In Episode 17, we sit down with winemaker Rodrigo Soto,
In this episode, Christian Oggenfuss has the opportunity to sit down and reconnect with Rodrigo Soto a native of Chile and a passionate proponent of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Christian explores Rodrigo’s early years in Chile and how a chance meeting at a dinner party propelled him to introduce biodynamics in Chile and become one of the most respected Chilean winemakers. Today he is general manager for one of the most well known winery groups in the US, this is Rodrigo’s story.
00:44 Rodrigo Soto: My name is Rodrigo Soto. I come from Chile. What I do in the wine business, currently, I’m the GM for Quintessa and I oversee the Huneeus Estates in Napa, and in the Sonoma Coast.
00:57 Christian Oggenfuss: Great. So tell me, Rodrigo… Thanks for coming on the show, first of all, and I will let all our listeners know that we have worked together and we go way back, so I’m really looking forward to sitting down and talking to you. Tell me a little bit about your journey in the wine business. I know you’re from Chile. When did you know that wine was something that you were maybe even just considering exploring?
01:20 Rodrigo Soto: Well, first of all, thank you for having me, Chris. And just to go directly into the subject, Chile has a very rich culture in wine, in different aspects. Wine was always at the table in my house, regular wine, nothing fancy, nothing special, but was part of the diet all the time. At a very early age, I thought that… I was trying to become as independent as possible in terms of certain times of the year. My family used to have a beautiful house in a vacational town in the south of Chile, in Pucon, which is a lake district, very nice, but it was very expensive to go out. So I thought, “Well, I need to figure this out because I don’t wanna be asking my parents all the time for permission, and also for cash.” I was 15 when I started working as a waiter in a friend’s restaurant. And going through that process, which I think is… I highly recommend it. Everybody should work in a restaurant at any stage in their life, because I think it’s one of the most challenging professions around. And I’m sure everybody is gonna relate to that, about multitasking, physical work, concentration and being a host. The hosting part is not given. I mean, you have to learn it and train it in order to do it right, and sometimes you have very difficult clients as well.
02:42 Rodrigo Soto: And going through that experience, which was in my summer time, when I was in high school, another time, was legal to be underage and working because it was kind of a temporary job, I always was asked about recommendations for wine. And as I knew wine, I felt that I can recommend, but it was a very unprofessional way of doing it, in my perspective. So that was at the time that I bought my first wine guide, and I start documenting myself about wine in a little more formal way. And at the time, Chile has only four or five main producers. There’s not much to recommend that… We’re talking about mid-90s. So it was quite easy to learn, and there was stronger wines, more tannic. And this was a steakhouse, so definitely, it didn’t take me long, but that was my first connection.
03:30 Rodrigo Soto: The other part was that I always saw myself working in an outdoor space. I never thought that I will be confined to an office. So that was a very strong part of the decision-making process for which career I will be studying. And I always thought that I would like to be outside, so agronomy, at the time, suits very well, what I was thinking. And that’s what I apply, to study at University Catolica down in Chile, which was one of the good schools for agronomy. And through the process, and looking at the curriculum, I realized that there was a possibility to have a major in winemaking and viticulture, and that’s when things start connecting. That was at the time. And I got to recognize, because I’m gonna jump into subjects here… But I got to recognize I was a very mediocre student. I was always… As I like being… Going out, and at the same time, I was very much into sports at that time, so I liked training and I was doing other things, my grades were always, I will say, rough… I mean, just below average.
04:36 Rodrigo Soto: So it was hard for me to engage with the formal studies, but at a certain point, I really start liking it when I get into the winemaking and viticulture. Unfortunately, it was a little late for certain aspects. For example, for my thesis, that I was supposed to be… Choose a subject at the end of my career in order to graduate, that thesis was… The subject was assigned based on your grades. So, as I have very poor grades, I get the leftover subject. And the leftover subject, at the time, was organic farming. And that’s how I connect with the next chapter in my life, which was understanding what was this hippy farming thing, and start doing some research. And shortly after that, I realized that most of what I have studied the last five years was obsolete.
05:32 Christian Oggenfuss: What was your feeling when you got this subject? Were you like, “Oh man, I got organics,” or did you see it and say, “This is a subject I’m somewhat interested in”?
05:41 Rodrigo Soto: It definitely made a lot of sense to me because it was a conversation with nature, rather than making war to nature, which was what I was told by the conventional… At the time, wrongly called conventional studies. I realized that I was a little disappointed for a while, but honestly, I didn’t have any experience. This was all theory. So, the next subject was how I can put this interesting comments or this interesting theory into practice. At the time, there was only one winery in Chile doing organics, which was Carmen Vineyards. The winemaker there was… His name was Alvaro Espinoza. And Alvaro today is a very well-known winemaker worldwide, and Alvaro was the biggest ambassador for organics in the country. And we connect very well. I did that research for my thesis. I present my thesis. Once again, I get a below-average grade, but good enough to graduate. And my teachers didn’t like the subject because it was, according to them, very incomplete, statistically, which I was very animated about that part of the conversation because, obviously, one of the things that you start understanding that any environment, any farm is not replicable. You cannot replicate it. It’s a matrix.
