Hubert Burda Media

From the Ground Up

Wine lovers-turned-producers are getting their hands dirty and bringing fresh impetus to the wine scene.

On a bright brisk morning in Portland, Oregon, Tai-Ran Niew surveys a site in his newly purchased property. “We will be planting it with vines this autumn,” he says, as he casts his gaze in the distance. “We are literally starting from scratch. It is an 80-acre site, but I will start with planting six acres of vines, beginning with Chardonnay. I have selected a diverse collection of clones and the goal is to establish a vineyard that will make age-worthy white wines.”
Raised in Singapore and trained as an aeronautical engineer, Niew had previously worked as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs in London before moving to the US to embark on his current project, Niew Vineyards. Exchanging financial statements for pruning shears may seem like an improbable career switch, but for Niew it seemed like a natural progression.
“It is a given that the starting point is a love of wine,” says Niew, who turns 47 this year. “The initial stages of my travel and wine studies were not simply about a love for wine, but were rather fuelled by academic curiosity.” His finance stint saw him preoccupied with trade and commerce, leaving him little time for quiet contemplation. “Viticulture and oenology meant I re-engaged with science and technology, something I missed dearly.”
For over five years, Niew enrolled himself in formal studies, undertook his own research and travelled extensively to interact and learn from winemakers. “This has involved helping [British wine journalist] Jancis Robinson and her team on a book, working as a harvest intern in South Australia, blending wine in Bordeaux and doing research on biodynamics in Burgundy. I also did a lot of research before buying this plot of land in Oregon,” he says.
In 2010 and again in 2014, Niew produced his Vigne de Niew through Viniv, a custom winemaking firm based in Bordeaux. For him, the Viniv project was interesting on various counts: “It was an opportunity to work and learn from the Cazes technical team behind [Château] Lynch-Bages and Eric Boissenot. There are great vineyards in Bordeaux that don’t benefit from the marketing prowess of the major chateaux and the Viniv team has studiously developed relationships with these growers to source wonderful grapes. We are blending top-quality grapes across appellations. And there is no commitment to produce every year, so I only pick the years when the growing season was interesting, hence 2010 and 2014.”
At his new property in Oregon, Niew’s focus for the next few years will be on farming, followed by a study on the pros and cons of making still or sparkling wine. “The aim is to establish a perfectly balanced and harmonious vineyard, and make wines that will stand the test of time. I suspect this project will keep me and my family occupied for at least the next 100 years!”
Over in Napa Valley in the golden state of California, things are also getting off the ground for GS Sareen. The founder and CEO of Omni United, a tyre manufacturer and distributor headquartered in Singapore, has just purchased a property in the Coombsville sub-AVA (the newest of Napa’s 16 sub-apellations). Called Rewa Vineyards, this is where Sareen’s vinous ambitions are going on a roll.
“My wife Rewa and I celebrate our silver jubilee this year, and this is my token of love to her for tolerating me for the last 25 years,” says the 49-year-old businessman. “I want to make a wine that I can share with family and friends. Obviously it has to be of a certain standard, so we’re working on that now.”
Rewa Vineyards is a 42-acre site that sits on top of a hill, which it shares with Meteor Vineyard to the south, a 33-acre property that belongs to Barry and Tracy Schuler of AOL fame. “They are great neighbours,” Sareen says.
While Sareen oversees the running of the estate, farming is done by Mike Wolf who was named by Napa Valley Grapegrowers as the 2015 Napa Valley Grower of the Year. Rewa Vineyards will mostly be replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with Sauvignon Blanc constituting a tenth of the vine plantings.
As work at Rewa Vineyards quickly gains momentum, the estate will soon be putting out its first vintages. But Sareen has realistic expectations: “If I’m a mango tree, I must try and get the best mangos. Obviously, I cannot get pears. The same goes for the wine. It’s stupid to say we’re going to make the best wine. It doesn’t work like that. We produce the best fruit our land is capable of producing, and with it, we try to make the best wine to our capabilities. Every individual is unique, just as every land and every winemaker’s style is unique.”
