Michael Evans is an avid traveler and an accomplished winemaker. It’s the former that led him to Argentina in 2004, on what he thought would be a three-week vacation; his subsequent purchase of a few acres of land in the Uco Valley would lead him to the latter. Fast forward a year and The Vines of Mendoza was born — a modest but luxurious wine club that allowed its members to privately purchase swaths of his vineyard estates and then produce their own Argentine wines with the oversight of Evans’s team.
But since then, his initial vision has grown into something much larger. He wanted a service that would allow members exclusive access not only to his parcels, but to winemakers in premier destinations all over the world. Thus, The Vines Global was born.
Per the website, The Vines touts itself as an invite-only “explorers club” and the “first worldwide community dedicated to winemaking.” But after spending some time with Evans, his team and several members (there are currently 24; Evans plans to cap it around 250), I can say with confidence that it’s far more ambitious than even that.
The inaugural series of trips with The Vines was originally slated for April 2020 but was postponed until earlier this month. The first was to Champagne, France, where members made wine from heirloom grape varieties courtesy of Champagne Drappier, a family that began farming their first vineyard in the early 19th century, and then attended the Ordered’ des Coteaux de Champagne Gala, where winemakers are knighted each year for their contributions to the community. Later, in Mosel, Germany, members blended riesling with Dr. Ernie Loosen and sampled German wines from his personal collection — vintages from 1948 and 1956, as well as the ‘80s — and visited local vineyards via a cruise down the Mosel River. For the final act, members traveled to Priorat, Spain, where they tasted 100-point wines (some of which exist in yields smaller than 600 total bottles), enjoyed private multi-course meals prepared by Michelin-starred chefs, and created custom blends with the winemakers at Terroir Al Límit.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every event of every day with The Vines feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But for its members, who’ve paid a not-insignificant cost of admission, they’re semi-regular affairs.There were only three trips this year, but next year there are already 14 planned. Eventually, Evans anticipates, there will be as many as 40 a year for members to choose from, a handful of which won’t even be exclusive to wine. In fact, the team already has their sights set on a 2023 trip to Japan to make sake, and another to Mexico to make mezcal. It drives home the point that The Vines is not just for wine connoisseurs. According to Evans’ partner Bryan Driscoll, only about half of the members identify as such. The other half are more or less just along for the ride.
“The membership has kind of veered off into two main categories: there are the folks that love wine and the access to the winemakers. I’m from Boston, and I always say it’s like learning how to shoot free throws from Larry Bird,” Driscoll says. “But then there’s this other part of our membership that loves the experiences. That want to learn [to know] a region like a local does.”
Priorat — the Vines destination I visited — is a little-known but extremely picturesque region in Catalonia where evidence of grape growing dates back as far as the 12th century. It’s extremely mountainous, and largely because of its slate terroir, it’s an extremely difficult area to produce wines. Each vine only yields around 300 grams of grapes, the overwhelming majority of which are of the black and purple variety, with a more mineral than fruity taste. Even still, Priorat has solidified its position as one of the most acclaimed wine-producing regions in Spain.
The first members I meet are Tim and Karen Wheeler, a couple from North Carolina. They’ve been members of The Vines of Mendoza since 2013, but Tim’s just recently retired, so they now have some extra time to dedicate to leisure travel. (Later in the week, I’ll cheat off their paper during our group blending session to perfect my own Priorat blend.) We’re all staying at the Terra Dominicata, a hotel on top of a hill on a rehabilitated farm surrounded by grape vines and olive trees. Unsurprisingly, the hotel also boasts its own wine cellar, where it produces its own DOQ Priorat wines.
In addition to being one of the only hotels in Priorat (and a five-star one, at that), Terra Domincata is relatively close in proximity to Terroir Al Límit, the winery belonging to masterminds Dominik Huber and Tatjana Peceric, with whom Evans has joined forces for this leg of the trip.
Huber, for his part, ferments both red and white wines from grapes sourced from small growers across all nine villages in Priorat, all in an effort to preserve the region’s history. According to The Vines’ resident sommelier, Marie Von Ahm, driving around to all the different vineyards is a full-time job in itself.
Von Ahm claims that the beauty of Priorat is that they aren’t “locked in.” In effect, they have no signature wine (despite the fact that some of its vineyards are 100 years old), which allows for a lot more creativity where winemaking is involved. It’s virtually the perfect destination for members to experiment come time for the blending session — a highlight of every trip, they say.
On the first night, our group heads upstairs to a private room at Terra Dominicata with a view of the winery. Almost all of the members sit around a massive table awaiting the commencement of the first event: a tasting, one of many, led by Von Ahm.
Von Ahm’s interest in the world of wine began around the age of 12, and with decades of experience now under her belt, it should come as no surprise that she is more eloquent and well-versed in the language of wine than most people are at reciting their own phone number.
“[The wine] universe, it’s amazing. It’s geography — it’s the history of modern society. Most of the great thinkers were super drunk when they built society — all of the Greeks, the Romans, they were drinking to get closer to God, to enlighten their mind. It’s agriculture, it’s fashion … it’s everything,” Von Ahm tells me. “I never knew before this what I wanted to study. I just went into wine. Immersed myself completely into this. And even today, I’ve been working with wine for 25 years, and it’s an incredible world, and it keeps changing.”
At the tasting, she explains the difference between the grapes grown in northern- and southern-facing vineyards, refers to older, more traditional wines as “dinosaurs” and teaches me not to drink water in between wines so as not to reset the pH in my mouth.
It’s also at this first tasting that I meet Alex Feijo and his husband, Marcelo Calliari. They live in Brazil and have been members of The Vines of Mendoza since 2018. They visit Argentina every two months or so. They’re newlyweds and have used these first few trips with The Vines Global to celebrate their honeymoon. Their personal wine cellar boasts roughly 1,000 bottles, but they still invariably wind up making a barrel of their own wine at almost every stop along the way.
It’s one of the nice things about The Vines: members always have the choice to make a barrel of their own blend. Some do, no matter what. But for others, it’s more of a game-time decision after having spent the better part of a week sampling the local fare.
“The combination is always better than the single pieces,” Huber tells the group later at the blending session, on our last day in Priorat. “This is the beauty of winemaking.”
It’s a sentiment that rings true on a few different levels. Luxury wine clubs are a dime a dozen, but The Vines is truly the culmination of a lot of different — and exceptional — pieces: striking destinations, sensational winemakers and an eclectic group of like-minded enthusiasts with whom to share it all. The social benefits of this arrangement are obvious, and vaguely akin to what one might expect of the world’s most well-heeled fraternity. You’ll make new friends, attend great parties and probably wake up with a hangover.
Of course, as is the case with fraternities, the biggest deterrent to all of this is the question of whether it’s worth the price of admission (you’ll have to inquire for the exact details, but prepare a small fortune). If you asked the group of members with whom I broke bread in Spain, the answer would be obvious. We left Priorat with many spoils — regret was not one of them.
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