On the occasion of our release of the highly-anticipated 2010 vintage of our client-favorite Don Zofanor Meritage, it’s worth exploring together what makes wine so special.

Certainly wine is nothing less than what’s in the glass — and by that measure, the thoroughly delicious 2010 Meritage is very special indeed. But truly great wine is about more than just taste. It’s about terroir. It’s about tradition. And most of all, it’s about people.

It’s hard to forget this after a visit with Don Zofanor’s veteran winemaker Federico Benegas-Lynch, whose great-grandfather essentially founded modern winemaking in Mendoza in the 19th century. Spend a few moments with Federico, and you’ll see immediately that he’s the real deal. Spend an entire evening with him walking the vines and talking late into the night, as we did, and you’ll find yourself refreshed, challenged, and inspired.

Below is our account of that magical day in Mendoza and what it taught us. If you can’t find your way to Argentina just now, we recommend you find your way to a cache of the 2010 Meritage before it’s gone and taste for yourself the passion of Federico.

Intimate Asado Dinner with Federico Benegas-Lynch & Don Zofanor

History. Tradition. Family. You’ve probably noticed that these words get thrown around a lot in the wine industry. These days, everyone seems to be claiming that they’re family-owned and family-run, that they are tapping into a tradition as old as the sun, that they use historical winemaking methods.

It’s easy to tune out this sort of rhetoric as marketing-based background noise. And as merchants who are barraged by wineries who want us to introduce them to our clients, we at Montesquieu Winery know how critical it is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. To determine whether there’s real history and tradition in play, and whether it matters to the quality of the wine, we have to do more than just scratch the surface. We have to dig deeper, to pull back the veil to see whether these buzz words reflect something real and unique, or whether they’re merely a marketer’s fancy.

The best way to do that, of course, is to visit the property in person. Go to the vineyards, inspect the winery, taste the wine in its place of origin. Are the vines really old and gnarled? Are they tended naturally and by hand with no trace of chemicals or machine work? Do the grapes taste fresh and vibrant off the vine? What kinds of barrels do they use, and how do they use them? Is the facility clean and pristine? Is the winery a tourist showpiece or a place with real history?

And most of all – who’s there to greet you? Is it a salesperson or hospitality manager? Or is it the owner, the winemaker, someone who pours his or her heart and soul into the winery’s work? What stories do they tell? Are they personal stories, family stories, tales full of history and tradition? And can you feel their passion for the vines as they talk?

Our Gracious Host Federico with Fonda

Do this enough, and you’ll get pretty good at sniffing out empty rhetoric – and you’ll know the real thing when you see it.

Let us give you an example. A small group of Montesquieu wine brokers were in Argentina along with our buying team visiting with our favorite producers and investigating new opportunities. (For more about our trip, including our harvest experience at Michel Rolland’s winery, look here and here.) One Tuesday afternoon, on our way from the Uco Valley to Mendoza proper, we stopped at a winery (which shall remain nameless) that wanted to do a project with us. When they reached out to us initially, they had said all the right things, but we were there to find out for ourselves.

Good thing, too. We were hosted by their director of sales (the owner was nowhere to be found). The tour was nice, and our guide was informative. But there was a problem, the kind of thing you only learn if you’re there in person. It was the middle of harvest, and as we walked by the grape receiving area, we saw stacks of bins full of grapes sitting in the scorching sun while the workers took a lunch break. We would never let this happen to our grapes at such a critical moment when they are most vulnerable. When harvesting in Napa, we work through until the grapes are entirely in, or we store them in a cold locker to preserve freshness. The skins of a grape give it most of its tannin and acid – indeed most of its character – and letting these brittle berries bake in the sun, off-the-vine, is the worst thing for them. It can cause the skin to crack and shrivel, violating the integrity of the wine and robbing it of vitality.

As our tour continued, the more we looked the more we noticed how huge the operation was, how they were pumping out large quantities of wine without the care and attention we expect, how their techniques were oriented more toward volume and style and the market rather than expressing terroir. We tasted through their wines, and there was nothing wrong with them per se. But in a word, the operation was commercial, not artistic, and we could tell that many of the decisions in the vineyard and cellar were driven by sales and financials, not by an abiding passion for the life of the vine.

We had another appointment later that day in Mendoza, and the difference could not have been more stark. Federico Benegas-Lynch, of Don Zofanor fame, is the owner and genius behind this estate begun by his great-grandfather. Along with his right-hand-man Andres, Federico spent all evening with us, walking us through his vineyards, tasting the grapes off the vine, showing us his ancient stone cellar and impeccable winery facility, talking of his passion for Mendoza, telling us stories from his family history, and sharing a long traditional Argentine meal with us.

But it didn’t take all night to realize what we were experiencing. After moments with him, we knew: this is the real deal.

Maybe it was when he took us to his cherished 110-year old Cabernet Franc vines (yes, you read that right: 110 years old!), and the juicy, rich, fresh, ready-to-pick grapes tasted unlike any other Cab Franc grapes we’d had.

Or maybe it was observing how he frequently stood in the vineyards in silence, breathing in the dusk air, gazing over the vines to the Andes Mountains in the background. In those moments, it was if he was alone out there, in his own world, just Federico and his beloved terroir. His passion was palpable, and contagious.

Or maybe it was when he showed us the winery records book begun by his grandfather, in which the first handwritten entry was dated 1918 – and then told us about how his great-grandfather settled in Mendoza in 1883 when it was only a cattle center and hand-carried cuttings from Bordeaux, helping to launch the Mendoza wine industry.

You can’t fake this stuff. And the quality of wine that results from true tradition, history, and artistic passion is unmistakable. We experienced that over the course of our dinner together, as he poured some of his best cuvées for us – wines with distinctive personalities that were elegant, full of character and life, each more fascinating than the one before. The meal – a traditional Argentine asado with various cuts of fresh meat roasting on a massive fire just behind our 40-foot long wooden table – went late into the night. We talked, laughed, and cried (literally!) while reflecting on our shared love for great wine and the human stories behind it.

So this is what we seek for all of our Montesquieu wines. Authenticity. Personality. Passion. And yes – real history, tradition and family. The kind that Federico and his wines have in spades.

We’re thrilled to be able to bring back to our clients the fruit of our relationship with Federico by way of the 2010 Don Zofanor Meritage. This stirring blend of classic Bordeaux varietals Malbec, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot is inspired by Federico’s great-grandfather, who aspired to follow the example of the world’s most famous growing region in building the Mendoza wine industry. It’s an homage to this vision and to the tradition and values he has passed down through the generations, culminating in Federico’s passionate work.