How we work
In these times it is important to stand for what you believe in, and more importantly to build the kind of business you believe in. At Garage Wine Co. we revive old vineyards in marginalized Chilean communities to make coveted wines. We’ve positioned these wines in two dozen established fine wine markets around the world and we grow. The wines are not made to be expensive per se, but they are found on the higher shelves– they need to command a price that allows for proper farming. What we have discovered is that the long-term practices of regenerative farming not only make for better fruit and thus more flavourful wine, but that such a business can become a force for financial, community and environmental good.
Necessity was the mother of sustainability
Sustainability for us was never about seals and certifications. We became sustainable just trying to survive being small in an industry geared to the big. Vintage after vintage we made our way through a series of necessary work-arounds, finding a way forward, that only later would be seen to be sustainable.
Recycled bottles – Because our production runs were small we were challenged when it came to dry-goods. When bottle makers refused to deliver to us, we found a local bottle recycler who became a trusted partner. This small business employs workers in a rural part of the country where stable and safe work is hard to find. What we learned is that when bottles are manufactured they have a limited shelf-life on the factory patio—a best before date if you will. Today we buy these bottles and wash them before use. This is glass that would otherwise have been smashed and melted and remade—without ever having been used. What is the carbon footprint of a bottle manufactured twice to be used once?
Labels & Packaging-- We learned to paint / silk-screen bottles because our bottlings were so small that the label printers did not want to work with us. The industry was geared to long print runs and said there was no money in printing 120
0 labels. So we built a custom machine and found experienced hands with silk-screening. Luis, our bottle painter, has been painting bottles for us for 11 years now. (Chile's first hotel built entirely of recycled materials: The WineBox, has adapted out bottles for their lamps today.)
What’s with the wax? Regular capsules were also sold with a minimum far larger than our needs, so we found a school supply firm that would make us food-safe wax for seals from crayon wax.
All of these workarounds, bothers and hassles at the time led to a positive and durable differentiation in packaging. One that we have continued to work with earth-friendly inks for silk screening, and recycled materials for cases.
Unable to buy new tanks-- designed to make mainstream wines, large, expensive and inflexible in their design, we took the leftover cuttings and scraps of a large stainless manufacturer and pieced together Lagars (traditional word for open tanks). We did it for far less money and the upcycling created opportunities for local welding shops.
Fruit: Years ago we bought from mainstream growers. When we made a crackerjack wine, the grower would use the prestige with critics to sell our fruit to someone bigger / better known leaving us without said fruit and without continuity in our portfolio. After two or three experiences such as this, frustrated, we went South to the Secano to work with growers unknown, unpolished, and disconnected from the mainstream. Working closely with small growers far from the beaten path, we found diamonds in the rough. When the polishing was done we had forged a bond with the growers—partnerships that we have continued to build upon with others in the neighborhood.
Let's face it, the wine business can be conservative, clubby and patriarchic. Having a female lead our work helps us work with our growers and suppliers on a different footing. We also like to mix scientists with field hands. Instead of contracting the cheapest bused-in labour, we keep it local where there are more experienced hands. Mercenary piece work doesn’t work -- proper sourcing does. It’s a mouthful, but in a phrase: the difference created by the discretionary effort released when you work in good faith with local farmhands is so much more than the savings that might be achieved from cost-cutting, that there's no comparing the two. We have never looked back.
The Baby and the Bathwater
As South American wine exports have boomed over the last quarter-century, it has grown increasingly difficult for small farmers to sell their old-vine grapes at a proper price – a price that can consistently sustain family and community. Mainstream buyers want more for less and they would have the growers modernise. The modern wine business calls for spraying instead of cultivating, scaling instead of focusing, and above all: reducing the cost of labor. But with the old vineyards, the labor is precisely where one finds the wisdom of farming passed down through the ages. Throwing that away would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Farming in the Secano Interior, the Maule and Itata valleys of Southern Chile, has been a way of life since Colonial times. Not just vineyards, but mixed farming of heritage seed wheat, free-range livestock and local market produce. Small-scale farms use dry-farming methods: turning over the earth to capture scarce seasonal rainwater, and nutrients from the clever use of seasonal cover-crops that in turn help sequester carbon from the air, and the use of horses to get into rows where tractors can’t reach.
This is where GWCo. works; too far from the comfort zone of those in the mainstream. These vineyards were neglected and relegated to bulk wine for decades because the booming market wanted branded varietals that didn’t command a price to support the work.
For more than a decade GWCo. has worked these old vines, there has been a marked improvement both in vineyard health and quality of the fruit produced.
The marrying of the fieldcraft of these small-scale farmers with the lens of modern science and GWCo’s mindful winemaking took a decade, but the marriage has proven successful not just for GWCo, but also for the farmers, our suppliers and customers alike. Over the past few years, we have begun to rent and in some cases acquire the property underneath the old vines. Today one-third of our production is worked our way with our own people.