Bruce Schoenfeld charts the distinctively Argentinian and artisanal contribution of a remarkable family and a talented winemaker to their country’s burgeoning wine culture, through “wines that taste like somewhere”
A nation of immigrants, Argentina has always looked to Europe for validation. Argentinians, the historian Joseph A Page has written, feel “alone on the edge of a wilderness, far from the centers of power and culture.” They tend to view Europe “through a magnifying glass that distorts the importance of both events and opinions abroad.”
If you’ve visited Buenos Aires, you’ve encountered the mind-set. It’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to complete a taxi ride from Aeropuerto Ezeiza to Avenida 9 de Julio without hearing a polemic from the front seat about how the nation is a victim of geographic misfortune, stranded on a godforsaken continent with country bumpkins. Clearly, the harangue goes, the Argentinian character has far more affinity with France, Italy, Spain, England, and the rest of civilized Europe than it does with Colombia and Peru, or even Brazil and Chile.
In the 1930s, when the ongoing cycle of economic booms and busts resulted in unprecedented — and quite temporary — affluence for the country, an attempt was made to transform Buenos Aires into the Paris of the New World. One of the more opulent manifestations of this rather ridiculous enterprise was the construction of the Alvear Palace in Recoleta. Built in 1932, it is a Belle Epoque hotel in the grand style. It wouldn’t look out of place along the Champs Elysées.
Eight decades on, the Alvear Palace remains a bastion of Old World elegance, more Parisian than Paris itself. Curtains are silk. Chandeliers are crystal. The cuisine of Jean-Paul Bondoux’s La Bourgogne has antecedents in the pages of L’Escoffier. An ornate breakfast is served daily on silver platters at L’Orangerie. And every weekday morning, ladies who imagine themselves on the Rive Gauche gather at the circular tables of the Lobby Bar and sip coffee that costs as much as an entire lunch most anywhere else in the city.
It would be easy to mistake Anabelle Sielecki for one of them. There she is, a raven-haired woman in her 50s, stylish to her designer shoes, stepping into the Alvear just before noon. She orders an espresso, then another, holding court with friends in several languages. “I don’t care at all about politics,” she says with a wave of a hand, as though her situation is immune to such concerns.
Yet Sielecki is hardly the bastion of the haute bourgeois establishment that she appears. Trained as an architect, she emigrated to the United States for a decade. Then she returned to Argentina, reinvented herself as a real-estate developer, and created and edited several magazines. Married to one of the most powerful men in the country, she nevertheless remains a philosophical outsider.
Part of that is her background. On Christmas Eve 1926, her father arrived in Argentina, a Jewish refugee from a Polish town astride the Russian border. Seventeen-year-old Mendel Sielecky came alone, speaking no Spanish, no French, no English. “I doubt that he even spoke Polish,” Anabelle says now. “Only Yiddish.” As if it might make him seem less exotic, his name was changed on arrival to Manuel.
Perhaps it worked. Sielecky quickly learned to communicate and found almost immediate employment as a telephone dispatcher. By 1929, he had saved enough money to send for his parents. He started a company that imported pharmaceuticals. Along the way, he married a Jewish Argentine whose family had run a paper business in Warsaw. They had a son and, later, had two more. In between, when Sielecky was 47, Anabelle was born. For ease, modernity, or whatever other nebulous reasons, his children have always spelled the name to end with an i.
Manuel Sielecky lived until 1999. A collector of English silver, he was an admirer of work of high quality — intricate craftsmanship of any kind. “He liked to see things done well,”
Anabelle says. He enjoyed fine food and, especially, Champagne, not least for the degree of skill required to make it. Anabelle Sielecki may claim a lack of interest in politics, but politics has informed her adult life. In April 1977, her future father-in-law was abducted from his Recoleta high-rise by 20 armed agents of the Argentinian military junta. The editor and publisher of the left-leaning newspaper La Opinion, Jacobo Timerman had refused to silence his writers after the 1976 coup, so the government silenced him: He was arrested and tortured.
In captivity, Timerman became the face of the struggle against Argentina’s politically motivated Dirty War. Those protesting his treatment by the government included then-president Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, the Vatican, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In 1979, stripped of his citizenship, he was allowed to emigrate to Israel. While there, he wrote Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Argentina’s equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. He became an international celebrity, a symbol of courageous and principled resistance to tyranny.
