Quantcast
How a Guy from Arizona Ended Up Running a One-Man Winery in Argentina

Brennan Firth moved to Mendoza from the States nine years ago to work the grape harvest and never went back. He now works nonstop in the Maipú region as a small-lot wine producer.

It's 3 AM on a Saturday night in downtown Mendoza in the Cuyo region of Argentina, and Brennan Firth has just passed out in his kebab.

The Arizona-born winemaker has good reason to be tired. In the past 24 hours and on four hours' sleep, Firth—who moved to Argentina nine years ago to work the grape harvest—has picked me up from the airport, barrel tasted, bottle tasted, purchased lager, picked up labels, smoked weed, drunk lager with the artist friend who designed the aforementioned label, filled in paperwork, and delivered cases of Syrah 2011 to a distributor.

Arizona-born winemaker Brennan Firth at a winery in Maipú, Argentina. All photos by the author.

We might have also squeezed in some lunch. All this to the soundtrack of Johnny Cash and D12.

The day's final port of call is buzzing Aristides Avenue, where Firth and I knock back beer with some of his winemaking pals. By 4:30 AM, the four of us are politely asked to vacate the kebab shop. I confiscate the keys to Firth's ancient VW Gol and sedately transport us through the city's deserted one-way streets, back to his home-slash-warehouse in Luján de Cuyo. He grumbles the whole way that I drive like a grandma.

Like many vintners, Firth works as hard as he plays. The one-man winemaking band behind the Cepas Elegidas ("chosen vines" in English) winemakers, he is just as involved in his wine's laborious production process. This guy sources his grapes, hand picks them, undertakes table selection, crushes, fills barrels, and does all the unavoidable paperwork in order to flog his wares—all top-quality vintages. Of Firth's Con Tacto Malbec 2010, wine critic Stephen Tanzer said: "Don't lose this wild animal in the cellar, in fact, it can be enjoyed right now—but [it's] probably not [for] the fainthearted."

READ MORE: These Winemaking Punks Are Bringing Anarchy to the Vineyard

Indeed it's part of Firth's philosophy to make unique wines, from the composition to the label design. His Cepas Elegidas project never fashions the same wine twice, an ideology Firth developed after working for a bulk wine producer during his first harvest. As well as Con Tacto Malbec 2010, his repertoire includes Suono Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and Cepas Elegidas Pinot Noir 2010, each as individual as their long-locked creator.

And while it can be argued that climate's hand ensures no wine will ever be exactly the same as a previous or future vintage, Firth does adhere to a few self-imposed professional rules to ensure some consistency: he doesn't add enzymes, only uses indigenous yeasts, and doesn't filter or clarify.

A box of Firth's wine, featuring specially designed labels.

"Why would I use yeast from Spain? You're putting in something that's not meant to be there," he says. "I want to let my wines be what they are, naturally, without much manipulation and plenty of patience. I don't feel the need to use gum arabic and all those other fucking additives people use today."

Moving to Argentina aged 23 was basically a welcome accident for Firth, after his restaurateur father Tom hooked him up with one of the few contacts he had.

"My dad knows Gabriela Furlotti [of Argentinian winery Finca Adalgisa] and he asked if I could work at one of her wineries," Firth explains. "It saved me from taking a nine-to-five PR job after graduation in Austin, Texas. I arrived in 2007 for six months to work my first harvest but first went north to San Juan to see if I could get a job there, knowing harvest takes place a few months earlier than in Mendoza. But it was all about bulk operations. I worked at that winery for a few days and one day after lunch, I never went back."

After moving onto his Mendoza placement, however, Firth became more involved in the winemaking process.

"I was sorting grapes, and even though it's monotonous and you want to shoot yourself after 12 hours, you see the purpose of being there," he says. "You see rot or leaves passing by, and you think, 'I could let it go, someone else will get it' but they don't. Every piece I pulled out made me feel I was part of a big picture—and that was really cool."

Inside the room Firth rents at a Maipú winery, which holds seven barrels and a stainless steel tank.

As his six-month working holiday came to a close, Firth was eager to stay in Argentina. A spell back in the States at a winery in the renowned Californian wine region of Sonoma later that year proved just as insightful as sorting bunches, and provided enough funds for another year in Argentina. Firth sold his motor and was on a one-way flight back to Mendoza by January 2008.

"When I was in Sonoma, I was taken under the wing of the head winemaker, a comfortable person to be around who didn't have a background in wine," remembers Firth. "I was taken back by all his achievements although he didn't have any qualifications. So I thought that if he could make wine, then I could too."

READ MORE: Argentina's Best Sea Salt Comes from a Village with Two Inhabitants

Brennan started working 15-hour days at a winery in the Perdriel district of the Mendoza region, receiving, cleaning, and sterilising grapes. After awhile, though, this routine began to wear thin and Firth thought seriously about starting his own winemaking venture. Cepas Elegidas was born.

"I'd started to think, 'Why should I work for somebody else when I can make my own wine?'" remembers Firth. "I wanted to make six barrels, which turned into 12, which turned into 65."

IMG_3953

Back then, with no luxury of a VW Gol to transport him around hundreds of Mendoza vineyards, Firth would take the bus from the La Quinta neighbourhood in downtown Mendoza to San Carlos in Uco Valley, get picked up by kindly farmers who'd take him to inspect their fruit, then head home. It was an eight-hour round trip just to look at grapes, never mind transferring them to be processed at a winery.

Happily, things moved on and these days, Cepas Elegidas operates out of a barrel room that Firth rents at a winery in Maipú, a short distance from the Mendoza capital. He has around 60 wines and 70,000 bottles that sell to the US, Switzerland, and Buenos Aires.

"It's just like being in Vegas: there's artificial light, air-conditioning keeps it cool, there's a lot of booze, there aren't any clocks—plus it's always a lottery in here," says Firth.

IMG_3981

Firth currently has seven barrels and a stainless steel tank on the go, as well as a new-to-market Pinot Noir rosé. But he shows no sign of resting on his laurels—there are still plenty of chosen vines out there, waiting for the Firth touch.