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Finding the gold in Chilean wine country

Local woman and her family transform their great-grandfather's Chilean cattle ranch into vineyards, and make their mark in the wine world

Click on pictures to enlarge images and view captions.

By Renee Batti

Courtney Kingston grew up hearing intriguing stories about her great-grandfather, an American seeking riches in gold and copper in South America, and about the land he settled on in the Casablanca Valley in Chile in the early 1920s. But she didn't see the faraway ranch for herself until she was a college senior, some 20 years ago.

Ms. Kingston, now a resident of Ladera, says she was struck by how similar the valley was to Northern California, with its orange poppies, its cooling ocean breezes and fog. And she vividly recalls riding on horseback high up in the hills during that first visit, looking down on the land where her father, and his father before him, were born and raised.

Two decades later, the expanse of land she viewed from the hills has been transformed from what was primarily a cattle ranch into vineyards producing wine grapes, some of which were once thought to be improbable products of the soils and climes of Chile -- pinot noir and syrah.

The transformation is largely the result of an idea hatched by Ms. Kingston and her brother, Tim Kingston, with happy results. Where CJ Kingston was unable to realize his dream of finding precious metal in Casablanca Valley almost a century ago, his offspring have found gold -- metaphorically speaking -- in the same land, and are now producing trailblazing wines that are showing up in the cellars of an increasing number of high-end restaurants across the country.

The Kingston family property is located in southwestern Casablanca Valley, where white grapes, particularly chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, thrive in the cool coastal climate. But when the Kingstons decided to try their hand at growing wine grapes, they wanted to explore options beyond the traditional.

In the late 1990s, planting pinot noir grapes in particular was almost unheard of as a serious enterprise in all of Chile, let alone in Casablanca, Ms. Kingston says. But with the urging of their first wine consultant, the widely respected Ann Kraemer of Yountville, they took the plunge.

The decision proved to be sound. In an article in the May 31 issue of Wine Spectator, senior editor James Molesworth writes, "... the Kingston Family Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley Alazan 2007 (90, $30) proves the variety can be successful in Chile." The 90 represents Wine Spectator's rating -- considered outstanding on a 100-point scale.

Tale of two hemispheres

The story of Kingston Family Vineyards began unfolding in 1994, when the Kingston siblings began discussing the possibility of growing grapes on the 7,500-acre cattle ranch where their father, Michael Kingston, grew up. That's when Courtney was living in San Francisco, employed by Deloitte & Touche and working as a management consultant for some California wineries.

During that time, she applied to and was accepted in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and that's where she developed the business plan for the vineyard project, which was to be launched shortly after she received her MBA in 1997.

As if that wasn't life-altering enough, she also met her future husband, Andy Pflaum, at Stanford around that time.

The Kingston family planted the vineyards in 1998, and the first harvest, which included sauvignon blanc and chardonnay as well as the red grapes, was in 2001. The plan was to sell all the grapes to other winemakers, not to make wine themselves.

But they were caught by surprise when their pinot noir grapes sold for only half the price Chilean winemakers were willing to pay for the sauvignon blanc grapes.

"They had so little experience with pinot noir" that they weren't enthusiastic about the possibilities, Ms. Kingston explains. "So we had to take our destiny into our own hands."

That meant finding a way to showcase their pinot noir grapes by transforming them into a wine to pay attention to.

She got busy. Determined to learn as much as possible about the world of winemaking and the wine market, she began heading regularly to Napa Valley for tasting events, and the trips were fertile ground for ideas and new contacts.

It was at such an event that she met Byron Kosuge, who made wine for a number of respected Napa wineries, including Saintsbury and Miura, both known for their pinot noirs.

Mr. Kosuge ended up visiting the vineyards, and agreeing to take on the job of winemaker. He was able to do so while continuing to make wines in Napa because of the difference in grape growing, harvesting and winemaking seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Meanwhile, 2003 was a big year for Ms. Kingston: It was the first vintage of Kingston Family Vineyard wines, and it was the year she and her husband moved to Ladera. It's in their home, which they share with daughters Annie, 3, and Louisa, 1, that Ms. Kingston performs her duties as "jack of all trades" for the enterprise, including the business of importing, marketing and sales.