07:04 Rodrigo Soto: So, what science or conventional studies love doing is isolating variables and present them by separate. And that is a very disappointing way of thinking because nature doesn’t operate in a deconstructive way. It works as a matrix. So, you realize, wow, at that time, I was very disappointed with my professors and actually I never talked to them again. In that regard, that was the start. And Alvaro was very supportive at that moment. So, I did my first vintage at the Carmen, at the time. And it happens that Carmen, at that moment, was represented, in the US, by Brown-Forman, which were the owners of Fetzer. And in the late ’90s, Fetzer was one of the leaders in organic farming. So, I finished my harvest. I put a lot of energy in it, and Alvaro was very happy, and I asked him, “Hey, I need a favor.” He was totally open. And I ask him, “Hey, you know what? I would like to do a harvest over California. And I know that you have a connection with Fetzer. Is it possible?”
08:09 Rodrigo Soto: And he picked up the phone in front of me and he called Paul Dolan, at the time, who was President of Fetzer at the time. And they were close and Paul immediately accept, and I have a long internship at Fetzer, which was a phenomenal experience because I worked four months in the field, four months in the winery. It was interesting and it was funny because it was the first time that I was living in a trailer. So, I was in Mendocino. So, if you can see the scene, it was quite interesting for me. It was not the most hospitable internship but definitely I learned a lot and I really appreciated for that.
08:46 Christian Oggenfuss: How was that different? How was coming… Was that your first time in the US or in California at that age?
08:50 Rodrigo Soto: No, I did a couple of internships before, and this is kind of a funny story, before deciding to go to winemaking, I was very much into fruit culture, I mean, to growing fruit. And I did an internship in Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles. That’s kind of odd, not the best neighborhood in LA, in a cold storage. I was the QC for… I was checking on fruit quality at that time. And believe me, I learned a lot about that experience too. It was very interesting to be… It was close to Compton in Los Angeles, and for me, it was a very revealing experience to see another side of a city that I didn’t know at the time, but also the deal was that I worked in this kind of interesting operation, in this cold storage, but the trade off was a beautiful apartment rented for me in Hermosa Beach [laughter] And they gave me a little bit of cash. And, for me, I was a college student at the time, that was perfect. So I did that two summers in a row.
09:47 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow. Okay.
09:48 Rodrigo Soto: And then, well, I decided to go to winemaking and viticulture and then we get to Fetzer. Being at Fetzer, I was very lucky because I met someone that completely changed my life. I was working in the crush pad one day and I saw this guy with a very… What I will consider at the moment, a very thick accent. It was a very Southern accent.
10:10 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay.
10:11 Rodrigo Soto: And I see this character and asked, “Who’s that?” Somebody told me, “That’s Alan York. He is the biodynamic consultant for Fetzer and he lives at McNab.” And I get close to him and introduced myself, and for some reason, we connect immediately. Since then, he invited me to his house. I mean, we started talking about farming, we started talking about biodynamics, and I start learning from somebody that I didn’t have a clue who he was, from a very different perspective. Years after, I learned a lot about Alan’s background, which was quite unique, and also helped me see not only my formal studies, but also helped me see life in a different way, in a much more holistic way, in a much more complement… He gave me lessons for life, I mean, no question, not only about practical farming but how to see nature, how to read nature, and aspects like that, that are very strongly connected with winemaking but with a lot of other things as well.
11:15 Christian Oggenfuss: Can you share some of those? I mean, can you share? It sounds, obviously, that… Like he was a very important person in your life.
11:21 Rodrigo Soto: Sure. First of all, starting with his personal life, I mean, he always described the South as a very wild place at the time that he grew up. Alan was 20 years older than me, so he grew up in the ’50s and outside Louisiana.
11:39 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah.
11:40 Rodrigo Soto: So, he didn’t like what he was seeing at that time in terms of… There were a lot of political issues and racist issues, and he decided that he didn’t wanna live in that area. So, at 17, 1968, he decided to hitchhike to California.
11:57 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
11:58 Rodrigo Soto: That’s how he arrived to California. And shortly after that, he was drafted and he refused. So, he was assigned to do community work, and he was assigned to the Santa Cruz mountains botanical gardens that were being under construction under a gentleman named Alan Chadwick, which was an English gentleman that was a lot of persons in one. He was a very wise person. But it happens that Alan Chadwick, according to Alan, has been brought up in a very wealthy family in England and he had, as a tutor, Rudolf Steiner.
