How To Reinvent A Winery, Portuguese Style

In the central Portuguese town of Almeirim in the Charneca zone of the Tejo DOC, northeast of Lisbon, Quinta do Casal Monteiro was the premier white wine producer in the 1980s. It sold Tejo wines across Portugal and into export markets. It used technologies before they became commonplace, leveraging them to make better wines. Such success inspired others, who improved their own winemaking and viticulture. Monteiro began to rest on its laurels and, by the time of the 2008 financial crisis, it had gone bust.

Crippled by tumbling sales in Portugal and the EU, the winery sold the vineyards to the bank and rented them back. However, as if to demonstrate that impending bankruptcy is a chance to be reborn under new ownership, Casal Monteiro was purchased in 2009 by Miguel de Jesus, a Universidade da Beira Interior professor of applied physics, and his father, a farmer in the Tejo region. Miguel became CEO.

The situation was bleak: There were no sales of the wine domestically or for export. The inventory was of dubious quality and could not be sold commercially. The winery equipment was obsolete and had to be replaced — before the harvest in September. The vines had not been pruned in January and were not pruned until the closing of the sale in April.

The new owners did a complete restoration of the winery building, which was on the verge of collapse. The following year, they replaced the winemaker with an up-and-comer from a nearby winery.

De Jesus set out to expand sales. He was convinced that producers who relied on the small domestic market (the population of Portugal is only about 11 million) would have a difficult time surviving. He also saw the EU as a low-growth market for the foreseeable future. Asia posed unique and difficult problems, but there was huge potential and an acceptance of Portuguese wines in the former colony of Macau. He set off for a month in China seeking business in high-end on-premise accounts.

What's more, he finally got an importer in the United States. This gives Monteiro distribution in New York and the Northeast, but not beyond New England, so De Jesus expects to repeat his month-long China odyssey in the U.S. at least once in the near future.[pullquote:left]

Monteiro is now in the top tier of Tejo producers. The degree to which they have come back in their few short years under new ownership is a testimony to the methods they employed and a predictor of the future. They had an indefatigable will to succeed; a realistic plan and budget (this had to not underestimate the full costs involved); they made a key executive decision in choosing a new winemaker; and once he was appointed, the winemaker was given the tools to do the job and the freedom to be creative.

The results became apparent starting with the 2009 vintage. Forma de Arte is the flagship wine. It is 50 percent touriga nacional and 50 percent cabernet sauvignon. As such, it represents a blend that could lead the Tejo crusade into the new world.