Although his father imported Argentine wine to the US for his restaurant, that was as close to the sacred grape as Brennan Firth had got after taking a degree in public relations. But a plane ticket and a few contacts took him to Mendoza and six years on, he is now a fully fledged winemaker.
Brennan says: “I came on holiday for six months to work my first harvest in 2007. My dad is friends with Gabriela Furlotti from Finca Adalgisa, whose wine is made by Carmelo Patti, and he had asked if I could work at one of her wineries. So it was basically down to pop’s connections! I came for that vintage but before working in Luján de Cuyo, I went to San Juan for three months see if I could get a job there, knowing harvest took place a couple of months earlier. But it was all about bulk operations – I was there for a few days and one day after lunch I never went back! I loved San Juan, though – the wines, the people, the countryside and the sights – so I stayed before returning to Mendoza for harvest.
“I didn’t expect Mendoza to be so green. Everything was very new and I hadn’t done any research – dad had whipped out a plane ticket and said ‘get out of here!’ so I didn’t have any preconceptions.”
A wine of his own
Although he dabbled between “monotonous” grape picking and more technical work within the winery, Brennan discovered early on that he wanted more from the wine industry.
He says: “At first I lived in Luján de Cuyo in an apartment above Gabriela’s office. She’s now like a big sister for me. Then I rented a room in the Quinta, the fifth section of the city, and rented a car so I’d drive out to work. It was all new, winemaking; I had never sat down and read about how wine was made – I didn’t know what a refractometer was – I was super green.
“But by sorting grapes, even though it’s monotonous and you want to shoot yourself after 12 hours, you see the purpose of being there. You see rot or leaves passing by, and you think ‘I could let it go, someone else will get it’ but they don’t. Every part I pulled out made me feel I was part of a big picture and that was really cool. I felt more than an employee, and it was bigger than the task in hand – and that was the love-struck moment.
“I was walked through the whole process learning about too many seeds, whether the wine was too hot, why we did an open pump over – I was really interested in the whole process and tried glorified grape juice every day four times a day, and that was amazing.
“I finished that harvest and went back to the US in mid-June but I already knew I wanted to return plus I had also started dating a girl from San Juan. I got a job in Sonoma, California, at a small boutique winery and was taken under the wing of the head winemaker, a comfortable person to be around from Michigan with no background in wine. I was taken back by all his achievements although he didn’t have any qualifications! So I thought that if he could make wine, then I could do too. I also made some Syrah with a friend in Sonoma, and we ended up with 300 bottles each selling it to friends and family. But by January 2008 I had sold my car, wrapped up my money, said bye to my folks and was back down here with a one-way ticket to Mendoza.”
With enough money in his pocket, Brennan reckoned he could get by for two years if necessary. “Before I left the US, I’d sent Viña Cobos a CV and in mid-February they said ‘yes you’re on for the harvest’ so I worked with them in the 2008 vintage. I was working 90 percent in the winery with the rest of my time receiving grapes, cleaning and sterilizing – monotonous – and you’re a bit of a slave working 15 hours a day. I also made a lot of connections, as I lived with 12 other international interns. Every night was a tasting with people pouring out wines from their home country.”
And then came crunch time – whether to go back for the northern hemisphere harvest or not. Although he had split up with his San Juan girlfriend by that point, Brennan stayed. “I made the decision to learn Spanish and get situated. Then I started to think ‘why should I work for somebody else when I could make my own wine?’ which was followed by ‘it’s not that big an investment!’ I wanted to do six barrels, which turned into 12 which turned into 65. All I knew was what I wanted to do that in 2009.
“So I registered Cepas Elegidas as a brand, and got a logo and a place to make wine. I paid 10,000 pesos in fruit that year, and bought two new barrels and two used ones. And the costs, with the bottle and the cork and the label meant I could make 1,700 bottles. My dad said it wouldn’t be enough, that I’d sell it all in four months. He suggested I make a Malbec but I didn’t want to ride the Malbec train. He said: ‘Have you heard about making your bread and butter?’ And so I made 10,000 litres of Malbec with 17,000 kilos of grapes.
“It took me, my mum, my dad and 13 contractors two days solid to sort. And that yielded me 12,300 bottles to have a quick release while the other stuff was hanging around in barrels. Now I have an importer’s licence for the US, which means I can also export other people’s wine, two jobs as it were. That didn’t work out to be so easy as I thought…”
The actual wine making is seemingly the easy part of the whole process, as Brennan has run up against various hurdles over the past five years. He says: “The big problems have been the national wine institute (INV), the AFIP tax agency and customs! Aduana didn’t want my wines to leave the country as I was a first-time exporter; AFIP didn’t want me to export as they didn’t think that one guy could make this amount of wine on his own; I had to open up a whole lawsuit with a shipper, missed a boat, paid fines, then the wines got red flagged and underwent drug tests – there’s been a lot of government red-tape. It took about 11 months to get my first export out.
“Once, I was at a dinner with (winemaker) Marcelo Pelleriti telling him the story and he said ‘dude, this shit happened to me,’ and gave me someone’s number. I thought I was being singled out for being a foreigner but it turns out Mr. Pelleriti was going through the same thing.”
Despite the hurdles, Brennan exports to the US and by renting space at a winery in Cruz de Piedra, and can choose the wines he wants to make. He’s lived in nearby Luján de Cuyo for four years. “I rent a little house that has some overhead trellis vines with Muscat and Cereza grapes. In my spare time I like to go hiking in the mountains. I’m also trying to travel and see new stuff – I went to Salta and Cafayate a few weeks ago.
“Two of my friends are flying New Zealand winemakers Duncan and Jason; Jason and his wife look after my babies and lab reports when I go back to the US. My friends are mainly other guys who work in wine and we get together to drink beer and talk shit. It takes a lot of beer to make good wine as you need to clean the palate out regularly.”
30 Born: Arizona, US Lives: Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza Education: Degree in public relations from California State University, Fullerton Profession: Winemaker at Cepas Elegidas Book: A book about importing wine Film: The True Story About Killing Pablo Gadget: Corkscrew