12:41 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
12:42 Rodrigo Soto: So, he got, from first lineage, the understanding of biodynamics. At the time, Alan was illiterate. He didn’t finish school, and he never really engaged with school, so he was all the time spending time in the swamps. And I remember him telling me that also late ’60s, so you need to picture the whole scene, being a young kid, a lot going on in the country, a lot going on in California. So, he said… I wanna say he was kind of funny, he said, “You know, Rodrigo, I gotta confess to you,” and all this with a very thick Southern accent, right? So, this was like hearing Forrest Gump all the time [chuckle] And he said… I don’t know if this is appropriate or not, Chris, but I’m gonna say it, “I regularly have my LSD stamp every day. And the only thing that I remember, Rodrigo, was plants.” And I start having this fascination with plants, and what Alan Chadwick was telling me to do with those plants. And that’s how I engage with plants, that’s how I engage reading about plants, and that’s how I engage with botanics, in general, and that’s how I learned farming.” So you think about it from a completely different perspective. Many years after, we get the biggest expert on biodynamics, learning from that very unique background.
14:10 Christian Oggenfuss: Interesting.
14:11 Rodrigo Soto: So the way for him of narrating stories, of narrating his teachings was completely different as formal education.
14:20 Christian Oggenfuss: All personal, it sounds like very personal related stories.
14:24 Rodrigo Soto: Absolutely. Well, for me, it was more than a… Obviously, a mentor, but at the same time, that curiosity that you have from a person that has gained wisdom through a very different process. For me, that was very, very unique.
14:40 Christian Oggenfuss: You mentioned there was almost an immediate connection. You were drawn to Alan, and you were at a special place, right? Fetzer, which at the time, was doing some innovative things as far as organics is concerned. What was the general state of the industry at that time in reaction to biodynamics or organics? Was is starting to soften or was it still something out on the fringe, that people saw out on the fringe?
15:04 Rodrigo Soto: This was clearly… They were breaking ground. They were not considered serious about what they were doing, and I think that organics didn’t have a good reputation, for a reason as well. Like everything starting, has a lot of different angles, that was trial and error, and there were things that were not working at the time. And again, after many, many years of that experience, you realize that you cannot put a concept in front of quality. Quality needs to be first. How you reach quality is very interesting to discuss, but if you don’t have it, it’s very difficult to be respected.
15:40 Christian Oggenfuss: Right. Right. Someone I once spoke to said that, in the early years of organics, it was used almost as an excuse for quality, saying…
15:48 Rodrigo Soto: Totally.
15:49 Christian Oggenfuss: It might not be great quality, but it’s… At least it’s organic.
15:52 Rodrigo Soto: Yeah.
15:52 Christian Oggenfuss: And it sounds like that has changed over time and the paradigm has kind of flipped.
15:57 Rodrigo Soto: Absolutely. I agree with what you’re saying. And it was farming by default, basically. It was very little action. And today, I think that they can go together in the same path, and actually one reinforces the other one. And the same thing with biodynamics. Biodynamics, in my opinion, is the ultimate way of farming, to me. I mean, I’m not preaching or trying to force anybody to go that direction, but it’s such a concept that helps you see your property in a way that you will never see if you are not under that influence. And I think that’s very important because, if you think about it, the vines are such sensitive organisms that they truly reflect their environment. If you create the right environment for your vines, and you understand the way you’re working, meaning you understand your soils, understand your climate and understand your farming techniques, you can maximize the quality of your property. If you’re not there, you can be in a very talented place and have quality, but if you don’t, which is the majority of the properties, you have a problem. And I think that is the fascinating part about our profession that constantly is teaching us new things about knowing ourselves and knowing our states. And in that aspect, you improve quality in a substantial way.
17:24 Christian Oggenfuss: What was Alan’s impact on conventional farming or conventional winemaking? You said he was consulting at Fetzer and…
17:30 Rodrigo Soto: Right.
17:30 Christian Oggenfuss: And you worked with him. What were some of the ideas and philosophies he was putting forward that really resonated with you, that… Where you said, “I think this is something I wanna pursue?”
17:40 Rodrigo Soto: Well, the concept of managing a state, of managing a property, many times, in the early days, you see and you visited properties that… Or vineyards that they talk to you, “And this is our vineyard, and this is our organic block, and this is the rest of our vineyard,” [chuckle] which was kind of funny, but at the same time, I understand the point. I mean, you are not gonna take a risk if you don’t understand it, if you don’t understand the whole philosophy behind it. So, in that aspect, Chris, that was quite interesting to understand that, or you focus on the management of a whole property, meaning the surroundings, not necessarily only the vineyards but what surround the vineyards, your habitat breaks, your avenues, your hillsides, everywhere is part of this matrix.
18:27 Rodrigo Soto: And when you start accepting that, you start not only observing your vines, you start observing to the side of the road as well and see what’s going on there and how is that connected. And with time, I learned more and more about it, and also confirmed, with scientific approaches, how important that is. Many years after, I did a study in Chile about the yeast that lived in the native forest surrounding the vineyard, I was doing all native fermentations. So I was very curious about if… Was there any relationship? Guess what? The correlation was very, very high, meaning the organisms that lived in the surroundings are definitely interacting with your primary culture, and that definitely is part of the sense of place that we’re trying… All of us are trying to look for.
