Our resident expert goes prospecting in Chile's popular new wine region
Some wineries have histories going back centuries, some have
prestigious pedigree or cult status, and some have just plain irresistible backstories. Kingston Family Vineyards, one of Chile’s American-owned garagiste wineries, has a great backstory. Around the turn of the last century, American Carl John “CJ” Kingston went to Chile to prospect for gold. A century later, his descendants discovered gold in liquid form.
I sat down with Sam Kingston, a Fairfield, Connecticut, resident, who told me the story of his great-grandfather “CJ”, and how Sam and other members of the extended Kingston family came to be in the wine business. (Involved in the vineyard’s sales and promotion, Sam Kingston’s primary business is running the Pemigewasset Capital hedge fund.)
“In the early 1900s, CJ got into mineral rights speculation in Chile, looking for copper and gold,” Kingston said. “He found a promising piece of property some twenty minutes from the Pacific Ocean in Casablanca and bought 7,500 acres. He continued to mine but didn’t find gold. Soon, he became a gentleman farmer. Then his son, my grandfather, went to the United States for a Harvard University education. While there, he met and married my grandmother in Boston, then brought her back to Chile to run the property. They raised beef cattle and ran a large dairy. My dad and his brothers and sisters grew up on ‘the Farm’ and were home-schooled by their grandmother.”
Sam Kingston, who grew up in SoHo, went to Chile in 1994 prospecting for his own post-college future. He quickly noticed that everyone in Casablanca was planting vineyards. It was a virtual gold rush of grape growing. At the same time, his cousin Courtney was at Stanford Business School doing her thesis on starting a wine business. “In the late ’90s, Courtney developed a plan and presented her idea to the family,” Kingston said. “Then we hired a soil expert to determine the best site for vineyards.” Vines were planted on about 30 acres each year. Now they have 300 planted acres. Casablanca is currently Chile’s popular new wine region. First, it was the Colchagua Valley where many long-established wineries produce warmer climate varieties—carménère, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Winemakers there now look to buy grapes from the cooler-climate Casablanca vineyards that excel in chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah. Kingston Family Vineyards sells 75 percent of its grapes to other Chilean wineries and makes only 3,000 cases a year under its own label in what the French call a garagiste operation. Most of the Kingston wine is exported to three big markets in New York, California and Connecticut.
Kingston took me through a tasting of their 90-point wines. We started off with a charming sauvignon blanc called Cariblanco (the wines are all named after beloved family work horses), which was minerally, with scents of cut grass and with a nicely balanced lime acidity.
Two syrahs were next—Bayo Oscuro ’06 ($28) and Lucerno Syrah ’07 ($18). “These syrahs are the opposite of the California style, which are big with red fruit and sugary on the palate,” Kingston explained. “They are similar to the refined Rhône style.” Wine Spectator awarded 91 points to the Bayo Oscuro ’07 and called it “mouth-filling” and “delicious.”
Next we tried two pinot noirs. “The Tobiano is our lighter and fruit-forward pinot,” said Kingston. “The Alazan is more dense and earthy.” At $20 and $30, respectively, both are amazing values. (I later took the bottles to a dinner party where guests especially liked the Alazan ’07, which was big, seductive and richly layered in black fruits.) “Our pinots are served by the glass at top Manhattan restaurants: Veritas, Gramercy Tavern and Jean Georges,” Kingston told me proudly. (Kingstonvineyards.com lists wine shops and restaurants where the wines are sold.)
I asked Kingston to venture what CJ would have thought of the family’s wine exploration. “CJ was a gold prospector, a pioneer. We are present-day pioneers, being one of the few American wineries in Chile bringing American know-how to the winemaking process. We hired a Napa consultant, Byron Kosuge, who’s a pinot noir specialist, to advise our rising-star Chilean winemaker, Evelyn Vidal. Every year we make one barrel from our best vineyard blocks and call it CJ’s Barrel. I think he’d be mighty proud of his legacy.”