Many professional athletes have become vintners, and Alex Guarachi might have been one of them if an injury at San Jose State University hadn’t ended his hopes of playing professional soccer.
Instead, he went directly into the wine business, although it was many years before he made his own wines.
Today, Guarachi, a native of Santiago, Chile, makes cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley and pinot noir from the Sonoma coast. And last year he fulfilled a longtime dream: buying one of the top — literally — vineyards in the famed Petaluma Gap of the Sonoma Coast.
But to step back, Guarachi grew up in a viticulture paradise, even though no one was importing South American wines into the United States when he graduated from college in 1982. After a short stint coaching, he formed a wine importing company. “Everyone told me I was crazy,” he admits.
His first product was Gato Blanco and Gato Negro, inexpensive wines that were among the first to capture the appeal of animals — in this case, stylized white and black cats — on their labels.
It was a tough row to hoe at first. Why buy an inexpensive wine from Chile when there were plenty in California?
“Many people didn’t even know where Chile was!” he said. “I was broke for five years.”
Initially, he did everything himself: He was order-taker, warehouse manager and truck driver. But with a flair for marketing and sales, he built his company, TGIC Importers, into one of the industry’s leading companies, bringing in wines not only from Chile, but from Argentina, Spain and Italy.
He moved up in the market along the way, and now sells wines from such prestigious producers as Achaval-Ferrer, Bodega Norton and Montes. He also markets California wines, but he wanted to grow grapes and create wines of his own. Part of his dream was fulfilled in 2010 when TGIC celebrated its 25th anniversary.
To commemorate this milestone, Guarachi introduced Guarachi Family Wines using grapes he had bought from premium vineyards. His friend, Paul Hobbs, was the winemaker. The pinot noir was awarded 94 points by Wine Spectator and the cabernet sauvignon 92 points.
In 2013, Guarachi fulfilled the other part of his dream when he bought Sun Chase Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA and Petaluma Wind Gap. The 248-acre vineyard is planted with 42 acres of pinot noir at 1,400 feet elevation. Grapes from that vineyard continue to be used for many acclaimed wines.
Vintner and financer Bill Price paid the highest price per acre yet for pinot noir for the Gap’s Crown property — he won’t give the exact amount, but it was more than $100,000 per acre — but Guarachi outbid him for Sun Chase.
The property provides part of the grapes for Guarachi wines along with Gap’s Crown and Gold Rock Ridge Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation.
Sun Chase Vineyard is named for the sun “chasing the fog” in the morning. The vineyard is only 6 years old, but Guarachi said: “The threshold to discover what our vineyards are capable of still lies ahead, but we’re very impressed with the quality we’re finding in each vintage. Sun Chase is a vineyard with a great destiny to fulfill.”
He added, “The Petaluma Gap may soon be recognized as one of the best places in the world to plant pinot noir.”
Apparently, Hobbs agrees. He’s told Guarachi that he thinks it could surpass other famed vineyards like Gap’s Crown, which lies at a lower elevation.
The company’s wines
Guarachi Family Wines produces four distinct wines:
The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from Lincoln Ranch, Mast, Yountville and Zinfandel Lane Vineyards in Napa Valley and Rancho Salina in Sonoma County. It contains a small amount of cabernet franc and sells for $80. Guarachi made the equivalent of about 900 12-bottle cases.
The Heritage Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Andy Beckstoffer’s Las Piedras Heritage Vineyard in St. Helena. It sells for $250 (100 cases).
The Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is sourced from Gap’s Crown, Gold Rock Ridge and Sun Chase. It sells for $65 (650 cases).
Gap’s Crown Single Vineyard Pinot Noir sells for $75 (300 cases).
The first release of Guarachi Family’s single-vineyard Sun Chase wine will be the 2013 vintage.
Not just a name on the label
Guarachi doesn’t just put his name on the labels, however. “I’m personally involved in every aspect from vineyard selection to blending,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the finest wineries in the industry, and as such I am committed to delivering the same high standard for my wines that I so value from the producers we represent at TGIC.”
With his purchase of Sun Chase Vineyard, the question arises: Will Guarachi focus on wines from his own vineyard instead of those from bought grapes?
The operating margin is certainly higher when you don’t have to buy grapes, and Guarachi noted that grower Beckstoffer raised the price on his Las Piedras grapes from $7,500 to $15,000 a ton last year.
The grower likes to sell his grapes for 100 times the cost of a bottle of the wine made from them, and he gets $25,000 a ton for some grapes from his To Kalon Vineyard.
Guarachi said, “I love both cabernet and pinot, and intend to continue to make both.”
But he said that he expects to grow his Sun Chase brand, even though he will continue to sell grapes to other producers.