19:17 Christian Oggenfuss: You bring up an interesting point. I mean, much has been written about yeast being one of the most important contributors to terroir or the notion of terroir. What were some of the discoveries you made in that study?
19:22 Rodrigo Soto: Well, years after, because, obviously, we are all teached about yeast based on fear, which is if you don’t do… Use conventional, you’re gonna have a stuck fermentation, and you’re gonna have a lot of trouble, and you’re gonna ruin your wine. That was… At least, what I was taught, was not in exactly those words, but it was very clear that I would not be successful to try that. So, I was very shy at certain time to go for native fermentations, and I was one of those that was talking about yeast strains in order to support my speech about wine quality, which I feel embarrassing right now that I was talking in those terms, but it definitely… You realize that those strains that has been isolated and are very successfully diffused all over the world, in this packages and this broad catalogs about yeast specifics, you realize that that is definitely modeling the effect of sense of place. Those yeast are isolated who knows where, then they’re multiplied in this laboratories in Scandinavia, and then brought to the world to be utilized. No matter where you are, you can get the same yeast if you’re in Chile, you’re in Argentina, you’re in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, whatever, wherever. In California, you can get the same yeast, and I think that’s basically commoditizing our profession.
20:52 Rodrigo Soto: If you accept native yeast, obviously, there are a lot of things that needs to be proven, but obviously makes a lot of sense. If you’re talking about sense of place, yeast has a very strong variable on that. And I think we should try to make a little bit of a stronger effort to see what it reveals. It may not be what you expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong.
21:15 Christian Oggenfuss: One often hears that native yeast are more fragile than the industrial, let’s call them industrial yeast or commoditized yeast.
21:23 Rodrigo Soto: Yeah.
21:24 Christian Oggenfuss: And one often hears too that the primary strain, Saccharomyces, will dominate or take over a native yeast fermentation. Is that true? Or how does one keep… There’s been articles written that Saccharomyces can involuntarily be transmitted into a fermentation and then kill off native yeast.
21:42 Rodrigo Soto: Yeah.
21:42 Christian Oggenfuss: Can you talk a little bit about that?
21:44 Rodrigo Soto: Well, in terms of the specifics… And to be honest, Chris, I don’t have all the answers for that, but let me tell you something, in my career, I have been way more successful with native yeast than with commercial yeast, way more. And I think there’s a reason why is that. The reason is that native yeast has a very different dynamic, which I think it relates much to us, in terms of population dynamics. It’s a natural growth that you monitor carefully, and that it gets to a peak, and then start fading out according to the nutrition and the food available in that particular fermenter. When you utilize commercial yeast, you inoculate a tank with a very gross amount of yeast as a population in order to get the job done. So, conceptually, you’re not growing it up. You just add a massive amount of individuals to get it done quickly. So you are partially in control. And then guess what? Your tanks heat up, so you need to cool it down and you start forcing, again, the process, and you start, quote unquote, ‘fighting the process’ in a way that is very unnatural. And all the extraction comes in a different timing, all the revelation of flavors and aromas comes in a different timing. So, for me, in that perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I respect the process and I understand it, but also many times, and many of these yeasts has been developed in order to turn around tanks faster, which I don’t think is the best motivation for quality.
23:32 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, it would be as if Thomas Keller at The French Laundry tried to use microwaves to makes his food faster, right?
23:39 Rodrigo Soto: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we have the same in the kitchen, we have a lot of very good analogies. What we’re seeing now with baking, and there’s a whole other process of not necessarily slow fermentation, it’s just the right pace of a fermentation reveals very true flavors of those grapes.
23:58 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m a hobby baker, and what I’ve learned in baking bread is, without using baker’s yeast, you can make bread if you have the fermentation take long enough. So, with ambient yeast, you can make bread as well, and it often is much more complex and dynamic than it is, as if you just add a baker’s yeast and let it rise for a short amount of time.
24:21 Rodrigo Soto: Absolutely.
24:23 Christian Oggenfuss: So, Fetzer, it sounds like that was really the beginning, where you were introduced to totally new concept and a way of thinking.
24:30 Rodrigo Soto: Correct.
24:31 Christian Oggenfuss: What happens next? You go back to Chile or…
24:33 Rodrigo Soto: No, at that time, I really was interesting about other cultures because, for me, it was a cultural experience as well. So, I learned, and I really like it, so I thought, “Wow, what an opportunity. I don’t wanna go back.” So, at the time, somebody in Fetzer connect me with a winery in New Zealand. New Zealand, at the time, was very different than what it is today because [chuckle] New Zealand today invite interns, basically, because they’re very short labor. At the time that I went there, it was not very inviting. It was a very closed country. So it was very hard for me to get my Visa to work there. And second thing that called my attention immediately is that there were two police officers waiting for me at the airport when I arrived in 1998. And they asked me, “Are you the South American guy?” It was not even the Chilean guy, it was a guy from that Southern continent.