Hector Timerman, his son, was working as an editor when he fled Argentina for New York with Sielecki, his new bride, following his father’s arrest. Hector studied international relations at Columbia, founded magazines, fought for human rights. When democracy returned to Argentina in 1989, he and Sielecki did, too. In 2007, Hector became the country’s ambassador to the United States. Since 2010, he has served as the country’s foreign relations minister. He can be glimpsed by the side of the president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whenever she leaves Argentina.
What does this have to do with wine? In 2002, three years after Mendel “Manuel” Sielecky died, the opportunity arose for his children to purchase a vineyard.
It seemed enticing. Argentinian wine had only recently become plausible internationally. For the first time, it had cachet. Investors and consultants were flocking to Mendoza, planting vines, creating brands, and exporting to North America and Europe, where the top cuvées graced wine lists at respected restaurants. The real-estate market in Buenos Aires, on the other hand, had gone bust. Projects had ceased abruptly with the onset of the Argentinian Great Depression, which began in late 1998 and was exacerbated by the pricking of the dotcom bubble. The national economy eventually shrank by nearly a third.
The Sielecki children knew little about wine beyond drinking it. But unlike most everything else in Argentina, that industry was growing. Here was a chance to add a bit of vibrancy to the national economy at a time when successful small-business launches were rare. “The idea came up with my brothers,” Sielecki says. “‘Let’s get the vineyard and do a great wine.’ As a small business, it sounded doable.”
I had visited the country in January 1995, when the move toward making and exporting world-class wine had barely begun. “We can produce a Chardonnay that is close to the quality of a $25 California Chardonnay and sell it for $15,” Dr Nicolas Catena, then an economist operating a family wine business almost as a hobby, told me when we lunched together in Recoleta, not far from the Alvear Palace. “That’s the future.”
On that trip, I spent my time with Argentinians. Outside consultants in Mendoza were rare. The country’s wine industry still catered to the domestic population. The rough, heavy reds and oxidized whites that I drank with my meals probably resembled the simple regional wines that families such as Bianchi, Lagarde, Flichman, and Bosca — all major names in the Argentinian wine industry at that time — had drunk in Europe a century before.
One afternoon, I tasted with the enologist Raul de la Mota at Bodegas Weinert. His 1977 Weinert Malbec had attained legendary status as the domestic equivalent of a 1947 Cheval Blanc. It was being sold as a library release for the impossible sum of $75 in the United States. I sipped that wine with him at the bodega, which at the time looked more like a shoe factory than a tourist destination, then described it in print as a “fresher, fruitier, but equally intense Margaux.” While I didn’t rank it with the finest bottlings I’d tasted, it opened my eyes to the possibilities inherent in Mendoza and, by extension, the rest of Argentina and the continent beyond.
By the time I returned to Argentina in 2008, its enological landscape had been altered beyond recognition. On that visit, I tasted wines and shared meals with winery owners and winemakers for several days before I had my first extensive conversation with an Argentinian. I met with the American Paul Hobbs, the Spaniard Jose Manuel Ortega Fournier, the coterie of Frenchmen who were running Cheval des Andes, and Alta Vista’s Count Patrick d’Aulan, who has both maternal and paternal ties to European royalty. I happened upon Michel Rolland between rows of vines in the imposing Clos de los Siete vineyard, then lunched nearby with Jean-Guy Cuvelier, whose cousin, Didier, I’d known in Bordeaux. I called on Dassaults and employees of Rothschilds. I drank the wines of Roberto Cipresso of Montalcino and Alberto Antonini of Vinci.
By then, Nicolas Catena had essentially done for the Argentinian wine industry what Robert Mondavi had done in the United States: He had pulled it into the 20th century and set his eye on the 21st. His daughter Laura, who was emerging as the face of Argentinian wine, was among the only Argentinians I saw. And even she had grown up in Berkeley, California; had been educated at Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA; and was living with her husband and children in San Francisco.
As usual, Argentina was looking abroad for advice, influence, and approval. “There was a reason why all those people came and were welcomed,” Anabelle Sielecki says now. “There were some very good wines being made in Argentina before then, and some very good winemakers like Raul de la Mota. But most of the production was, let us say, not sublime. We needed the help.”
