Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The world's stupidest winery design

I've seen a low-ceilinged winery in Italy that's lit by candlelight, where the barrels must be moved by hand, but it's 500 years old. I've seen wineries that are little more than empty spaces in airline hangars, without air conditioning or even sufficient electrical power to run it. But those are used by people either inheriting family property, counting their pennies, or both.

The stupidest winery design in the world is being built in the 21st century by a guy with lots of money. And he's a building developer by trade. So there's no excuse.

The winery is Narbona, in western Uruguay. It's owned by Argentine developer Eduardo Canton. The wines aren't bad, despite the presence of Michel Rolland* as a consultant.

* Side note: Rolland told a Uruguayan newspaper earlier this year, "People have the right to drink the wines they want, even if they're shit."

Anyway, Rolland may be consulting on the wines, but he's too smart to have anything to do with the winery design. The on-site winemaker, Maria Valeria Chiola, is smart enough not to criticize it directly, but does say an elevator would make her job easier.

Here's the problem: The building is two stories high, but the top floor, at ground level, doesn't extend all the way across the building. In fact, not a single walkway extends all the way across the building.

Building exterior: beautiful, but the way around is blocked
There's no way to get from one side of the winery to the other without walking down a rusting, wobbly metal staircase, and then back up again.

And this crappy staircase, which OSHA would never allow in the US -- it's brand-new! I can't imagine how uncomfortable it's going to be to lug equipment up and down and up and down (and up and down) that staircase in four or five years.

They're building an elevator on one side, and Chiola speaks about how impatient she is for the elevator to start working. That will help a lot, as people will no longer have to deliver barrels down the rickety staircase.

But the building isn't huge -- maybe 40 meters by 25 meters -- and the staircase takes up about half of the potential work space on both floors. The usable areas on the top floors are tiny, and one will not have an elevator, greatly restricting what you can do there. The winery is now making 5000 cases a year (80% exported, unusual for Uruguay) in an old facility better than the new one, but the old facility will be converted to olive oil production by next harvest season. I can't imagine how they're going to make 5000 cases of wine in this facility without workers regularly slipping discs.

I also believe that nearly right away, workers are going to tread bare the paths around the outside of the winery, walking maybe 300 meters to travel 20. At least it's good exercise.

Why would anyone do this?

Canton is into restoration. The original Narbona winery was built in 1909 by Juan Narbona, a Frenchman despite the name, Chiola says. He went out of business in 1950, returned to France and abandoned the building. Canton saw it while visiting the area in 1990 and fell in love with it, and is lovingly restoring it.

Rather than refurbish the original winery, Canton turned it into a hotel that's quite cool, with century-old furnishings and fixtures and beautiful views over the vines. Here, Canton has made some concessions to modernity: the toilets may be 100 years old and underpowered, but beside the clawfoot bathtubs are modern, working showers.

Winemaker Maria Valeria Chiola
There's a good restaurant that's one of the most vertically integrated country restaurants I've seen. In addition to growing their own vegetables and fruits and raising their own cattle, they even create their own boxes of dried pasta.

As for the vineyards, Canton replanted the same grape varieties Narbona once used: Tannat and Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noir, heavy and chocolatey, shows Rolland's hand. So does the massive top-end "Luz de Luna" Tannat, which sells for $100, has a nice ripe, floral nose and a ripe, powerful flavor profile guaranteed to wow you until you can't drink anymore (which for me was after 1/3 of a glass). But there's a Tannat Roble 2010 (not a bargain at $50) that's fresh and showcases dark cherry fruit and is more for drinking than tasting; the wine is not all about surface impressions at Narbona.

However, the winery is all about the visual. The rickety staircase is apparently modeled on a century-old one, and fits perfectly with the look of the restored hotel and restaurant. It's lovely to look at, as long as you don't have to make wine there. A previous vintage of Luz de Luna won a Best Tannat trophy in 2011, but that title changes every year. The title of World's Stupidest Winery Design looks like a keeper.

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