He used to be a racing car driver, mostly on the European road circuit, tearing around at a couple of hundred miles an hour and living a life of beautiful and dangerous women and fabulous European wines. One day, hanging around the track, he’s shooting the breeze with his buddy George, and George mentions that, when his racing days are over, he’d maybe like to go into the liquor business.
So you’re sitting on the plane with this guy and he’s not your typical copier parts salesman, so you leave your laptop in its case and let the conversation keep going. He tells you that a few years later he retired from racing and moved home to Chicago, where he got into the PR and racing promotion business. He organized the first motorsport competition between the old Soviet Union and the U.S. and made a little dough. Then, after sports marketing got to feeling tame, he went into politics, running for office in the electoral mud of Chicago’s Democratic machine. He was touted as a replacement for Rahm Emanuel when he left his Congressional seat to be President Obama’s Chief of Staff, but ended up running instead for a Cook County Commissioner position.
It’s about here in the story when the flight attendant interrupts with the drinks cart and you order a whiskey and he orders a red wine, which he sniffs at before drinking and makes a kind of sour face as if the wine displeases him. And he goes on to explain that he’d been poking around the wine business, looking at properties in Napa and Tuscany, but couldn’t make the numbers work. A few years ago he’s down in Argentina looking around and he meets a P.R. guy from a winery and they hit it off and decide that they’d like to work together.
Vineyard in Argentina is available at a fraction of the cost of Napa or Tuscany, and it doesn’t take them long to find a likely target: 58 acres of land at the end of a road lined with wineries. And he calls his old racing buddy – who, as it happens, is a scion of the family that founded and was enriched by the distiller Brown-Foreman, but who wants to make it on his own beyond the confines of the family business. And the guy in the plane next to you says to his old racing buddy George that he’s found a good plot of land for vines and George says: say no more!
They agree to buy and plant the land, an action as reckless in its way as hurtling around the track at Watkins Glen or plunging head first into Chicago politics. They have an idea but no real plan, and when they’re closing on the property – signing papers and handing over checks – he mentions to the notary that he needs to find a winemaker. And she says: my husband is a winemaker. In fact, he’s an Italian winemaker with experience making wine in Argentina and he’s looking for a steady gig.
One thing leads to another and they go into business together, getting the vineyards planted, designing a winery and figuring out their brand. Four of them — the former racing car driver, the guy with aspirations to the liquor industry, the Argentine P.R. guy and the expatriate Italian winemaker — decide to take on the world.
You’re hearing all this, and by the time the plane lands you’re thinking: this guy is full of it, but at least he’s entertaining. His tall tale killed the flight time dead and you didn’t even have to open the Sky Mall catalogue. You’re shaking his hand goodbye and he hands you a business card and, sure enough, he’s in the wine business. His name is R. Cary Capparelli and his winery is called Novus Ordo, which is Latin for “New Order.”
He smiles a genial P.R. smile and says it was nice to meet you.
It’s all true. Well, not the airplane part. I didn’t meet R. Cary Capparelli on an airplane. I met him in a prearranged interview that interrupted his dinner. The airplane thing is a literary device to emphasize just how surprising meeting R. Cary Capparelli is. In a business of billionaire tech moguls who dabble in wine and cruise on autopilot through interviews, saying the same things in the same moderate, Stanford-educated tone of voice, Capparellli comes out of nowhere. He has a Chicago accent and talks about the most amazing things as if he were talking about cutting his lawn. He is charming and informative and my candidate for Most Interesting Man of 2010.
Capparelli is travelling right now to sell his wine, which is a bitch because the wine market collapsed between the purchase of the land in Argentina and the new winery’s first vintage. But that doesn’t slow him down even a little because he likes a challenge. He liked it in auto racing and he liked it in business and he liked it in politics, and now he’s a happy road warrior liking introducing a new wine brand in a lousy market.
“They’re all challenges, huge challenges,” he says. “That’s what I look for. It’s in my nature to address them.”
The challenges take two forms. First, the economic climate is not favorable in general for the launch of new wine brands.
“It’s a very very tough business,” Capparelli says. “Very cutthroat. There are a lot of wineries selling wine at cost or even at a loss. It’s hard to make headway.”
And, second, there are an almost infinite number of Malbecs flooding the market. Malbec is, Capparelli says, “the wine of 2010 and 2011. What you see is only going to grow, and it’s pretty popular right now. The market is overridden with lots of wine, but there’s a lot of bad wine.”
O.K., let’s be honest. He sounds like every other winery tout in the world when he says, “Just making wine was not the objective. Making a real wine is what we wanted, regardless of cost.”
The wine he’s making is different, surprisingly Italian in its approach: more tartly acidic and food-friendly than Argentina’s more familiar fat Malbecs.
“We are trying to make an Italian character to the wine,” says winemaker Giuseppe Franceschini. “Argentina is used to sweet flavor with lower acidity, and I come from the country of bitterness. We have coffee that is bitter. Italian chocolate is bitter. I like wine with good acidity, fresh fruit, clean, clear. Cary said that was O.K. because he likes that kind of style, so he leaves me free.”
The first vintage is 15,000 cases made from grapes grown on land that Novus Ordo has leased with an option to buy. The vines on the land Novus Ordo owns are too young to bear good fruit, so it will be a few years before those grapes end up in Novus Ordo wines.
In the meantime, Capparelli is travelling, something he says he got used to back in his racing days. He hits the road at every opportunity. Like a politician running for office, he introduces his wine to anyone who will shake his hand, or anyone who will listen to him on an airplane.
The dinner my interview interrupted was a celebration. Novus Ordo’s first vintage had been reviewed in Wine Spectator and received an 87-point rating.
“That’s not a bad start,” Capparelli says. “That was three months after it’s bottled. Now it’s in the bottle nine months, it’s a lot better.”
The second vintage, 2009, is going into the bottle soon. Capparelli will have 15,000 more cases to sell. He will do whatever it takes to do that, he says.
“This project is unique,” he says. “One day you’re selling wine and the next day you’re building a winery and then you’re writing copy for ads. But I like it because we have control. We can actually control the direction we want to be in.”
And that direction, I think, will be forward. Always, obsessively forward.
UPDATE: Just to clarify: Novus Ordu is in no way connected with Brown Foreman.
UPDATE: A couple of people have asked my opinion of the wine. I didn’t include it because I wasn’t writing a wine review. Still, I’m a blogger and I ought to have an opinion. As it happens, I do. These tasting notes are based on a bottle of 2008 Novus Ordo Malbec that I paid $19 for at a local retail store.
Crystal clear, dark garnet to the edge. Nose is clean and a little hot, with more fruit than a typical Malbec. Berries. Reminds me of the aroma of a solid Bordeaux cru bourgeois. On the palate: high acidity, medium/low tannins. Light bodied, sleek. There’s a bright attack and then something kind of darkly sour in the long finish. Sour cherry.
My overall impression is that this is a well made wine, a more grown-up version of Argentine Malbec that is, to my taste, almost too polished. My taste in Malbecs runs to the rustic — though my wife, who’s a pretty good taster in her own rite, loved it. The winemaker is right when he describes it as being Italian in style. Put it into a blind tasting with a bunch of good quality Italian reds and I doubt anyone would suspect it was a New World wine.
Wine Spectator gave it an 87. I don’t give scores, but I’d say 87 is about right. I’d buy it again, without hesitation.