Sareen’s dedication and enthusiasm echoes that of Visooth Lohitnavy, one of Thailand’s wine industry pioneers. Like Sareen, Lohitnavy had no real experience in wine production when he started GranMonte Vineyard in the picturesque Asoke Valley, located in Khao Yai (now a top viticultural site in Thailand, thanks to its relatively cooler climate). In fact, at the beginning of his endeavour, the Thai wine industry was virtually non-existent. “There were some vineyards and wineries,” says the 72-year-old. “But the wines were very poor in quality and most were made from imported grapes.”
Lohitnavy’s love affair with wine began when he was a student in Germany in the late 1960s. As he approached retirement, the ex-managing director of Rentokil Initial Thailand set his eyes on a new challenge — to create Thailand’s first quality wine producer.
In the years following his purchase of the land in 1997, Lohitnavy immersed himself in research and spoke with industry peers who had started wineries but didn’t succeed. The planting of vines at GranMonte officially began in 1999. “It was very difficult at the beginning but I had help from friends and experts,” says Lohitnavy. Seeing the first fruits of his labour was “like seeing your firstborn child,” he recalls.
Initially aided by a German viticultural consultant, Lohitnavy was joined by his daughter Nikki, the estate’s general manager and oenologist, in 2008. Educated in Australia, she had earned her oenology degree from The University of Adelaide.
On hindsight, Lohitnavy expresses relief that GranMonte started small. “I don’t think we could be what we are today if we had overestimated ourselves and went in in bigger ways.”
For Swiss couple Thomas and Erika Meier, both 52, starting small wasn’t the only step they took in getting their Portuguese wine estate Herdade da Cardeira off the ground. They also enlisted the help of their neighbours, which was crucial to getting their winemaking endeavour past its infancy.
Thomas, who is region head Asia-Pacific of Bank Julius Baer and a member of the executive board, knew even as a little boy that he wanted to own a winery and make wine some day. His wife Erika, who holds a Masters in Political Science with a focus in Asia, was gradually infected by his enthusiasm.
“Back in 2010 when we first saw Cardeira, we found 20 hectares of interesting native grape varieties that had been very well taken care of,” Erika says. “The cellar was fully equipped and never used before. Its location and proximity to the villages of Borba and Vila Viçosa meant it was convenient, and the beauty and condition of the estate made it seem perfect for our dream to come true.”
Buying Cardeira was a split-second decision, which left the Meiers little time to make adequate preparations for running it. Consequently, Erika dropped everything and headed for the Zurich University of Applied Sciences to complete a course in winemaking, while Thomas returned to Singapore. The roles were set: Thomas, while maintaining his job at Julius Baer, would be involved in the strategic planning and direction of the wine estate, while Erika would take care of the daily operations, sales and marketing. In no time, the investment paid off and Cardeira won a gold medal at international wine competition Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
“As newcomers, Cardeira was lucky to count on the vast knowledge and expertise of the team at [nearby] Quinta do Zambujeiro, which already had an excellent reputation and brand name,” says Erika. “We’re still seeking consultancy from Zambujeiro and with further growth, the arrangement might be revised, but it will still be advantageous to both sides. Synergy can always be attained in various areas, such as fieldwork or the sharing of equipment.”
The Meiers are now looking to expand the vineyard acreage and grape varieties, as well as experiment with fermentation and maturation of wine in amphorae (large earthen containers akin to those used by the Romans and Greeks). The construction of a tasting room is also underway.
This group of wine lovers-turned-producers represent an increasingly sophisticated segment of the wine world, where drinkers are no longer contented with run-of-the-mill products and are breaking out of their cellars into the vineyards. “In most cases, the motivation in acquiring a vineyard is a combination of owning a great wine label and owning an asset with a history that goes back centuries,” surmises Erika. “The wine buyer of today, as my husband Thomas affirms, is no longer just buying the lifestyle. There is also the intent of developing wine, investing in it and transforming it into a productive asset.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, where newer entrants mark a milestone in the development (and shift) in global wine production and trade. “It brings new passion to a product that goes back to the Greek and Roman times,” says Erika. “And it will give new labels a chance to compete with and challenge the old chateaux.”