Staying true to the terroir

The Kingstons eventually hired another Northern California standout to help guide their enterprise as vineyard consultant: David Gates, vice president in charge of vineyard operations at Ridge Vineyards.

With all that Northern California know-how, Kingston Family Vineyards was able to lead the charge on growing pinot noir, and on hillside planting -- something not typically done in Chile, Ms. Kingston says.

But for all that, "we're not trying to make California wines in Chile at all," she notes. Instead, they strive to reflect the terroir of Chile -- specifically the Kingston portion of the Casablanca Valley -- while introducing the best of Northern California grape-growing and winemaking practices to the region.

For several years, the Kingstons have provided fellowships for young Chilean winemakers, sending them to boutique California wineries to train with their winemakers.

They also launched a tasting event at which Casablanca winemakers gather to taste one another's wines and share information. Such events are common in California and Oregon, Ms. Kingston says, but it was a hard-sell in Casablanca. "The idea of getting together with competitors (in Chile) is antithetical" to tradition, she explains. The first event drew only eight winemakers, but the last attracted 30.

In addition to encouraging a friendly winemaking community, the goal is to improve the quality of all wines in the region, which in the end raises the overall visibility and reputation of the wines of Casablanca.

A family effort

The old cattle ranch hasn't been completely converted to vines and a winery. There are still about 1,000 head of cattle grazing the land, and about 1,000 dairy cows.

"Fortunately, as we are looking to go organic in the vineyard, the cows have an important job ahead of them," Ms. Kingston says.

She makes several trips a year to Casablanca, as does her father, Michael, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with Courtney's mother, Louise. Her father and two brothers, Tim and David, are members of the Kingston Family Vineyards board.

Ms. Kingston's husband, Andy, "is not directly involved in the business, but moonlights as a taster," she says. Mr. Pflaum, who works at Yahoo-owned Zimbra, is active in the community, serving in the past on the Ladera Community Association Board, and currently as a leader of the neighborhood's emergency preparedness program.

Another local family member is Ms. Kingston's aunt, Susan Kingston Colb, who also grew up on the Casablanca ranch. She's a teacher at Menlo School in Atherton, and is married to the school's longtime headmaster, Norm Colb.

Back at the ranch, another aunt, Sally Kingston, and her Chilean-born husband, Enrique Alliende, manage the day-to-day operations.

Not a family member but key to the operation is assistant winemaker Evelyn Vidal, a native of Chile who met Mr. Kosuge while working for a season at MacRostie Winery in Sonoma.

The wines

Kingston Family Vineyards wines are named after favorite horses of the ranch, Ms. Kingston says. The pinot noirs are Tobiano and Alazan; the syrahs, Bayo Oscuro and Lucero. There's also Cariblanco, a sauvignon blanc.

In addition to the Wine Spectator 90-point rating for the Alazan, Kingston wines have garnered outstanding ratings from Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar.

Ms. Kingston stays busy meeting with wine shop owners and restaurant sommeliers to distribute the wines as widely as possible.

Locally, they are sold at Beltramo's and Draeger's in Menlo Park; Bianchini's in Portola Valley; Roberts in Woodside and Portola Valley; and K&L in Redwood City.

The wines are found in many local restaurants, including the Woodside Village Pub and its sister restaurant, Mayfield Bakery & Cafe; John Bentley's in Woodside and Redwood City; Red Lotus and Parkside Grille in Portola Valley; Marche, Cafe Borrone and Kaygetsu in Menlo Park; and the Menlo Circus Club.

They're also on the wine lists of many San Francisco restaurants, including Boulevard, Jardiniere, Absinthe, and Michael Mina.

For more information, visit the Web site at kingstonvineyards.com.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rob Decker
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jul 2, 2009 at 2:14 pm

It just feels good to support a business conceived by such a pioneering and gracious family. Courtney and her "chief taster", husband Andy Pflaum, have been a wonderful, community-minded addition to the Ladera neighborhood. And the Kingston Family wines go down real smoothly too. Don't miss the dark cherry flavors of their Pinot Noir or the bright fruit of the Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc --solid, delicious wines at reasonable prices. Which reminds me, I have a bottle of the '06 Tobiano Pinot Noir that has been waiting for a special occasion: Happy 4th of July!


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