When southern California native Michael Juergens was running downhill on a packed dirt road during the first international marathon in the Kingdom of Bhutan in February, 2016, he passed steep, terraced hillsides and fields that he thought looked ideal for growing grape vines. The 49-year-old bearded, tattooed wine lover, a partner in a global consulting firm, wondered, “Where are all the country’s vineyards?”
When he put the question to a couple of senior government officials at the celebratory dinner for the top runners, they said there were none.
That, he says now, was the beginning of his unlikely wine adventure, in which he ended up inventing an industry from scratch in a remote kingdom known for its stunning pristine landscape and ideal level of “gross national happiness.”
“As I look back,” he laughs, “I’m astounded we could pull off what we’ve done in such a short time.”
In April this year, he and a team of workers planted the first several vineyards in the country on a total of six acres. One of them, Yusipang, is at an elevation of 8,900 feet, with views of brooding forests and Himalayan peaks. Eventually, the grapes will go into wines under the Thunder Dragon label-or so Juergens hopes. We spoke via phone just before he left for Bhutan to meet with an architect and plan a winery.
Next spring, you can help plant Bhutan Wine Co.’s next vineyards on its first luxury trip for wine lovers. The itinerary includes a climb to the famous, much- photographed Tiger’s Nest monastery and the chance to be part of one of the newest regional wine projects in the world.
Here’s how it all happened.
Juergens returned home to California after the marathon, fired up by the idea of Bhutanese vineyards, dove into research, and sent a report outlining the country’s viticultural potential to the government officials he’d met. It stirred interest in Bhutan, and when a 2017 marathon brought him back there, officials wanted to talk.
Spurred, he spent weekends creating a business plan for them. He tracked down a U.K. soil scientist who’d worked in Bhutan and agreed it would be “awesome” for vines. The country’s soil is complex, created by tectonic plates pushing upward to create the Himalayas. Some potential grape-growing sites have 12-foot wide veins of red, iron-rich soil.
The idea of planting vineyards in the kingdom isn’t as unusual as it might sound.
In the 1990s, businessman John Goelet, the owner of Napa’s Clos du Val and three other wineries in Australia and France and the founder of the Bhutan Foundation, helped the country’s royal family look into developing vineyards. Bernard Portet, then Clos du Val’s winemaker, says he selected several sites. “Mountainous, cooler areas with south-facing exposures and well-drained soils of broken rock had potential,” explains Portet. “The problems I could foresee were spring frosts and an early monsoon season.” Though the King of Bhutan sent a young Bhutanese to Goelet’s Australian winery Taltarni for more than a year to learn about winemaking, the project never got off the ground.
But that was more than two decades ago. The political situation in Bhutan had changed. Now officials were asking Juergens, “Can you help us do this?” That led him and his girlfriend Ann Cross, a global brand-marketing consultant, to set up the Bhutan Wine Co. She quit her practice to become chief executive officer.
The goal-planting 2,000 acres in eight years-was daunting. Besides selecting the right grapes and evaluating soil and microclimates in an untapped wine frontier, they’d also have to draft wine laws and label requirements that would work internationally. (For comparison’s sake, the state of Oregon has about 17,000 acres of wine.)
“The vast majority of wine industry people I talked to said ‘You’re crazy,’” explains Juergens, who consults on executive development for global companies. But he had a mix of both international business and wine knowledge.
His fascination with wine began at age 23, when his dad poured a 1975 Italian Gattinara into plastic cups and they sipped it in the garage while puffing on cigars. That aha wine moment translated into visiting vineyards whenever he traveled and becoming a Master of Wine student. (So far, he’s passed several parts of the program and dreams of starting or owning a winery that’s not in his California backyard.)
Although there’s no grape wine culture in Bhutan, peach wine has a following, and the Royal Army raises funds for veterans by importing bulk wine from India and then bottling and selling it.
In 2017, Juergens and Cross plunged into sourcing vines, picking familiar international varieties that would be easier to sell globally. They settled on nine-merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir, syrah, malbec, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and surprisingly, petit manseng, which makes rich whites with spicy, honeyed flavors. Why? “The challenge in Bhutan is rain,” says Juergens, “and petit manseng is rain-resistant.”
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Finding a nursery to sell and ship vines to Bhutan proved particularly difficult. Most of the nursery operators he emailed thought the project sounded “too weird, like some kind of scam.” But by December 2017, Sunridge nurseries in California had signed on.
At the same time, the couple was hunting vineyard sites. The country’s landscape is diverse, with elevations ranging from 500 to more than 24,000 feet.
“There are microclimates tucked away in the kingdom that may be on par with the climates of other world-class wine regions,” explains international viticulture consultant Russell Moss, who is working with Juergens.
What proved key was their decision to lease government land at agricultural research centers. Throughout 2017, he and Cross visited several, getting weather data analyzed and soil samples tested. They settled on four with different elevations and microclimates to see what worked best. There are few pests or diseases, so going 100% organic is relatively easy. The biggest problems are birds and mildew.
The couple spent most of 2018 figuring out logistics, finalizing sites, and getting land prepared for vines, with the goal of planting in spring 2019.
A further worry was getting the vines to Bhutan. When Juergens got on a plane in late March, the vines still hadn’t left the Los Angeles airport. He was waiting in his hotel, expecting a 30-person planting crew the following day, when a truck finally pulled in at 5:40 p.m., carrying 3,600 vines. “The gods were watching,” he says.
For the next five days, the crew dug holes and planted the one-year-old vines at the rate of one vineyard a day. In size, they range from half an acre to two and a half acres. Getting to two sites required trucking the vines 14 hours overnight because they were too heavy to transport by small plane.
Next spring, they’ll put in an additional 100 acres. The first harvest will take place in fall 2020.
Finding an interested winemaker has been no problem. “I set up a twitter account with 15 followers, and within 24 hours the pictures went to 6 continents and 25 countries.” He was inundated with resumes from people who wanted to be involved.
The biggest vineyard costs are usually land and labor. But the government has leased the land for a minimal price, and most people work for $10 a day, making it possible for Juergens to fund the initial phase himself and turn to small angel investors. The majority of his costs will be for logistics, such as getting stainless steel tanks and bottles and corks from India to Bhutan.
“Once we can prove it’s viable, it will be an easy play for institutional investors,” he predicts. “Bhutan is a Third World economy in a politically safe, low-risk environment, and it’s the only 100% carbon neutral country in the world.”
The just-announced luxury trips (one to plant, one to harvest, both $9,888 a person) are his latest idea. He’s hoping every such visitor will become a tireless evangelist for the wine.
Can Bhutan Wine Co.’s dream actually succeed? Internationally known winemaker Zelma Long, who founded the American Vineyard Foundation to finance enology and viticultural research, and who has been involved in establishing new vineyards everywhere from California to her current winery in South Africa, offers a cautious “perhaps.”
“There are many undiscovered places around the globe that would be suitable for fine wwine growing,” she points out, citing LVMH’s Ao Yun project in the mountains of Yunnan, next to Tibet, as an example of a successful luxury wine from a truly remote spot. But she says that this worked because of the high degree of professional skill involved and its consistent long-term vision. She wonders if wine grapes will really benefit the local community and culture.
Juergens exudes energy and enthusiasm. In September, he’s off to run the Medoc marathon in Bordeaux, followed by the Capetown marathon a week later. He can talk for hours, and did, about Bhutan, his faith in the Bhutanese people, and how exciting the project is.
“Not everything we planted will work,” he admits. “But we’re not going to make plonk. We want our wines to sell for $150 and be poured at places like Le Bernardin.”