25:30 Rodrigo Soto: Anyway, that was a fascinating experience as well because, at the time, New Zealand was starting to learn about Pinot Noir, was starting… Well, they master the Sauvignon Blanc as a variety, and they were very precise. And it was the first time, coming from Fetzer, that was a large operation, obviously, to work a smaller producer, and that there were a lot of fine details that were discussed. And that was kind of the first time that I saw also how precision can be applied to a process that we know so little. So, it was very good times. I met incredible people, and what a beautiful country as well. So, again, I was really, really having a lot of fun through these experiences. And being in New Zealand, I get a phone call from Jim Fetzer, which I met before, because Jim was not part of Fetzer Winery, but he was the main supplier, as he still owned Ceago Vinegarden, at the time, today, McNab, which was… Actually, it was the year that it was acquired. So Jim asked me if I was interested in working with him, because he was planning to make a little bit of wine, and Alvaro Espinoza will be the wine consultant, and Alan York will be the viticulturalist.
26:44 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow, okay.
26:45 Rodrigo Soto: So, for me, it was a no-brainer, absolutely, yes. And I was the seller, right, for that project, which, again, for the first time, I was a very young age, I was managing a few fermenters by myself, and doing everything at the winery. So it was a tremendous learning experience, and I really enjoy it, and it was a great time. And so, it was another excuse for not going back to Chile, at the moment, and to learn a little bit more about this process that was opening so many doors in the world for me. And after that experience, it was time for me to go back with a lot of ideas, at a very young age, with a lot of energy. And when I went back, I contact a good friend of mine from school, who… His family is in a lot of other businesses in Chile, but they were starting a winery… Not even a winery, a vineyard in a new appellation in Chile. It was a coastal appellation named San Antonio, and this was Matetic, which is a Croatian last name. And this people are really visionaries in the country, in all their businesses, and they wanted to do a project with Californian standards, basically focus on less varieties, be high-end, and be very focused on the process.
28:02 Rodrigo Soto: I was very interested, obviously, but at the time, I remembered meeting with [28:06] ____ senior, and my friend and his brother, and introducing them, because I took a lot of pictures at the time, there were a lot of slides, and I made the slide show for them, talking to them about biodynamics. And they looked at this presentation and they couldn’t believe it. They thought there was this most beautiful, well-thought process, and they completely bought into it in terms of really wanted to do that. I think that wealth was very suited with their long-term vision.
28:36 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah.
28:36 Rodrigo Soto: And at the same time, they asked me, “Well, who can help us with this? This sounds great but do you have the knowledge to do all this?” And I said, “No, I don’t have the knowledge but I know the man that can help us. That guy is Alan York.” And that’s how Alan went down to Chile, and at the same time, my dear friends from Emiliana, which is a branch of Concha y Toro, also were thinking about organic biodynamics. So, in-between the two projects, we brought Alan as a consultant down to Chile for a week, three times per year.
29:10 Christian Oggenfuss: Okay.
29:11 Rodrigo Soto: And that’s how it all started in practice. Before, it was all theory, but that’s where it became from being fashionable and the cool thing to do to a real thing, with all the challenges, with all the difficulties, but at the same time, with all the great ideas and positive exposure that it has. So we did very well, Chris, and those wines, I remember, was… I have some Cool Climate Syrah and some Pinot Noir, and it was the first time… I don’t know, it sounds a little not match today, but at the moment, it was the first Pinot Noir above 90 points coming from Chile. And still, at a young age, that gave me a tremendous exposure, and not only to me, but to that interesting project, and it was very, very successful. So it was a lot of fun to work on that, and we did great. And I have a fantastic team, and I have a very strong collaborators and a very strong ownership that pursue for the quality, and always was searching for that. And so, they were very, very happy with it.
30:15 Christian Oggenfuss: Were there challenges? It sounds like it went very smoothly, but I can imagine there were also challenges in introducing… It sounds like this was the first time biodynamics was introduced into Chile.
30:27 Rodrigo Soto: Absolutely.
30:28 Christian Oggenfuss: What were people… How were their reactions? ‘Cause I know sometimes, when biodynamics is introduced, there are some very strong visceral reactions by other winery owners or vineyard owners. And it’s been called voodoo, it’s been called crazy. What were some of the reactions you encountered?
30:43 Rodrigo Soto: Exactly those ones. And then you realize that there are certain aspects in life that you’re never gonna convince anybody, I think, unless you go through a introspective. For me, it’s religion, politics and farming. They all go in the three similar backs, in terms of, you’re not gonna tell anybody how they should think.
31:06 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah.
31:07 Rodrigo Soto: If they see it, they will believe it, and they will try to understand it if they’re open to it. And that is a slow process, but on the other hand, that’s why quality is so important, because when quality speaks, people pay attention and they wanna replicate that.
31:25 Rodrigo Soto: Quality is very addictive in that aspect because everybody wants to have high quality with what they do. I think that, for many years, volume was important, but at certain point or evolution of the business, you are… Or maybe you are, but people want to have their qualitative challenges.
