Monday, October 8, 2012

Ambitious New Renwood Hatched

Alejandro Bulgheroni, right, with Renwood president Brent Cohen
For decades, vintners have been telling me they put down roots in the Sierra foothills because they couldn't afford Napa Valley. The latest is Alejandro Bulgheroni. He may have been pulling my leg. Bulgheroni, according to the business journal Forbes, is a billionaire. He's the chairman and CEO of Associated Petroleum Investors Ltd., based in Buenos Aires. According to Forbes, Bulgheroni and his brother Carlos have a fortune estimated at $5.1 billion, thanks largely to their handling of the oil firm Bridas, established by their father. If anyone could afford to grow wine grapes in Napa Valley, it would seem to be Alejandro Bulgheroni.

But he isn't there. When he decided to get involved in the U.S. wine business he scouted several possible sites, finally settling on Amador County in the Mother Lode east of Sacramento. Timing had something to do with his decision. Amador County's Renwood Winery was financially distressed, shedding its holdings at prices that attracted Bulgheroni. So far, he's spent a conservatively estimated $16 million to acquire Renwood, enhance its grape growing and winemaking, and turn it from a large if slumbering presence along Steiner Road in Shenandoah Valley into a large and lively wine-culture complex bound to introduce the area to a whole new wave of wine enthusiasts. Wine and Monday Night Football? At Renwood, that's just the start of the week. (Coming up: Thursday tapas nights starting Oct. 18, Saturday family-style meals starting Oct. 20 and Sunday brunch starting Oct. 21.)

I chatted only briefly and casually with Bulgheroni the other evening during a reception to inaugurate the restyled Renwood. Like a lot of other wealthy men, he's been bitten by the wine bug, but he's a largely hands-off vintner, delegating the running of Renwood to a slew of other people, including  Carlos Pulenta, his winemaking partner at Bodega Vistalba of Mendoza, the Argentine wine region celebrated for malbec. Pulenta is inexperienced at making zinfandel, the grape and wine upon which Amador County historically has staked its standing in the wine trade, and the grape and wine that most intrigues Bulgheroni. Pulenta, however, is working with several seasoned zinfandel specialists, including Dave Crippen, now overseeing his 10th harvest as the resident winemaker at Renwood, and Kent Rosenblum, retained as a consultant. (At the grand opening, Rosenblum hinted that Renwood's commitment to zinfandel is being expanded well beyond Amador County. Renwood already has released zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County and will make zinfandel from Paso Robles, perhaps starting with this vintage.)

Bulgheroni is underwriting generously his confidence in the American wine trade generally and Renwood and zinfandel specifically. He and Brent Cohen, Renwood's president, have assembled a large team of savvy wine-industry professionals to restyle the winery and to reposition it as the most fashionable, sophisticated and dear zinfandel specialist in the country. The husband-and-wife team of Paul Almond and Pam Whitehead, the principals of Sage Architecture Inc. in Sacramento, responsible for the design of two new nearby wineries, Helwig and Andis, were called in to totally revamp Renwood's hospitality center, now a series of bright and airy salons to house tasting quarters and a deli. Jamie Lubenko, former director of the Amador County Vintners Association, was hired as Renwood's marketing and communications manager. To assist her, two wine-media veterans, Stan Hock (print) and Paul Mabray (online), also have been brought aboard (don't be surprised if some high-profile wine writers who heretofore have pretty much ignored the Mother Lode suddenly start to wax poetic about discovering Shenandoah Valley). Veteran Los Angeles caterer David Rowe was called in to create the hospitality center's menu (paninis, salads, cheese plates). And the Renwood team already has scored one high-profile gig, as the official wine sponsor for the Independent Film Forum next week in Los Angeles.

Bulgheroni, whose other agricultural holdings include Bodegas Garzon in Uruguay, where he also produces olive oil sold by Dean and Deluca in the United States, indicated that he was drawn to Renwood and Amador County in large part because of its standing for zinfandel, which he is eager to further enhance with an extensive portfolio of appellations and styles. When I asked him to name his favorite Renwood wine at this early stage in the winery's revitalization, he said he rather liked the 2010 Amador County Clarion, a bright and beefy yet supple blend of nearly 75 percent zinfandel and slightly more than 25 percent syrah. The Clarion also was my favorite wine when I tasted through 15 zinfandels and zinfandel-based wines at Renwood this summer. It also is to be the subject of my wine column in The Sacramento Bee this Wednesday. During my earlier Renwood visit another new zinfandel wasn't yet ready to show, but it was the other night. It's the Renwood 2010 Amador County Gold Crest Zinfandel, a husky but nonetheless brilliant and refreshing zinfandel, it's fruit all boysenberry jam, its spice a liberal sprinkling of black pepper; this is one delicious zinfandel, but brace yourself for sticker shock. Under Renwood's marketing program it is to be sold only in restaurants, where it is expected to be priced $75. Bulgheroni may be in Shenandoah Valley, but he isn't shy about adopting Napa Valley wine prices. How else will he be able to afford land over there?


  1. Oh Dear. I can't think of one good thing about this evolution of Renwood. Can anybody?

    1. Smerling is out of the picture?

    2. David, yes, Robert Smerling left Renwood more than a year ago.

  2. The 2010 wines are, indeed, very good. I think this evolution is all positive.

  3. I have tried a couple of their delicious Zinfandels and the Sierra Foothills and Renwood producers should be proud of their product.