For one of my last stops on that trip, I visited Bodegas Mendel and tasted its wines for the first time. While they were polished enough for international distribution, I also sensed stylistic antecedents in the best of those primordial Argentinian wines that I’d tasted years before. The Mendel Malbecs seemed genuine, not confected or contrived for distant markets. I also liked the scale of the winery, which was blatantly modest. This wasn’t the Mayan temple of Catena or the art gallery of Bodegas Salentein or the faux château of Alta Vista. It didn’t have a polo field like Cheval des Andes or the flying-saucer architecture of O Fournier, or even a high-class restaurant like Vistalba. It was a stucco compound with an unkempt lawn. It felt like a small family business.
And that, it turned out, is exactly what it was. For the four children of Mendel Sielecky, creating a wine empire was never the idea. Rather, they wanted to honor their father by committing to the excellence in craftsmanship that he’d long admired. The name Mendel was an encomium but also a mission statement. “We never intended to get into the big leagues,” Anabelle says. “It’s the local aspect we wanted to stress. It was, ‘How great, to just get the best wine we can from our little vineyard.’ That was the idea when we were starting the winery. We sat around and talked about it. It was exciting.
“But then,” she adds, “reality strikes. And at a certain point you say, ‘What happens now? How the hell do we do this?'”
A heritage emerges
Not long after arriving in Mendoza in February 2014, I was invited to a tasting of mature Argentinian wine in a private home in Chacras de Coria, an upscale suburb. Despite pounding rain and severe flooding around the city, many of the luminaries of Argentinian wine managed to get there. Bernardo Weinert, still robust at 83, sat across from me. Alejandro Vigil, who runs the winemaking at Catena Zapata, was also at the table.
The wines were poured one by one over the course of more than two hours. We tasted one white, a 1983 Trapiche, and then a series of Malbecs, Malbec-based blends, and the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. We began with a 1984 Luigi Bosca Malbec and ended, 15 wines later, with a 1969 Bodegas Arizu SA de la Cava Privada.
At one point, I was astonished to find myself being served a glass of the 1977 Weinert Malbec, the wine that I’d tasted with Raul de la Mota in 1995. Thirty-seven years after harvest, it was the color of stained blood. Its savory flavors, cranberry and sour cherry, verged on bitterness but sweetened as the wine found a home in the mouth. An extended finish faded out like a 1960s rock song. The wine avoided the tang and sourness that many of the other Malbecs were showing. It reminded me of an antique Rioja from an excellent vintage. Its evolution seemed to have stopped in time.
The host of the event was Raul de la Mota’s son. Now 53, with a trim gray beard and eyes caught between kindness and sadness, Roberto de la Mota had known since early childhood that he’d end up making wine. “I’d go to school in the morning, race home to do my homework, then head to the winery,” he told me. His father had been one of the first Argentinian winemakers to spend time in the vineyards, and one of the first to travel extensively internationally. Roberto earned a secondary degree at Cuyo National University in agriculture, then followed it with the equivalent of a master’s at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique in Montpellier, France. He spent his 20s and the first half of his 30s at Weinert, working with his father.
In June 1994, he was hired by Bodegas Chandon as a vineyard manager. Later, he became the winemaker at Chandon’s Terrazas de los Andes. In 2001, he was promoted to technical director for the team producing Cheval des Andes, which was positioning itself as an Argentinian first growth.
By then, Chandon was part of the LVMH consortium. Pierre Lurton, the managing director of Cheval Blanc and Yquem, visited Argentina to help guide the project. One evening, Roberto invited him to a cookout at his home. Halfway through the meal, Lurton looked up from the wine he was drinking and said, “Roberto, this is a very important moment for me. I needed to know that a wine such as this existed here in order to realize the value of this project.” The wine was that 1977 Weinert Malbec.
Working for LVMH, Roberto was able to travel extensively. “They treated me well,” he said. But in 2002, the Sieleckis approached him about consulting for a winery they planned to start, based around a parcel of mature vines they’d purchased in Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo district. “It took a big effort to bring back to life the vineyard we’d bought,” Anabelle says now. “We couldn’t do it alone. At a certain point, we started looking for people who could help us. Somebody had suggested a list of names, and Roberto was the one we preferred. He’d had a lot of experience at Terrazas, and he was the one who had been crafting Cheval, which we all loved. We wanted to make something of the highest quality, and we wanted to partner with someone who had the same intention. And it mattered that he was Argentinian.”
In the context of consultant-rich Mendoza, where every ambitious winery had its passport-toting European or American expert on display, this was a daring decision. More than any other, it shaped the winery that Mendel would become. “Our culture and soil in Argentina are so different than in other parts of the world,” Laura Catena explains. “We needed the help, but at a certain point we came to believe that the ancient knowledge passed down from generation to generation is crucial, that you just can’t get it from someone who has come in from the outside. At Mendel, they decided to work with not just an Argentinian but the son of really the only winemaker who had been making profound wines in Argentina, this icon of Argentinian wines. It was very smart.”
