October 8, 2020

How Garage Wine Company Became the People’s Hero

By Angela Oemcke

In this edition of Cellr’s Weekly Crush we caught up with Derek Mossman Knapp, Co-founder of Garage Wine Co. out of Chile. To say Garage Wine Co. are at the top of their game would be an understatement. Garage Wine Co. is not only at the forefront of rejuvenation and sustainability, the small batch producer also nails direct to consumer… everything. But you don’t need us to tell you that, because you can read it all for yourself. 

See how Garage Wine Co. are changing the storytelling game on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter! Also, check out their website to find out more and buy their wine!

So Derek, what led you to co-founding your own label Garage Wine Company?

Our project began in the Garage and probably would have stayed there if two things had not happened. 

The first: Pilar was offered a job in a perfume & flavourings company part-time when our children arrived. Our “hobby” became a means for Pilar to keep her feet in wine whilst she took more time for family. We figured if we could make a couple of  crackerjack wines she could step back into a proper job when she wanted. 

Derek and Pilar

The second: it was just so difficult run a small cellar in the Chilean wine business back then. A little wine company simply did not fit in to the business of the BIG. The vineyards did not want to sell so little fruit, the glass makers were not interested in delivering so few bottles, the printers laughed out loud about their big machines printing so few labels. Little wine did not exist and our little company had to learn to work-around these challenges. These workarounds came to obsess us. We adopted recycled bottles that came in trays instead of pallets. We learned to silkscreen bottles instead of printing labels. When a capsule maker almost convinced us to buy their minimum, we found a crayon maker who would sell us wax instead. And when no one would make a small open top fermenter, we purchased scraps of stainless steel and upcycled them into lagars of our own design and small. 

 In a few short years the misfit tanks filled the family garage and friends began spreading the word. And then one day a stranger knocked on the door to purchase wine with a magazine under his arm– he wanted to buy the wine he saw in the magazine– the Garage Wine as it was called. 

The notoriety was good for us at first, until the big vineyard who would sell us so little fruit decided it wouldn´t anymore (we had stolen their show). And this is when we went South to the Maule for the first time. Little recognised and underrated the Secano Interior or, the rain shadow of the Coastal Range – Chile´s other mountains where winemaking began in Colonial times as far back as 1548! Much slower to cool than the Andes, these older Coastal Mountains are full of crystals and metamorphic bedrock with granite and schist. Here the farms were smaller, family affairs with old vines. The best were far from the beaten track and even further from the modern export business that required DO paperwork and practicalities, like paved roads and trucks filled for efficiency. From here a kind of revival began.

If you know us now you realise we not only survived, but thrived. Because of all of the work-arounds to find new ways of doing things, fifteen years on we are undeniably more successful. We make better wine while making a bigger impact in the community, and reviving old vines on many more farms—in our small way, making things better for the planet.

We make better wine while making a bigger impact in the community, and reviving old vines on many more farms—in our small way, making things better for the planet.

When we think of sustainability too often we think of international seals and standards and big firms with the budgets required to tackle such endeavours. But oftentimes the ants of this world out of necessity are moving businesses like wine forward. Sustainability is not a luxury leading firms can afford in prosperous times. Real sustainability happens under duress by unexpected players. Like now with Covid we are expanding our Fieldcraft programme.

Always have to ask, do you have a winery pet?

We had a Lab named Otelo for the first 12 years of Garage

Your approach to winemaking is very humble, and it really takes sustainability and minimal intervention winemaking to a whole new level. Your focus has largely been on reviving vineyards and farming them in the way their growers do, even if that involves using more traditional methods. Why did you choose this style of winemaking, and what has made you decide to continue with it 12 parcels of land later? 

When we went South it was to find small growers. We were invited to see the large but it just seemed we would fall into the same problem we had in the blue-chip North. 

I spent years stopping at the side of the road and tasting from fudres. The farmers would uncannily have a final fudre of wine that cost 1000 pesos more per litre (Back then you took your own bottle / jug to fill). At first I thought they wanted more $$$ from me because of my accent, but no, this was the wine they explained that they had to hold on to for a “second winter”. This wine had higher acid and did not finish malolactic fermentation before its first winter so it was unready to be sold the following summer. But after two winters it was terrific—because this wine had Cariñena in it! These small farms were not close together so their picking dates did not make it easy to blend into a single wine. 

Our third partner Doc Alvaro Peña, a wine scientist, always liked to separate and compare and contrast. And that is what we continue to do to this day. By separating lots and tanks into different picking dates or the amount of the whole bunch included we can learn. It is like having more than one harvest in a harvest. It is a lot more work to rack each separate lot. We rack many barrels one by one, but what you can learn tasting the difference is phenomenal.  

Who has been involved in this vineyard rejuvenation project? I understand you are working with Matt Wilson to document the process, a photographer based in Chile we have previously had on our blog, who else has become involved in Garage Wine Company projects?

After the earthquake in 2010 our UK importer Bibendum helped us with an en-primeur purchase of wines to help with a bootstrapping project that was successful. Some of the wines from the initially scruffy vineyards went on to gain critics’ praises that would have had others publishing volumes of wine bottles on pedestals with medals around their necks. Some may have seen this project included on UK’s The Wine Show with Joe Fattorini. Matt appeared with me on the show—but Nivaldo, one of the farmers stole the show!

