When in a Crisis, Consider Better Wine
Wine in Alto Douro
The excavator ate its way into the side of the mountain. Slowly, the rocky slope took shape and began to resemble the rest of the well-kept vineyards that spread out in every direction. The Quinta do Vale Meão winery in Portugal’s Alto Douro wine region was planting new vines after an explosive and surprising demand had left its wine cellars empty. The region had been world-famous for its sweet port wines for centuries, but people had now discovered its dry reds and whites, too.
Francisco Olazabal, the owner of the winery, walked around the muddy fields, picking up handfuls of soil. He sniffed at the earth, exchanged a few words with the construction workers and gestured at me to get in his car.
“Get in, let me show you the old vineyards,” he said.
On the way to our next stop he told me about how the Portuguese wine trade had experienced surprising growth while the rest of the country had been on the brink of bankruptcy. The industry had invested in education—sending winemakers to train in France and Italy, and acquiring winemaking equipment from abroad—and it had paid off.
Francisco pointed at newly planted vineyards, all naked and new. “It’s expensive, planting new vineyards in mountains, but it’s our shot. I hope it’ll be worth the investment,” he said. Not long ago, the winery had been forced to reject prospective customers because it didn’t have enough bottles to keep up with the demand for dry Portuguese wines.
We drove back to the heart of the winery, a mansion in the middle of the vineyards. After a tour of the cellars, Francisco led me into a dining room, where winemakers, engineers, and architects involved in the expansion of the winery were gathered for a business lunch—with wine, of course.
I was a newbie reporter and an amateur wine aficionado, reading and writing about wines I couldn’t afford on my intern salary. Now some of them were right in front me, and Francisco kept topping up my glass.
The men were complaining about the Portuguese government, the European Union and the IMF, and lauding the wines being passed around the table.
I asked what had caused the sudden spike in sales in the wine industry at a time of countrywide crisis. Francisco looked at me, surprised.
“The wines got better. What other reason could there be?” he said.
I took another sip and agreed.