If a winemaker ever personified Teddy Roosevelt's saying, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," it might be Luis Barraud. Luis is an unassuming man in manner and mien, but he carries some big wines -- the ones he makes with his wife, Andrea Marchiori, along with Napa legend Paul Hobbs and Noelia Torres at Vina Cobos in Mendoza. We were lucky enough to meet him recently in New York and hear his story.
Luis and Andrea met during college in Argentina and decided to go to Napa to apprentice as winemakers. They met Paul there -- before he was famous, Luis is quick to point out -- and worked with him for a while, intending to make Australia or France their next stop. But then they had the idea of going back to Mendoza to make high-quality Malbec.
They started with no investors, just gifts from the people closest to them: used barrels from Paul, grapes from Andrea's family estate, and a small amount of cash from Luis's father. The couple started their winemaking while working other jobs. "We didn't even have a bicycle -- we had just graduated, we didn't have anything," Luis says. "We had to work, since in the supermarkets they didn't take big plans as payment."
The early years were difficult. The first vintage, 1998, was not a good one; 1999 was better, but they lost 95 percent of their harvest to hail in 2000. In 2001, heavy rain affected the quality of the grapes. But finally, in 2002 -- a blockbuster year across Argentina -- they had a vintage they could take to the bank.
And that's exactly what they did. "Everything we've done so far has been with sales and bank loans," Luis says. "If something goes badly with the wines, we have to close the business." Without the backing of investors, everything depends on the quality of the wine. From the beginning, Luis surmises, "the situation obliged us to do things well."
As demand for their wines grew, the couple sought $1 million to construct a complete winery. The government of Mendoza, which usually takes two years to grant a credit that size for business development, did it in four months. In just six more months, from October 2005 to March 2006, they built the winery. At first, they didn't even have doors on the structure, so they took the computers and other valuable equipment home with them at night.
Today, Vina Cobos produces some phenomenal wines, and the Malbecs that Luis and Andrea make -- with grapes from her family's original estate -- are among our favorites on the site. Their Felino range also offers good value, and soon they'll introduce the mid-price Cocodrilo line. But premium wines continue to be their specialty.
Despite choosing their business strategy "by instinct", the choice to focus on the high end has served the couple well. "We have a great advantage, which is that when we began, we decided to produce high quality; we couldn't compete with the big vineyards at low prices," Luis says. "Now margins are falling a lot, but it's still a good business for us."
We were excited to feature Vina Cobos wines in our tasting last week, and we hope you'll like them as much as we do. Salud!
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