More lately our importer in Sweden has begun to work with us in a project we call; the Fieldcraft Bottlings. It will get people working closer to home in a smaller circle of workers more safely in times of Covid. It is part of a broad revival of old vines that began with the project after the earthquake.  Matt is joining us on this adventure too. Wherever shit is happening, Matt is there to capture it. 

On the Wine Market…We asked Derek to shed some light on his experience in the wine market, as a big part of what we do at Cellr is make true direct to consumer marketing easy for producers. Find out more here

In an interview you did for The Buyer you are quoted saying “Showing the underbelly of real wine made naturally is a lot more interesting than buffed models or points and medals.” What does the underbelly of wine mean to you, and why do you think consumers engage better with this sort of marketing?

I think wine marketing in general is over produced. Brands show only the parts that make them look like the Rothschilds. It makes for polished sameness. In contrast if you show a mugrón being planted to fill in an old vineyard, or the turning over of winter clover crops to get more nitrogen into the soil and explain it while the plough squeaks past behind a horse, people identify with the work being done. People appreciate high production values, but they also appreciate old-fashioned hard work. It is one thing to claim a product is organic, but quite another to show the work that went into making it.   

People appreciate high production values, but they also appreciate old-fashioned hard work. It is one thing to claim a product is organic, but quite another to show the work that went into making it.   

I understand your Instagram account has been a big part of you growing your fan base and telling the Garage Wine Company story. For those unfamiliar with your story, why do you think you have been successful at building virtual relationships? 

Again, Instagram is often the select bits where people open special bottles with picture perfect food. But if you capture action like Don Rene, the farmer behind Maquina the horse, and you name them in the picture or short video as the plough squeaks past, it is much more meaningful. And I do like to use double entendre and comical-twisted titles that sometimes mean something only to few. 

What I can never understand is the pictures of critics’ points? What is with that? What a snore. Do I repost what others post about our wines, guilty as charged, I have done that, but lining up bottles like soldiers with their test scores- no. Why would I do that to my audience.    

You are an excellent visual storyteller, how important do you believe visuals are in engaging consumers with your wine, whether it be aerial photographs of the vineyard, or footage from a “gopro in a picking basket”? What sort of visuals do you find gets people most excited about your wine?

Matt does the aerial bits. He learned to fly years ago. What we have realised working together is that many of the best bits come not from official filming days, but just because I am there working with the people when the moments happen. 

And if I grab a little camera and stuff it in a picking basket just before it trundles across the vineyard on picking day, it captures things up close and personal. Part of the reason it works is the camaraderie there in the fields amongst the group. I think too few people realise the discretionary effort released when proper rapport is allowed to develop. Magical visual moments like quality grapes cannot be required nor purchased, they happen when you do a dozen other things well—a dozen seemingly disconnected things. 

What other channels do you use to engage customers to buy your wine outside the cellar door? What do you do in these channels? 

We do not do enough at the cellar door. I wish we could share a common cellar door in the Maule with a half a dozen other wineries — or in Santiago the capital. There are many things left to do! We shall have to see where wine drinkers take us post covid. We are doing Zoom tastings both with professionals and enthusiasts at home. Our ecommerce has been booming, with many asking for us to arm verticals of certain wines and or mix a special six for them. We make a few thousand bottles of more than a dozen wines and people are taking this time closer to home to get to know more of them!

On Authentication and Supply Chains: We asked Derek about his views on authentication and his current supply chain management. At Cellr we want to understand how producers feel about the current systems in place and make a packaging solution that is consistent with what they needFind out what we do for brand protection and supply chain track and trace.

Talk to us about your supply chain, do you currently have visibility of your products after they leave the winery? What impact would having detailed data showing you where (in the world) and when your wine is being opened by the consumer?

Today we use QR codes on back labels. I have a different code for every importer/Distributor so I can prepare a landing page to boost our contact. It is something relatively new, so we do not have many lessons learned yet. 

After spending a decade getting closer to the farming we are now trying to bring that world closer to our distributors and drinkers wherever they are in the world. Last year we divorced our American importer so we could work more directly. This change has us working more closely doing tastings with somms and wine drinkers directly. I think Covid is getting suppliers closer to customers. Customers are aware they can make choices that matter. That far away duck farm/wine project is more relevant now. 

I think Covid is getting suppliers closer to customers. Customers are aware they can make choices that matter

With the global explosion of wine fraud pushing into the mid/premium brackets due to sheer volume, how important is it for wine consumers to be able to identify your (legitimate) products via anti-counterfeit measures?

When you go the long way around and paint bottles and number them and find small establishments in communities who help share the wines it is more difficult for fraudsters. Our road is so much more work than others, so they are much more inclined to falsify easier prey I think. It is like parking your pick-up behind a late-model Merc—chances are a thief will go after the radio in the Merc.   

What is the main brand messaging that Garage Wine Company wants put out to the market? How do you go about getting it out there?

Land not brand. 

Regenerative agriculture holds many lessons. Beyond growing tastier grapes, it holds some of the answers to both a healthier vineyard, community and planet. The notion that business can be a force for good… that gets us up in the morning!  

And always with a sense of humour: Sauzal / Nasa 

If your wine bottle could talk to a customer that picked it up in a bottle shop, what would you want it to say about you and Garage Wine Company?

I think good wine sings. So I am thinking of the chorus in The Cardigans song: Lovefool

So I cry,
and I pray,
and I beg

Love me love me
Say that you love me,
Fool me fool me
Go on and fool me
Love me love me. . . 

Like what you see? Follow Derek and Garage Wine Co. on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and also check out their website.

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