Finding Federico: Montesquieu Winery in Search of the Real Deal

August 10, 2011, by: Stephen George

Intimate Asado Dinner with Federico Benegas-Lynch & Don Zofanor

History. Tradition. Family. You’ve probably noticed that these words get thrown around a lot in the wine industry. These days, everyone seems to be claiming that they’re family-owned and family-run, that they are tapping into a tradition as old as the sun, that they use historical vineyard techniques or winemaking methods or what have you.

It’s easy to tune out this sort of rhetoric as marketing-based background noise. And as merchants who are barraged by wineries who want us to introduce them to our clients, we at Montesquieu Wines know how critical it is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. To truly determine whether there’s real history and tradition in play, and whether it matters to the quality of the wine, we have to do more than just scratch the surface. We have to dig deeper, to pull back the veil to see whether these buzz words reflect something real and unique, or whether they’re merely a marketer’s fancy.

The best way to do that, of course, is to visit the property in person, if you can. Go to the vineyards, inspect the winery, taste the wine in its place of origin. Are the vines really old and gnarled? Are they tended naturally and by hand, as claimed, with no trace of chemicals or machine work? Do the grapes taste fresh and vibrant off the vine? What kinds of tanks do they use, and how do they use them? Is the facility clean and pristine? Is the winery a tourist showpiece or a place with real history?

And most of all – who’s there to greet you? Is it a salesperson or hospitality manager? Or is it the owner, the winemaker, someone who pours his or her heart and soul into the winery’s work? What stories do they tell? Are they personal stories, family stories, tales full of history and tradition? And can you feel their passion for the vines as they talk?

Our Gracious Host Federico with Fonda

Do this enough, and you’ll get pretty good at sniffing out empty rhetoric – and you’ll know the real thing when you see it.

Let me give you an example. A small group of Montesquieu wine brokers were in Argentina along with our buying team this past April, visiting with our favorite producers and investigating new opportunities. (For more about our trip, including our harvest experience at Michel Rolland’s winery, look here and here.) One Tuesday afternoon, on our way from the Uco Valley to Mendoza proper, we stopped at a winery (which shall remain nameless) that wanted to do a project with us. When they reached out to us initially, they had said all the right things, but we were there to find out for ourselves.

Good thing, too.  We were hosted by their director of sales (the owner was nowhere to be found).  The tour was nice, and our guide was informative – but there was a problem, the kind of thing you only learn if you’re there in person. It was the middle of harvest, and as we walked by the grape receiving area, we saw stacks of bins full of grapes sitting in the scorching sun, while the workers took a lunch break.  We would never let this happen to our grapes at such a critical moment when they are most vulnerable. When harvesting in Napa, we work through until the grapes are entirely in, or we store them in a cold locker to preserve freshness.  The skins of a grape give it most of its tannin and acid – indeed most of its character – and letting these brittle berries bake in the sun, off-the-vine, is the worst thing for them.  It can cause the skin to crack and shrivel, violating the integrity of the wine and robbing it of vitality.

As our tour continued, the more we looked, the more we noticed how huge the operation was, how they were pumping out large quantities of wine without the care and attention we expect, how their techniques were oriented more toward volume and style and the market rather than seeking to express terroir.  We tasted through their wines, and there was nothing wrong with them per se. But in a word, the operation was commercial, not artistic, and we could tell that many of the decisions in the vineyard and cellar were driven by sales and financials, not by an abiding passion for the life of the vine.

We had another appointment later that day in Mendoza, and the difference could not have been more stark. Federico Benegas-Lynch, of Don Zofanor fame, is the owner and genius behind this estate begun by his great-grandfather. Along with his right-hand-man Andres, Federico spent all evening with us, walking us through his vineyards, tasting the grapes off the vine, showing us his ancient stone cellar and impeccable winery facility, talking of his passion for Mendoza, telling us stories from his family history, and sharing a long traditional Argentine meal with us.

But it didn’t take all night to realize what we were experiencing. After moments with him, we knew: this is the real deal.

Maybe it was when he took us to his cherished 110-year old Cabernet Franc vines (yes, you read that right: 110 years old!), and the juicy, rich, fresh, ready-to-pick grapes tasted unlike any other Cab Franc grapes we’d had.

Or maybe it was observing how he frequently stood in the vineyards in silence, breathing in the dusk air, gazing over the vines to the Andes Mountains in the background. In those moments, it was if he was alone out there, in his own world, just Federico and his beloved terroir. His passion was palpable, and contagious.

Or maybe it was when he showed us the winery records book begun by his grandfather, in which the first handwritten entry was dated 1918 – and then told us about how his great-grandfather settled in Mendoza in 1883 when it was only a cattle center and hand-carried cuttings from Bordeaux, helping to launch the Mendoza wine industry.