31:44 Christian Oggenfuss: Right. So it sounds like achieving those 90 points for the Pinot Noir from Chile was kind of a validation of, “Hey, you can do the right thing, you can farm the right way and have the quality.”
31:54 Rodrigo Soto: No question.
31:55 Rodrigo Soto: No question, and that brought a lot of attention, obviously. And I think that was a very interesting moment in time. So, I was mentioning to you, Chris, that gave me exposure, and after six years working with the Matetic family, I started feeling that I was not adding a lot of value. My team was very well-trained and very well-prepared, and I felt that I was… One day, I find myself looking at the watch, and I thought, “Man, this is not a good sign. I never did this before.”
32:27 Rodrigo Soto: And I thought, “Maybe it’s time for the team to step up, and I should look for something else to do.” And at that moment, I remember, in Alvaro’s house, as I was picking Alan to come to our time of consulting with him, the three of us were having a conversation, and I mentioned to them, “You know, guys, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think I’m gonna resign to my position, with time, so that we do the right transition, and I’m thinking about doing something else.” And exactly that… In that same conversation, Alan looked at me and he said, “Well, Rodrigo, why don’t you come to California?”
33:09 Rodrigo Soto: And I said, “Oh, come on, Alan, I would love to do that, but I don’t know any business owners there. I don’t know anybody that can do… “Well, Rodrigo, Mike Benziger is restructuring his company, and I think that you will be a really good fit for the winemaking team, and I think you should talk. And long story short, Chris, he put us in contact and we get along very well with Mike. And they were looking for stepping up in many of their vineyard designates, and they have some properties that they wanted to move from organic to biodynamic, and Mike gave me an incredible opportunity.
33:48 Rodrigo Soto: And when you think about it, that was another moment in time that, thanks to biodynamic farming, I get this possibility, which for me, was very, very revealing at a very different stage of my life. I was just married with my dear wife, and I look at her, “Mia, would you consider moving?” Mia has lived in the US before in two occasions in her life. She loves it. She said, “Absolutely, yes. Let’s do it.” So it was a very interesting journey. And again, being in a very different league, and at the same time, with different challenges was a full re-education about farming techniques, about precision, about exposure, about winemaking. It was like starting from scratch. And was very, very good. And with the benefit that Alan was working twice a week with the Benzigers, so we were very likely to spend two full days together every week. So that was clearly, for me, a mentorship in terms of biodynamics and understanding, in deep, all that concepts that I apply in Chile, but I was not with the regularity that was in California, understanding them.
35:10 Christian Oggenfuss: How would you say farming in Chile and farming in Northern California… Are they similar? Are they different? They’re both Mediterranean climates, right?
35:19 Rodrigo Soto: Yes.
35:19 Christian Oggenfuss: What are some of the parallels and what are some of the differences?
35:22 Rodrigo Soto: So the scenario is very similar. Napa is almost mirror with Casablanca, which is in terms of the soil. The age of the soils are similar. The topography is very familiar. In Chile, you have, in the background, the Andes Mountains that you almost see it from everywhere in the country because they’re very big, they’re very tall. Over here, you have the Sierras that you don’t see that much because there’s a different in the angle of the tectonics. But age of the soils, the marine influence, Pacific Ocean, we both are blessed with that cold currents. Mediterranean climate, you’re very right.
35:56 Rodrigo Soto: Now, we have a Latin country and an Anglo-Saxon country, and that’s a very different mentality. One of the things that California has developed since, I don’t know, from the very beginning… I may not be well-versed in that aspect, but quality is something very important in Chile because of the difficulties that… On the challenges of commercializing the wine, because the domestic market is very little, volume was a very important aspect. Quality came after, as an afterthought, and I think it’s getting there, but it takes time. In terms of farming, you see a difference of precision. When you are farming, 1,200 acres for a winery is very different than you’re farming 120. The level of dedication, the level of understanding, the level of depth, it’s different. And you understand that the challenges, obviously, are going to be different in that aspect. Of course, farming a smaller surface for a very high-priced bottle of wine, it require a lot of attention, but on the other aspect, when you farm a massive-scale vineyard, also requires logistics and other aspect of attention. But still both are challenging in different ways, but the mentality is different.
37:20 Christian Oggenfuss: Excellent point. And leads me to my next question, and that is scale, right? You touched on the differences maybe in scale vineyard size of 1,200 acres versus 100 acres. When you overlay the lens of biodynamics or organics over that scale, is it possible to farm 1,200 acres, 2,400 acres biodynamically or organically and still get quality, or are those philosophies of farming more suited for smaller-scale?
37:48 Rodrigo Soto: That leads to my third labor experience. So after Benziger… I’m sorry to make the introduction, but after Benziger… I was there for six years, and a tremendous experience. I thought that, after that cycle, it was time for me to go back to Chile. Being over here, I was very lucky to met the Huneeus family through my wife, that she was working for them when we moved here. And when I moved back to Chile, I started working for their properties down there. And the first thing that I ask Agustin Senior, that if he will allow me to shift from conventional farming to organic farming, 1,200 acres in three properties.
