Jose Manuel Ortega

POSTED ON 01/05/2008

‘I am in Canada on a trip to Vancouver and Calgary’ José Manuel Ortega emails. I reply: ‘I’m in Spain at Alimentaria’ (the Spanish wine trade fair in Barcelona). He responds ‘I am at Alimentaria too!!!! Just arrived from Chile’. How can this man be in so many places at once? I’m not sure. I think of Kagemusha the Kurosawa film in which the emperor employs a double to confuse the enemy. Is this the ploy? When I arrive at Mr. Ubiquitous’ stand at Alimentaria, he not only wants me to taste the wines he makes in Ribera del Duero, but of course his Argentinian wines and his new Chilean wines. Hard to believe that this latterday conquistador wasn’t in the wine business until the year 2000.

I first met José Manuel on a trip to Argentina five years ago. I was tasting malbecs when in rushed a small, spikily agressive bundle of energy with several bottles in his arms. The wines were impressive, all the more so since he didn’t have a winery. But it was the year of devaluation, an ill wind that blew José Manuel the opportunity, albeit after mortgaging his home and obtaining personal loans, to start construction on his ‘flying saucer’ winery at La Consulta in the Uco Valley. It was a gamble, but then, once a merchant banker, José Manuel is no tilter at windmills. He was used to upping the ante and the risk paid off. The technologically advanced winery, complete with restaurant and Japanese garden, would have cost five times more arms and legs to build today, ten times in Europe, and the land has gone up tenfold.

Maybe it’s because he’s come to wine late, but José Manuel Ortega is the embodiment of the carpe diem philosophy ‘you only live once’. Born in Burgos in Spain on 10 May 1968, this ‘son of the revolution’ was sent by his father to learn English in Bournemouth and then as a high school exchange student to Mobile in Alabama followed by university in Pennsylvania. After arriving in London in 1990 to work for Goldman Sachs, it struck him looking at both the auction and restaurant scene that there were no high end Spanish wines. While running a private equity fund for Banco Santander, he started to buy for investment: Vega Sicilia Unico, Pesquera, L’Ermita, and Baron de Chirel. From investing in wine, it was a hop, skip and a jump to investing in the wine business.

‘Exceptional wines have to come from marginal areas’, says José Manuel, a tip he learnt from Michel Rolland. With the help of a viticultural specialist, he alighted on the Finca Santa Sofia at El Cepillo where the extraordinary O.Fournier winery stands, apparently ready for take-off. By his own admission, he didn’t have the first clue about vineyards and since ignorance, as they say, is bliss, a lack of knowledge coupled with an innate capacity to take risks acted as a spur for innovation. Of course there is malbec, and his Alfa Crux and B Crux (the strange names refer to the Southern Cross) are both excellent, but he has also made a speciality of tempranillo, until recently not considered a ‘fine wine’ variety in Argentina. You might think that he’d be an admirer of the blockbuster Parker style, but José Manuel believes in elegance, restraint and the ability of a wine to age.

Clearly without enough on a plate that would have been ample for many aspiring wine producers, at the same time as he was developing Argentina he acquired an estate, Finca el Pinar, in Ribera del Duero not far from where he was born, comprising 65 hectares of old vines. It was as he says, an opportunity not to be missed because he’s a firm believer in the value of old vineyards. Next it was Chile that caught his eye. While he first looked at the fashionable area of Colchagua, it’s typical of José Manuel that he should end up buying land in more marginal areas. With both areas as yet still undeveloped, he has bought old vineyards in the warmer southern Maule Valley where he plans a winery for reds, and he aims to plant new vineyards and build a winery for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir in Lo Abarca close to the Pacific.

From first class in BA and staying at the Ritz in Paris, it’s now Ryanair and 3-star hotels for José Manuel. ‘I‘ve even had to auction my Hermes ties to pay for barrels’, he jokes. But while the hours may be even worse than when he was forging a promising career as a merchant banker, a recent Goldman Sachs reunion convinced him that he had made the right decision: as the only one there with his own business, he was the envy of his former colleagues. All the more so as he is happily ensconced with his wife and three young children in Mendoza. And for his next trick? Possibly the Douro in Portugal, he says, because it’s another exceptional terroir that’s ripe for investment. I always suspected there was a purpose for that flying saucer.

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