You can’t fake this stuff. And the quality of wine that results from true tradition, history, and artistic passion is unmistakable. We experienced that over the course of our dinner together, as he poured some of his best cuvées for us – wines with distinctive personalities that were elegant, full of character and life, each more fascinating than the one before. The meal – a traditional Argentine asado with various cuts of fresh meat roasting on a massive fire just behind our 40-foot long wooden table – went late into the night. We talked, laughed, and cried (literally!), while reflecting on our shared love for great wine and the human stories behind it.

So this is what we seek for all of our Montesquieu wines. Authenticity. Personality. Passion. And yes – real history, tradition and family. The kind that Federico and his wines have in spades.

We’re thrilled to be able to share with our clients the fruit of our growing relationship with Federico by way of the 2007 Don Zofanor Meritage. This traditional Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet, Cab Franc and Merlot is inspired by Federico’s great-grandfather, who aspired to follow the example of the world’s most famous growing region in building the Mendoza wine industry. It’s an homage to this vision and to the tradition and values he has passed down through the generations, culminating in Federico’s passionate work.


12 Responses to Finding Federico: Montesquieu Winery in Search of the Real Deal

  1. Amanda Martin on August 11, 2011 10:04 amFederico is absolutely the real deal. What an amazing and magical night we had at the winery! Definitely the first time I've ever been completely overcome with emotion to the point of tears at a winery. The beauty of the whole day- topped with the sight of the dining room ready with the night's Asado was just too much to take in!
  2. PB on August 11, 2011 10:08 amFull on a 4 course meal of asado the story of Don Zofanor still remains engrained in my brain. What a magical part of our trip, but what an even more magical evening with Federico telling his family stories. Everything from how he reclaimed his family's legacy to the tale of an infamous man in a poncho perched on top of a mountain with a barrel of wine. Federico embodies passion and it is an honor to tell the story behind his superb wines. I think I will wear my poncho when we release his next beauty...
  3. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 10:21 amAaron, now we'll never see a poncho again without all those great memories flooding in! There is no doubt that all that emotion and history comes through in Federico's wines. You can taste it. You really can!
  4. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 10:24 amAmanda, what an experience! Even in the video, I swear I can see the twinkle in Federico's eyes!
  5. Cherie Basener on August 11, 2011 10:44 amThis was definitely an unforgetable experience! To see the drive, the vision, and the passion behind what goes into every bottle of Federico's wine makes it that much more enjoyable. The red carpet was definitely rolled out for the Montesquieu team, and we could not fully express our gratitude. Seeing the property, the care the grapes receive, his family and team effort, made it very easy to really grasp what makes his wine so special.
  6. Sandra Ganser on August 11, 2011 10:55 amHe's the epitome of family, history, and tradition. His passion for the art of wine making is contagious and you feel his total dedication in every one of his stories and even more so in his presence. It's illustrated best, though, in your first sip of his incredible wine and I will share his stories with my clients as it is an outstanding honor to represent his wines.
  7. Bob Bourque on August 11, 2011 11:07 amThis trip was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Frederico is a true statesman for the wine industry. His passion for his country and his winemaking speaks volumes for his wines. To be able to spend a evening with him walking his vinyards and tasting his Don Zofanor wines from many different vintages was truly amazing. I proudly display my poncho in my home, and look forward to returning.
  8. Brittney Pearson on August 11, 2011 11:10 amVisiting the Benegas Lynch property and meeting Federico Benegas, walking the vineyards, tasting grapes from 100 year old vines and learning the history of a truly passionate man was an incredible experience! It was emotional and I think I can speak for everyone judging by a room normally filled with boisterous personalities, silenced and hanging onto every word that Federico spoke so passionately about in broken English. Walking through the vineyard you immediately sensed a feeling of warmth and could feel the care and devotion dedicated to the history of the vineyard…and most importantly you can taste it in the wine!!
  9. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 11:13 amCherie, I am sure you have lots of photos from your trip, and even more amazing memories! Sandra took one of you and Federico the night of the asado that is especially nice. Let me know if you want me to send it to you!
  10. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 11:19 amSandra, thanks for the photos. Some wineries that display artifacts can feel like a museum, but Benegas has such a warm inviting feel even with museum-quality pieces and grand proportions to the architecture. Wow!
  11. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 11:25 amGood thing when you enjoy Don Zofanor you can re-live those great memories!
  12. Lisa Duff Khajavi on August 11, 2011 11:27 amBrittney-love it-so great it leaves you speechless! Sometime words just don't do justice.

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