38:27 Rodrigo Soto: And he looked at me and he said, “You think… Why are you doing this?””Because I think it’s for the quality of the wine.” And he looked at me and he said, “Well, if it’s for the quality of the wine, I will support that, but you need to bring me results.” Well, I asked a little bit of time, and I did start that change, and obviously, that was a tremendous amount of work, culturally, to shift, internally, your team. Make compost for those surfaces. It was everything at a large scale, but I was supported by the ownership, and at the same time, there was a tremendous positiveness around it. The concept of organics was way more mature, so there was a better understanding and a better direction. For me, organics in Chile, the biggest challenge is fertility, so how to make good quality compost. And we brought the best experts to understand that. Werought Claude and Lydia Bourguignon. We brought Bruno [39:31] ____. We brought people that are compost experts and we start mastering their technique, and we start seeing our vineyards coming back.
39:41 Rodrigo Soto: And the quality start going up. And long story short, Chris, at the end of the cycle, we have one of our wines with perfect score after dedication, work… And not that scores are that important, but it was a very powerful endorsement. It was one out of four in Chile, with Almaviva, Seña and Clos Apalta, the big hitters, and we were the little guy, doing it our own way at the same level. That was important. That was, in my opinion, a very important proof that it can be done. And it takes time, it takes a lot of energy and effort, but at the same time, the response from the properties, from the soils, from the vineyards teach you a lot of things. And when you treat them well, they are very generous in that aspect.
40:42 Christian Oggenfuss: So, you go back to Chile and you obviously bring your experience with you and your passion for changing a large-scale operation from ‘traditional’, quote unquote, to organic farming. You said the wineries that you worked with, in the Huneeus portfolio down there, they’ve been doing it a certain way for a long, long time.
41:03 Rodrigo Soto: Yes.
41:04 Christian Oggenfuss: How does one go about being the new guy, coming in and saying, “Okay, I’m here and, today, we’re gonna start a process of doing it different”? That is hard because that is a cultural practice that has been ingrained in them for a long time. How do you go about that? How do you get them to realize and see that their work and this change will bear fruit?
41:25 Rodrigo Soto: That’s a good question because I have not think about it too much, I just did it. I was very biased in my way of approaching it. I was empowered by the ownership, but at the same time, I thought that I have the capacity and the knowledge. So, to be honest, I didn’t have any doubts and I think that when you are secure about your direction, everybody wants to follow. And in that aspect, again, I find a team that was waiting for instructions, that was waiting for challenges in order to perform. This brings a lot of pride to the company as well. We moved the needle of organic certified surface in the country. We bring it up 15%.
42:12 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
42:13 Rodrigo Soto: So, that was phenomenal for all the team, and they feel part of that process like no other time. So, I think those are the aspects that, when you engage with your team and you celebrate with them as well, it brings a mystique to them in a way that everybody feels part of it. And I think that is what creates very, very powerful interactions. And passion, as you said, it seems that it’s very contagious because everybody was pushing harder than what I thought. And actually, I have to put the breaks in some things because they want to go faster, and that’s great to see. When you realize that it’s a combination of experience, positive energy, knowledge, put science at the service of organics, it’s not random things, monitoring and discipline, and organization are important, but you realize it can be done.
43:18 Rodrigo Soto: You know what? Other companies start looking at us and asking us, “What are you guys doing?”, because this was a very exposed vineyard right next to one of the main highways of the country. People couldn’t believe it. They thought that we were totally crazy. And at the end of the process, sales went up, quality of the wines went up. It was a remarkable experience.
43:40 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, congratulations.
43:40 Rodrigo Soto: Oh, thank you.
43:42 Christian Oggenfuss: That is an enormous project, any time you endeavor to make a large change like that. Listening to you today, it sounds like you’ve had a very natural and lucky progression to your career. You kind of followed this guide through your career. What were the biggest challenges? Along the way, there must have been some big challenges. What were those challenges?
44:06 Rodrigo Soto: Honestly, Chris, I don’t remember difficulties at the time, or maybe I didn’t take them as that. Of course, there are uncertain moments. Of course, they are difficult times that you lose hope or you lose vision but I think that, sometimes, in a country like Chile, one of the most difficult aspects for me was trying to keep my workers happy because of different reasons. We have a unionized vineyard and winery, and those negotiations were very, very tough, were very, very difficult because it was people, but I appreciate that I really work close to them. So, in that aspect, those were difficult moments for me to interact and share the vision, the enthusiasm when you are confronting basic needs that are not covered. Those are very difficult moments to maintain the spirit of the team up when you have demands and situations like that.
