Class of ’89 | Before he plunged into his new life as the founding chair of O. Fournier wines, José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier C’89 W’89 was making a very good living as an investment banker at the London offices of Goldman Sachs and the Madrid offices of Banco Santander. He had little interest in wine until he began accompanying colleagues to high-end wine auctions—at which point he began reading everything he could get his hands on, investing his stock-market money into top-flight Spanish wines, and visiting wineries in order to buy directly from the source. Finally he asked himself: What if I got involved with this?
In December 1999, the Spanish-born Ortega took the next step: flying to the Mendoza province of Argentina with his sister, brother-in-law, a Spanish winemaker, and a Spanish viticulturalist for a long weekend to check out a property that was for sale. That first piece of land didn’t meet the standards of his technical people, but the next day he visited another, 650-acre site in the Uco Valley, 70 acres of which had been given over to tomatoes. After analyzing the soil, water, and temperature, Ortega says, his advisors concluded that it was an “incredible place to produce high-quality wines.” And because there was a significant gap between the vineyard’s potential and the quality of the grapes that had previously been grown there, the land was available at an extremely low price.
“To put it in economic terms, there was some arbitrage opportunity there,” says Ortega, who majored in economics and political science at Penn.
He had another ace up his sleeve. “I managed to convince my sister and brother-in-law to move to Mendoza and run the property,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have invested in it otherwise. They were a bit shocked when I invited them, because I hadn’t told them what I was thinking. They thought, ‘What a nice big brother who’s inviting us on a free trip to Argentina!’”
His familial management team spent “five or six years” there, building the winery, planting more vines (tempranillo, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc), and helping to produce the wines. Those Mendoza wines have received their full share of professional kudos, including some 90-plus-point scores from the likes of Robert M. Parker Jr. and Stephen Tanzer; being named “Best New World Red” (for the Alfa Crux blend) by Decanter magazine; and inclusion in both The Wine Spectator’s and The Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines in the World, also for the Alfa Crux. (Both the Alfa Crux and the impressive mid-level B Crux are named after stars in the Southern Cross constellation.)
O. Fournier’s dramatic Uco Valley winery, designed by local architects, has been ranked by several magazines as among the world’s must-see wineries.
“I always loved architecture,” says Ortega. “Buildings can uplift a person. I realized that even if you have to spend extra money to do something architecturally different or exciting, it’s money well spent. I had no clue that I would end up with a sort of UFO-looking building, but over the process of designing the winery I got into appreciating the art of it. We’re very happy that the winery came out as it did.”
In 2002 Ortega purchased a second winegrowing operation in the increasingly important Ribera del Duero region of Spain. The winery itself was completed in 2006, which turned out to be a very good year for O. Fournier’s Ribera wines; last month the 2006 Alfa Spiga blend, which had already received a 94-point rating from Parker, was ranked the fourth best wine in the world in The Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines list.
O. Fournier has since expanded to the Maule and San Antonio valleys of Chile, and is considering starting winegrowing operations in the United States and Portugal. But for now, Ortega’s hands are quite full enough.
The three O. Fournier wineries produce 20 wines—both varietals and blends, including some under its Urban label—that are sold in 42 countries, including the US. Ortega believes there is a certain stylistic continuity running through the wines, even though they encompass a bevy of different grape varietals from vineyards in three countries on two continents.
Though his sister and brother-in-law have moved back to Spain, Ortega’s wife, Nadia, and their children have moved to Mendoza, where Nadia is the executive chef at the winery’s award-winning Urban restaurant. Since Ortega spends something like 280 days a year traveling on behalf of O. Fournier, home is where the frequent-flier miles take him. (When we finally caught up with him in November, he was in Beijing, en route to Shanghai.)
Given his willingness to exchange a very comfortable existence for a notoriously challenging and uncertain one, we ask Ortega if it’s fair to call him a risk-taker. He would prefer the phrase calculated risk-taker, but he admits that “to start a career in an industry where I had no clue what I was doing, that’s probably on the risk-taking side. Since it’s in Argentina, that’s adding to the risk.” While the “ridiculously low” price of the land there took a bit of the edge off, the economic challenges he’s faced have added several more layers of uncertainty. In 2001, for example, Argentina’s economy collapsed to the point where every time he flew into the country he had to bring $10,000 in cash to pay his workers. In 2008 the global economy began a downward spiral, drying up his lines of credit and prompting him to take on investors. In 2010 a powerful earthquake damaged the Maule winery in Chile.
“Almost from Day One, we were sort of on the edge, and we’ve always been trying to rebound from difficult situations,” Ortega says. “I’ve gone from having an incredibly high salary, to not knowing if I’m going to have a salary, to waking up and trying to get money from a cash machine and not being able to get anything, even to eat. I’ve grown as a person, and my political views have changed quite remarkably. Also, I’m blessed with having met incredible, interesting, and exceptional people. To be able to do the things I love to do is an honor and a blessing.” —S.H.