Discussions about consulting evolved into a partnership. Roberto was impressed by the site and intrigued by the autonomy. But the most enticing aspect lay a step further.
“One of the biggest problems in enology today is imitation, which in the end always becomes caricature,” Raul de la Mota had told me. This new venture, his son understood, wouldn’t be making European wine in Argentina, aiming at the best of Bordeaux as Cheval des Andes was doing. Instead, this wine would be wholly and gloriously Argentinian. He started work on the Mendel vineyard almost immediately. In 2004, the first vintage of Mendel Malbec was released.
Mendel, de la Mota, Finca Remota
A decade later, Mendel’s production has grown to some 12,000 cases annually. De la Mota makes 5,000 cases of the varietal Malbec, maybe 1,500 of a Malbec/Cabernet blend called Unus, half that of Cabernet Sauvignon, slightly less of a surprisingly interesting Semillon, and fewer than 200 cases of a single-site Malbec called Finca Remota that is made from 60-year-old vines in Altamira.
During that decade, he has emerged as one of the most important and influential Argentinian enologists. A vice president of Wines of Argentina, he gave the keynote address at the annual Argentine Wine Awards last February.
While he has been at Mendel, something else happened that has even more profoundly altered de la Mota’s life. In August 2007, he was returning from the small Patagonian city of Neuquen, where he had been consulting at Bodega NQN on a wet, chilly afternoon. His car struck a patch of black ice and skidded off the road. He broke every rib and suffered a collapsed lung. Helicoptered to Mendoza, he was lying in the hospital bed when he learned that he was permanently paralyzed below the waist. His first question to the doctor was, “But how will I be able to visit the vineyard?”
He has learned to manage. He negotiates a specially outfitted, four-wheeled ATV through the rows. An ardent motorcyclist before the accident, he has thrown that energy and passion into his wines. “Your life changes; you change,” he says. “I actually work more than before.” He’s in the vineyard less often than he was – it’s no longer possible to make a quick stroll through to look at the grapes before work in the morning. But while he’s there, he pays closer attention than ever. “He was this mover and shaker, running around,” Laura Catena says. “Now he’s just so there. When he’s talking to you, he’s talking to you. He’s nowhere else.”
That attitude shows itself in the wines. Always nuanced, always balanced, the most recent vintages of Mendel display an urgency like never before. “He’s even more focused on expressing the sense of place in his wine,” said Daniel Pi, the director of viticulture and winemaking at Bodegas Trapiche. “He learned quite a lot in France and from working for LVMH, but now his international travel is limited because of the accident. So, he is working even harder to express the best of Argentina. You can taste it in the Finca Remota. And that’s exactly what today’s premium customers are looking for: a wine that tastes like somewhere.”
One afternoon, Roberto joined me at the Mendel winery for a comprehensive tasting that included each vintage of Finca Remota. First, we had a traditional Argentinian lunch at a long wooden table in the rudimentary tasting room. We ate corn empanadas purchased from a stand near Roberto’s house, pulled chicken, fresh tomatoes and avocados, and sweet melon.
The winery itself didn’t seem to have changed since my visit in 2008. “In many ways, it is one of the most impractical wineries,” Sielecki said, but I don’t agree. The rooms are small and the equipment relatively basic, but there’s a palpable spirit of graciousness that can’t help but influence the creation of exceptional wines. The best comparison I can make is to Napa Valley’s Spottswoode, which was a family home for years. This just feels like one.
There are small concrete and stainless-steel fermenters. Most are 50hl or 70hl, but the production of Finca Remota is made entirely in one of 27hl. A manual bâtonnage softens tannins; there are no pumps. And no presses: All the reds are made entirely from free-run juice. They’re fermented for two to five weeks and aged in Taransaud oak.
The story of how Finca Remota came to exist is typical for these types of cuvées. In 2006, Mendel began sourcing fruit from Altamira. That’s a long way away, more than an hour’s drive from the winery, about as far as Beaujolais is from Beaune, so it wasn’t surprising that those grapes displayed different characteristics than the ones that de la Mota was getting in Lujan de Cuyo. Tasting each barrel to figure out the composition of that year’s Unus, he came across this special lot. It was “extremely fruity and extremely aromatic,” he recalled, with “a strong scent of violets even after a year in oak.”
