Saturday, May 16, 2009

One woman's dream: Chile's Casa Marin

Maria Luz Marin should be an inspiration to women entrepreneurs worldwide, and maybe she would be if her chosen piece of land wasn't so far out of the way.

Marin was a winemaker for several large Chilean wineries, including Vina San Pedro, the country's second-largest. All along she saved her money and dreamed of working for herself -- especially when her boss left her out of meetings.

Yet despite this early-career hurdle, becoming a head winemaker is actually easier for a woman in Chile than in most countries. The Miami Herald reported last year that 35 percent of the enologists in Chile are women, compared to 5 percent in neighboring Argentina.

Still, Marin is not exactly traveling a path blazed by others. Chile is best known internationally for Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends grown in relatively warm regions. Marin had something else in mind: building a winery in a spot so cool that she has to use her fireplace practically all summer.

Vina Casa Marin is in the town of Lo Abarca, just 4 km from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyards stud a series of rolling hills that get cool ocean breezes every day. Marin says on the summer's hottest day, the temperature might reach 80 degrees Farenheit, but she'll still need a sweater that night.

"Before I planted this vineyard in 2000 it was forest," Marin said. "It was completely unknown as an area for viticulture."

I asked her if she did extensive climate testing before committing her hard-earned savings.

"I didn't do any research at all," she said. "I knew this area because I vacationed here as a child. It was just my experience after so many years. I knew this was the place to go."

Marin is the owner, winemaker and sales rep; she was in San Francisco this week pouring her wines at a trade tasting. "I like having my own company because I can make my own decisions very quickly," she said.

Casa Marin makes a lineup of whites you'd expect to see in a cool part of northern Europe: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, along with cool-climate reds Pinot Noir and Syrah.

This can be a sales challenge: it's not always easy selling Austrian or German Riesling to Americans, let alone Chilean. But Marin likes what she likes, and has a clear vision.

"I don't like to blend," she says. "I like to do very straight varietals, very clean."

My favorites were these:

Casa Marin Laurel Vineyard San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Strong lime and limestone flavors, with a hint of fresh herb. Well-balanced, food-friendly. 92

Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc 2008: Stone fruit flavors (peach and apricot) with plenty of minerality and a hint of line. Very different from the more austere Laurel Vineyard, but also excellent. 92
Casa Marin Casona Vineyard San Antonio Gewurztraminer 2008: Very floral, lots of rose petal, with some minerality giving it appealing grip on the mouthfeel. Completely dry. 89

Casa Marin Miramar Vineyard San Antonio Syrah 2005: Best wine in the portfolio currently. Spicy up front, with excellent blackberry fruit and an undercurrent of meatiness. Vibrant, well-balanced, with excellent acidity. Just 13.5% alcohol. 93

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