Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Did You Come To Casablanca, Courtney? For the Grapes

At the end of March, shortly before returning to California, I made a brief trip from Santiago to Valparaíso and, en route, had the good fortune to meet Courtney Kingston (pictured above) – also a California resident – and visit her family’s Kingston Family Vineyards (pictured below). Because the visit was necessarily brief – though I did get a chance to sample the produce before I caught the local bus to Valparaíso – she agreed to an email interview that follows.
WBB: Please tell me something of your family history – as I recall, you have longstanding connections in Chile, but you are a California resident now spending an extended period in Santiago. How much time do you normally spend here each year?

CK: My great-grandfather, Carl John Kingston was a mining engineer who came to Chile in the early 1900s from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – which used to be copper country in the US  As a result of a mining investment gone bad, he acquired as collateral what’s now our farm in the Casablanca Valley.  So my grandfather, my father, and all their siblings were born and raised in the same farmhouse that our family here continues to take care of.

Typically my family and I live in Northern California, near San Francisco, Stanford University, and wine country.  I come down to Chile every couple of months, as well as lead the distribution of our wines, primarily in the US, Canada, UK and Brazil.  But in 2014 my husband, our three daughters and I are living in Santiago, which allows me to be more hands-on at the winery, and also for our three daughters to attend school through the Chilean school year.
WBB: What is your annual production, and what percentage is exported? On such a large property, what acreage is devoted to wine, and what else does the farm produce? Is any of that exported?

CK: Throughout our family’s history here we’ve been farmers of dairy and beef cattle and various crops, and beginning in the late 1990s we began growing grapes as well.  Today we sell 90% of our grapes to other Chilean wineries, but we make about 2000-3000 cases per year of our own Kingston Family wine.  That’s a very small amount for a winery, which allows us to make it by hand.

We export about 90 percent of our production to the US and Canada, with the balance going primarily to the UK, Brazil and Chile.  We’re unusual as a Chilean winery in that, also having a base in the US, we can offer our US clients the ability to buy from our website or to receive regular shipments of Kingston wine via our Old Corral Club.

WBB: Just inland from the port of Valparaíso, Casablanca’s climate resembles that of coastal California. What California wine region would be the closest comparison? To what degree do you rely on irrigation?

CK: Byron Kosuge from Napa, California, has been out consulting winemaker since we began at Kingston. He works with vineyards up and down the California coast, and says
western Casablanca reminds him most of California’s Santa Rita Hills on the south-central coast [near Santa Barbara] – both in terms of topography, and in how the cool coastal breezes bring alternating fog and sunshine to our vineyards. Overall, Chile is like California with the “volume turned up.” Instead of the Sierra Nevada, we’ve got the Andes; instead of driving three hours from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to ski, in Chile you could ski Portillo and swim in the Pacific (in a wetsuit, no doubt) on the same day.

In terms of water for our grapes, we do drip irrigation – little drips from a hose running across the top of the vines – which allows us to give the minimum amount of water that the grapes can get by on. Not only is this more sustainable and economical, but also the best wine grapes typically come when you don’t provide them with too much water.

WBB: What varietals do best in Casablanca? Am I correct that you are one of the few Casablanca wineries focusing on reds, particularly Syrah? What other varietals (and blends) do you produce?

CK: Casablanca has traditionally been best known for its white varietals.  We do make Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but we also were among the pioneers making reds – specifically, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  We’re known in Casablanca --especially where Kingston is at the western end of the Casablanca Valley – as having a cool climate.  Twenty years ago, many people thought that meant you couldn’t make great reds in Casablanca, but in fact we and other producers here have shown that cool climate Syrah and Pinot noir can be remarkable (if challenging to make!)

WBB: Who controls the Chilean wine industry? Is the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes a response to the big producers? How many of you are there, and where are you? Would you say you’re less conventional than big producers like Concha y Toro?

CK: The vast majority of wine produced in Chile is by a handful of major producers, but from our perspective at Kingston Family, we don’t feel affected or limited by that in any way.  The central challenge we have, like any small business, is creating awareness among wine lovers about what we’re doing making our small lots of wine here in our corner of Casablanca Chile.  So by teaming up with about 20 other artisan winemakers here in Chile – via MOVI, the Movement of Independent Winemakers – we’re able to amplify the message to the market about the innovative wines coming from so many interesting boutique winemakers in Chile.

WBB: Are you open for tours and tasting? One thing that’s always caught my attention is that Chilean winery visits are expensive – more so than in California and much more so than in Argentina (particularly Mendoza). Why won't or can’t Chilean wineries have free or low-cost tours and tasting?

Yes, we host several tours each week, by appointment only (we’re only now finally getting a sign up at the entrance to our vineyard – until now, visitors had to hunt to find us).  We also do lunches for visitors on our terraza overlooking the Casablanca Valley, and for larger groups we cater candlelit dinners in our barrel room.  In the first 6 months of this year, we had visitors from 21 countries, the majority coming from the United States, followed by Germany, UK, Chile and Brazil.

At Kingston, we have a fee for our tasting and tours that allows us to provide a personalized 90-minute tour and tasting for each visitor, and we open fresh bottles for each visit.  And for many visitors, we rebate their fee if they purchase wines during their visit, or if they join our Old Corral Club.  And frankly as a boutique winery, providing a free or low-cost tour & tasting largely attracts people who have a low inclination to buy higher-end wines.  (Incidentally, even the biggest wineries in California typically have tasting fees of US$15 to US$40 these days.)

WBB: Is there anything I’ve overlooked that you would like to add? 

CK: Here are a couple of suggested topics, based on what many visitors ask us….

1) What changes in wine and tourism has Kingston Family Vineyards seen in the past decade in Chile?

The greatest two changes for us have been the growing awareness globally about the availability of very high quality wines from Chile – we’re no longer known simply for high-volume ‘value’ wines – and the growth in overseas travelers for whom coming to Casablanca wineries is a key part of their Chile travel plans.  We think these are great signs for Chile in general, and artisan wineries in particular.

2) What is the role of social media today for a winery in Chile?

Social media has become increasingly key for us in connecting with wine lovers and friends of Kingston Family.  Before, we could really only communicate with our friends and followers a couple times per year via email, but with social media we can provide more-frequent but less-intrusive updates to them, as well as receive feedback and answer questions that people have.  To date, most of that interaction has taken place via Twitter (@kingstonwine), but also a lot of our guests post photos of their visits on Facebook and Instagram. 

With that said, the majority of high-end wine buyers today are in their 40s or older, whereas the most active social media users are younger than that, so we expect to see the importance of social media continue to increase in coming years. 


Anonymous said...

Watched the amazing transformation of that valley during numerous treks to the beach over 20 years since the late 1980s. There was a place we used to stop for pot roast sandwiches in route. (Bob Hendley)

Donna Martinez said...

We are a family of Californian expats (thank you copper) residing in Santiago for 6 years and loving it! Chile is indeed super charged! We usually describe Chile as the mirror image of California- given the seasons & Chile's deserts in the north/CA in the south. The similarities are astounding, though Chile tends to win in all categories. Both are long and skinny, have mountains and productive farming in the valleys and wineries along the coast. They also share the same chilly Humboldt current - but California wins with its abalones compared to Chile's locos. We are excited to have met the Kingston family here in Santiago and look forward to extending this connection back to our home in The Sea Ranch, CA.

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