45:16 Rodrigo Soto: Apart from that… And that’s very important. As we know, this conversions or this directions, you are nothing without a good team. And those were difficult moments for me because projects are tight down there in terms of… Tight in terms of… Stream of revenue is not the most generous one. It’s a tight business. So, many times, every country that suffers from those inequalities, like Chile, these are difficult aspects to confront many times. So, we have pending homework, as a country, in that aspect, very important ones.
45:53 Christian Oggenfuss: Is your work done in that country? You’re back here in the US, in Napa.
45:57 Rodrigo Soto: I think I closed a chapter there. I continue doing a little bit of consulting. When you consult, it’s much more disengaged. You’re not there every day. But I always have said that, no matter where you are, you always want to contribute to the industry. This is a beautiful industry that generates not only the pleasure of drinking a nice bottle of wine, it generates culture. And we are all new. California is new compared to the old world countries. Chile is the same way. We need to build our own culture, and I think wine has a tremendous responsibility on that because of the farming aspect, the connection with the land, the connection with a product that reflects sense of place, all those connections are very, very powerful and make places unique. And I think that… If there’s anything that can be added to that, and I can be part of that, I’ll be very happy to do it.
46:56 Christian Oggenfuss: Let’s talk about climate change, right? A lot is talked about climate change, and we see… Here we are in February and we see 76 degrees outside, with the potential of bud break happening in February, something quite crazy. Where do you see dangers in that and where do you see opportunities in that?
47:15 Rodrigo Soto: Couple of things, Chris. The vision for climate change, obviously, it’s a tough one. It’s kind of the crystal ball, how we figure this out. So, everybody’s following trends, and things like that. There’s a lot of talk about how certain variables are moving in certain trends. Temperature, obviously, the lack of rain, and things like that. There’s one variable that nobody talks about, which is the capacity of minds to adapt. Nobody talks about that. Everybody likes talking, predicting the future, what is going to be the new region, where you should buy property, and stuff like that. That’s what corporations do.
47:58 Christian Oggenfuss: Right.
48:00 Rodrigo Soto: They’re putting their chips in cooler areas or higher elevation areas or wherever they can escape warmth, but nobody is really understanding what the plants have to say about this, which I think… I’m not saying that’s the only answer, but it’s part of the conversation. I think that there’s a lot to integrate in this subject. And obviously, we need to be very alert, but believe me something, plants are feeling it as we speak, and they’re going to have to figure out how to react to that. If your vineyard is sensitive, it will have a larger shift gear, a larger gear box. If your vineyard is not, meaning conventionally farm, meaning not connected to its environment, probably it’s going to suffer a lot. So it only reinforces the concept of farming in a way that your vineyard is properly adapted, rather than you dictating what needs to happen.
49:06 Christian Oggenfuss: Interesting.
49:07 Rodrigo Soto: That’s for now. And for the future, obviously, we gotta look at alternatives, understanding that the environmental conditions are changing, but are changing… We tend to look at averages, and we need to look at the events as well. This may be particular events of heat, particular events of rain, of frost, of snow. I was farming this vineyard in the coast over here, Chris, flowers, last year. We were pruning, looking at the ocean from Seaview Ridge, and it start to snow. I had never had that before. I thought, this was so foreign to me. I don’t know. I was asking the guys, I mean, “Hey, you guys, have this happened before?” Never before.
49:55 Christian Oggenfuss: Wow.
49:56 Rodrigo Soto: Incredible. Those kind of things that are happening, we need to see what’s their reaction and try to understand these events. I don’t see any coherent vision yet for what’s gonna happen with climate change and vineyards, but I’m sure, if we put our heads together, we can totally figure this out. Not totally, but we’re gonna be better prepared, but that conversation needs to be articulated in a very different fashion than currently, in my opinion.
50:25 Christian Oggenfuss: Yeah, very well said. Last question: You’ve been to New Zealand, you’ve been to California, you’ve been to… Obviously, from Chile… What other region would you desire to make wine in?
50:39 Rodrigo Soto: That’s a very good question. Challenging. I always think that there are regions that are so fascinating to me. I mean, there are places that I don’t understand that well, like Alsace and obviously, Burgundy has always been a… I feel that I’d missed an opportunity years ago, having the possibility to do something there, but the time was not the right timing for me, so… Barolo, Brunello. So many places, Chris, that… I spent some time in Spain, you see what’s happening in Gredos, in Ribeira Sacra, Alicia, and all those areas called my attention immensely. And meeting the characters that live there make it more attractive, and understanding the deep, deep culture of those places. Bringing or learning a little bit of that, it definitely calls my attention quite a bit. And I think those are very good experiences to bring wherever you are. Those models, you must be able to replicate them, and I’m sure they’re gonna give you something new to whatever region you’re living in.
51:47 Christian Oggenfuss: Well, thank you very much for sharing your time, and great insight into your career, and biodynamics, and many other topics. And look forward to, hopefully, having you back some time at the show, and congratulations on all your success.
52:00 Rodrigo Soto: Thank you very much, Chris. Great pleasure to see you.
52:02 Christian Oggenfuss: Cheers.