Today, there’s a bit of bricking on the rim of that first Finca Remota, but the wine remains fruity, aromatic, and fresh. All of them do. The finest Finca Remotas are the 2011 and still unbottled 2012 and, especially, the 2008 and 2009. As tasted that afternoon, that latter vintage may rank with the finest Argentinian wines ever produced, standouts such as the rarefied Catena bottlings, the best of Roberto Cipresso’s Achaval-Ferrers, and that 1977 Weinert.
The summer of 2008/09 was warm in Mendoza; many of the wines from that vintage show the bulky muscularity and lack of fineness that I associate with the lower altitudes of Napa Valley. Yet the 2009 Finca Remota’s overriding characteristic is charm. It has a tightly constructed but not abrasive framework of tannins and an umami-like note to balance the sweet fruit. As it opens in the glass, it smells like a bouquet of violets.
This wine appears to have been misunderstood, at least by American reviewers, upon release. The Wine Spectator tasting note in October 2011 included the admonition “Drink now.” Sure, it doesn’t have the stuffing of the still reticent 2008, which may not be fully realized for half a century. But it’s far brighter, livelier, and more charming at this stage, and I don’t believe it will be at its best for another 10 or 15 years. I remembered being surprised to learn that the ’77 Weinert carried nearly 15% ABV. “Those were my father’s favorite wines,” Roberto said. “He always felt that the best Malbecs were at least 13 percent – that you couldn’t make a great Malbec without that degree of ripeness. But you also need the acidity and freshness to go with it if you want the wine to age.” In that sense, this warm-vintage Finca Remota is a kindred wine. Despite an alcohol level of 14.9%, it has a similar near-weightlessness in the mouth. Combined with its purity and intensity, that marks it as a wine of unusual interest from the first sip.
Mendel is named after Anabelle Sielecki’s father, but the connection between father and son that shows itself in the glass is the de la Motas’. “There’s a very strong relationship between my wines and my father’s wines,” Roberto acknowledged. “It’s no coincidence. I worked with him for nine years, talking about wines, tasting, discussing every aspect of them. We both believed in wines that have intensity but at the same time elegance. Wines you love to drink more than comment on.
“When I see people drink my wine, maybe they aren’t usually talking about it,” he added. “But a couple that finishes a bottle with their dinner – that’s what my father wanted, and that’s what I want. To see that happen for me with a bottle of wine like this one? It’s a dream come true.”
Belonging in Mendoza
On a chilly but bright morning in Mendoza, Anabelle Sielecki sits on a hotel patio drinking mint tea. She’s wearing a shapeless gray sweater with elbow patches, jeans, a scarf, and no noticeable makeup. The comparison with the woman who was sipping espresso at the Alvear Palace less than a week before is striking. “That other woman,” she says with a laugh, “is not me. I might perhaps — depending on the outfit or the occasion — look like something else, but I really am a very simple person. I’ve always been like that. With grapes or without them.”
The hotel, Cavas Wine Lodge, cultivates its own vines. On this morning, the grapes are hanging off them like pendant earrings. Harvest is imminent, though the summer and early fall have been uncommonly cool and wet, despite spikes of high temperatures. In the decade that Mendel has existed, Sielecki has learned to look to the horizon and beyond, to wait before passing judgment, and then to wait some more. “It has been a strange growing season,” she says now between sips of tea. She shrugs. “What that will mean for the wine, I don’t know.”
Like her father, who learned a language and a culture, she has adapted to circumstance. Soon she will be flying back to Buenos Aires to accompany her husband to a formal event in honor of a world leader. Then she’ll travel to New York for a trip that will keep her away from Argentina for several weeks. That’s tomorrow, the next day, and beyond.
But on this Friday morning in the midst of the Argentinian winelands, it’s the start of a working weekend. The grapes don’t follow the calendar; they’ll be ready when they’re ready, whether that’s Sunday or two weeks from Tuesday. Until then, they must be watched, ministered to, consulted. It’s a different way of thinking, and Anabelle has found that it suits her. “She’s coming from a wealthy family,” said Pi. “She could be in any other place, owning a château in France, doing whatever she wanted. But when she is in Mendoza, she belongs.”
There’s nearly a full pot of tea on the table. The chill is lifting from the air. She takes a sip, stretches her arms, revels in the stillness of the morning. Another world awaits, but she’s in no hurry.