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A Family Affair
Elyse Glickman

WHILE CHILEAN WINE HAS EVOLVED INTO BIG INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS, MARIA LUZ MARIN SEEKS LONG-TERM SUCCESS AT CASA MARIN BY STAYING TRUE TO HER PERSONAL WINEMAKING ROOTS

Like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, Chile's wine industry has clearly and briskly arrived, evidenced by its increased presence in restaurants and retailers worldwide as well as its eno-tourism boom. However, winemaker Maria Luz Marin has never lost sight of her own reality. She believes, no matter how big Chile's wine industry gets, wines evolving from her vineyards need to stand on their own.

 
Maria Luz Marin, proprietor and winemaker at Chile's Casa Marin (center) with her sons Nicolas (left) and Felipe (right).
PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA MARIN

 

It is a point of pride for her that the winery is not defined by sales volume, but by unique soils and climatic conditions that only a vineyard two and a half miles from the Pacific Ocean can offer.

"Of our 100 acres of production, nearly 70% are whites and 30% are reds," she says as she pours and distributes a pair of her "flagship" Sauvignon Blancs from 2007 and 2008. "Our white varietals include the Sauvignon Blanc, which we describe as a true coastal wine, along with Riesling, Sauvignon Gris and Gew├╝rztraminer. Our reds are Pinot Noir and Syrah. We focused on these varietals because huge temperature differentials between day and night during the growing season also mean we are an area that gets a lot of frosts. We also see a lot of humidity, as well as parts of the year where there can be several months without rain, and a lot of irrigation is necessary."


The barrel room at Casa Marin.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA MARIN

Marin certainly knows her stuff, having gone straight from college to winemaking in the mid-1970s, even though women winemakers at that turbulent time in Chile's history were almost unheard of. While she relishes the fact she was the first female winemaker to work for a private winery, and later found success making wine for multiple U.S. and U.K. clients in the mid-1990s, she had the nagging feeling there was more that she could do to be a true winemaker as opposed to being a wine producer.

While she had the clout to open a winery bearing her name, she did not want to take the path of least resistance, knowing that route would result in wine with little soul or character.



"I knew I wanted wines that were different and unknown, and [proposed to locate] my winery in the Lo Abarca hills in the San Antonio Valley, just a couple of kilometers from the ocean and where my father had a farm," she says as she arranges her generous wine samples on demarcated placemats.
 

"I think we excel because we are about paying attention to the details."

"Conditions here are considered so extreme that the government classified it as forest. Investors I initially tried to interest in the project were not prepared to go that far out on a limb. I always believed, however, that Casa Marin could be on the very edge of viticultural possibilities. For example, we have soils that express an 'attitude' based on what we grow on the low, middle and high elevations."

Marin's status as one of Chile's premiere woman winemakers, combined with her persistence, scrimping and saving, ultimately gave her the clout necessary to bring the winery to life in 2000. It is this reality that keeps her grounded, even as her Sauvignon Blancs are consistently rated in panels and competitions as some of the very best coming out of Chile and internationally. You can see it as you watch her prepare a wine tasting that is more personal in its tone than it is corporate, even when she bluntly explains why Chardonnay is not part of the tasting lineup: "I never liked Chardonnay much."

"There are few vineyards in Chile where at once you have the blessings and the challenges of fruits fighting to ripen under this area's unique climate, even with such rich and nourishing soils," she elaborates.

"Our yields are very low, between 2,500 and 5,000 kilos per hectare, with our total production starting from 12,000 cases per year, to 15,000 in higher-producing years. In 2011, we did not get to 10,000 cases because we were hit with a lot of frosts. Furthermore, we use no mechanical harvesting, and crushing is done by hand Monday through Saturday during the harvest. Though some of our equipment is brought in from France, Germany, Italy and California, our stainless steel tanks for the whites are made in Chile."
Casa Marin vineyards.
PHOTO: ELYSE GLICKMAN


When one considers that Concha y Toro, Chile's largest corporate wine producer, owns 25,000 acres of their own vineyards plus resources and acreage from other wineries they've acquired, Marin's determination to remain independent and productive on her own terms is both inspirational and ambitious. By concentrating on the small production area-that-could under her watch, she has gone big by showing she can do what others said could not be done, making sacrifices that are paying off. 

 
Casa Marin.
PHOTO: ELYSE GLICKMAN

Even with the formidable responsibilities and workload involved with keeping Casa Marin in operation, Marin is also moving mountains to add more organic plantings to the vineyards and lower the carbon footprint in the winery's production (even though recent experiments with windmills did not pan out).

She also emphasizes that she is working hard to provide employment for workers from the neighboring village of Lo Abarca and hopes her efforts on their behalf will empower them to benefit form Chile's growing wine tourism sector.

Given that 85% of her wines are exported, she observes that when promoting the wines to trade, gender and size of production tends to take a back seat to wines that people are going to seek out. "I believe women and men are equals when it comes to evaluating taste, using their sense of smell and expressing their personal winemaking preferences," she says. "From my own life, and from watching other women, I think we excel because we are about paying attention to the details, and understand our nature (Chile's geography) through the terroir and vineyards. Nothing in our wines is manipulated or modified.


PHOTO COURTESY OF CASA MARIN

While Casa Marin has found success in the U.S. in past years, she steadfastly defies industry trends in Chile, which she feels has made winemaking too much of a business and not enough of an art. Her family and staff wholeheartedly support her and her outlook. After a long relationship with a major U.S. importer, her husband and beverage industry veteran Andreas Schloss is actively seeking a new partnership with a different importer they hope will operate from values on which Maria Luz built the winery. Son Felipe has been working by her side as winemaker since 2008, intent on carrying the artisanal, wine-crafting aspect family business forward. Even the artwork, intricate mosaics and sculpture created by sister Patricia Maria, references the emphasis on products that are crafted from the heart rather than accounting ledgers.

www.casamarin.cl