toro. Founded as Bodegas y Viñedos Santa Emiliana, the company’s controlling stake was held by many of the same investors as Concha y Toro. It was a fortuitous moment. Not long after the founding came the wine export boom, and Americans began buying more and more Chilean wine products.
So Bodegas y Viñedos Santa Emiliana made a move. Re-dubbed Viñedos Emiliana, it worked on its own vineyards located in some of Chile’s prime wine-growing territory in the Casablanca, Maipo, Colchagua and Cachapoal. The arid, Mediterranean climates, light soil, and cool breezes in that part of the world make for ideal wine-growing conditions.
As the wine boom continued, Viñedos Emiliana began looking abroad for new markets. In the 1990s, Walnut Crest, a brand of wines for the U.S. market, was launched. The brand features Viñedos Emiliana’s white grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as reds like Shiraz and Merlot. It also markets a White Zinfandel from California and a Pinot Grigio from Italy, among others.
Today, the Walnut Crest brand is the Chilean brand with the second biggest market share in the U.S. The brand is in the top 20 most imported brands in that market. Yet even with all that success, Viñedos Emiliana wanted something more, explained commercial manager Sebastian Phillips. Wine is not as simple as the consumer products of other manufacturers, whose typical strategy is to make more product, at a lower cost, and a higher quality. Wine is complicated, maybe even an art.
The challenge, Phillips explained, was to grow in market share without necessarily growing bigger. “We’re not interested in volumes as an end, so much as better quality products,” he explained. What Viñedos Emiliana needed was to add value to the product it was already producing.
As it turned out, the company would be on its way to accomplishing this practically inadvertently when vineyard tender and part-owner José Guilisasti converted the first piece of Viñedos Emiliana vineyard to organic farming methods. “(He started with) this type of agriculture not because he was thinking about a market trend in the coming years, but because he believes in this system of agriculture, as a philosophy of living,” Phillips explained.
Typical vineyards these days use many of the chemicals found in other kinds of industrial agriculture. Pesticides are used to kill harmful insects, herbicides kill weeds, and fertilizers are artificial. Phillips called this the curative method of agriculture. “If I have a disease, I go and buy a product to treat that disease,” he said. “I cure.”
Guilisasti’s vision, on the other hand, was preventative agriculture, an organic system of nurturing the vines together with the surrounding environment, a system that would bring balance. Weeds and insects are controlled with natural solutions, and the vines are encouraged to grow strong on their own so as to prevent disease before it happened.
Chickens to the rescue
An example of the way the vineyard uses natural solutions for natural problems can be found in the case of a certain kind of destructive insect. The insect starts in the roots of the vine as a larvae. As it matures, it chews at the roots, then emerges from the roots and works its way up to the leaves, where it causes more damage.
The solution to this problem in a typical modern vineyard is to tie plastic bags around the tops of the vines. The bags are coated with insecticide, and when the insect crawls out of the roots and up toward to leaves, it encounters the poison and dies.
How does Viñedos Emiliana control those bugs? “With chickens,” Phillips said. The squads of hens rove through the vineyard eating the bugs, and the problem is solved without chemicals, and with one other advantage: “The eggs are totally different” from supermarket eggs, Phillips added with a chuckle.
After experimenting with different methods of production and care, Viñedos Emiliana began converting more and more of its vineyards to organic agriculture. In addition to its Walnut Crest line of wines, the company added a line of organic wines under the brands Natura and Coyam. But just like the methods of caring for the vineyards, marketing organic wine has been a process of trial and error with some unforeseen pitfalls.
The main problem at the outset revolved around how organic products were viewed on the marketplace. People expected to buy organic wine for its moral purpose of conserving the environment and its health benefits of not containing any chemical residue. So when it comes to organic food, quality has never been seen as a first priority, and organic wine was assumed in many circles to be inferior.
“It was like apples,” Phillips said. “Organic apples had to have a worm inside for them to be organic.”
Viñedos Emiliana had to prove itself, and that’s just what it did at a wine tasting in 2004. That was the year the vineyard came out with the first edition of its Coyam brand, a blend of red wines bottled in 2001. Out of 500 wines and 85 vineyards, the English judges chose the Coyam as the best wine in Chile. “For us, that was the launching point,” Phillips said.
It wasn’t a fluke good year either. Since then, Coyam has won other recognitions as the best blend in Chile, Phillips said. In February, the company’s wines were featured in Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast at the same time, something that is very unusual for a Chilean vineyard.
Quest for quality
Since organic wine began to take off for Viñedos Emiliana, the company has been steadily converting its land to an organic model of agriculture. By now, of the 1,379 hectares of vineyard operated by the company, 600 is run organically, while the rest is run in as an environmentally friendly way as possible and with an ISO-14001 environmental standards certification.
Its status as a leading organic wine producer is convenient for Viñedos Emiliana from a marketing perspective, but that’s not the main reason for doing it, Phillips said. First of all, the company has a genuine interest in caring for the environment. “There is a tremendous care taken with nature,” he said. “We’re trying to produce good quality, a good volume, but without damaging nature. On the contrary, we’re trying to take care of it, to be able to leave something in the future for new generations.
Second of all, from a business perspective, Phillips said the company believes that organic methods of agriculture will produce genuinely better wines. These days, the process of producing wine is an industrial one. “I make a recipe, and the wineries carry it out in more or less the same way,” Phillips said. The only thing that can truly differentiate wines from each other, then, are the grapes themselves.
Viñedos Emiliana believes that the best way to let the grapes express themselves is to grow them organically, with the sunlight, wind, water, and soil of Chile’s beautiful wine-producing valleys free to impress themselves upon the young fruit.
Organic into the future
As Viñedos Emiliana grows, it plans to do so not through producing more volume, but higher quality. At the moment, the company markets about nine million liters of wine per year, amounting to annual sales of about $25 million. Expanding its line of organics is one way Viñedos Emiliana plans to add value to its wines. The company plans to increase quality to position itself firmly in the position of selling most of its wines from $10 a bottle and up.
The company’s newest experiment is with a system of agriculture called “biodynamic” agriculture, invented at the beginning of the 20th century by a philosopher named Rudolf Steiner. The idea is to produce food along with the rhythm of different energies found in nature, like the cycles of the moon, for example.
Viñedos Emiliana’s first biodynamic wine, called simply “G,” was recently awarded 92 points from Wine Spectator, “which for a first-edition wine is very high,” Phillips said. “This is the great challenge that we have, demonstrating to people that organic and biodynamic agriculture can produce wines just as good in terms of quality as the conventional (wines), and at the same price.”