The original version of this article has been published on Revista Brando /La Nacion (December 2018) by Franco Spinetta
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along”
Juan Pelizzatti raises his voice while reading on his cell phone the poem by W. H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts, standing between barrels of organic and biodynamic wine.
A little light sneaks through a window and he stresses each sentence with the body, as if in those words he ratified the Copernican turn he gave his life, not once, but twice, to end up planting a flag in the agroecology and activism for viticulture stripped of the marketing carousel.
In Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo, the vines are the soybean of the pampas. Kilometers and kilometers of rows, that extend to the foot of the Andes Mountain. Juan turns his truck to the bottom of a gravel road and runs into the entrance of the farm he bought 16 years ago, with money from his family that had been trapped in the “corralito” (the country default of 2001). Before getting off, clarifies: "I do not know if a year ago I could have spoken with the conviction that I do today about what we are doing". He is a man in full transformation who absorbs everything like a sponge and from which sprout words at full speed with a lot of key information about agriculture, economics, wines. In short, about life.
"Producing food is almost a sacred thing, we can not see it as an industry. It is the base of health, of our relationship with nature. All this has to function as an independent unit: we exploit nature, and we have to respect its fertility cycles. It can’t be seen just as a business ", explains Juan, while showing the different parts of the winery and the processes necessary to transform grapes into wine. In the distance, a thick fog covers the mountains and he regrets not seeing the full picture of the vineyards and their rocky sentinels. Something of that natural scenario pushed him to question the very essence of the wine producing activity.
A natural choice
"In viticulture there is a look even perverse, related to the vineyard aesthetics: everything has to be even, clean, without grass. I do not know why they see it as something nice, it's a monstrosity!" says Juan in relation to the use of herbicides to tidy the vines. Here they do exactly the opposite: they sow different herbs for, like this, distribute the attention of the bugs that arrive hungry.
Then Juan enters fully into the discussion that runs through the entire agrarian complex: the fight for high yields, the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals to guarantee results, a dollarized technological package that binds hands and feet to producers and that, as if that were not enough, feeds a system of dependence: an increasingly compact and rattled soil that needs more and more chemical stimulants to work.
"Agro-ecology - continues – begins with a conceptual difference: conventional agriculture considers that the soil is nothing but an inert substrate, a physical support for the plant, and that you have to, in some way, cure the health of the plant: throw all the nutrients you need to grow, fight all insects, fungi, bacteria that they can attack it and lead it to obtain certain results". That look was born with the so-called green revolution, after the Second World War, when people started using nitrogen as a fertilizer. There was a good intention: generate high yields and fight hunger. "But in viticulture, this is a smooth and plain bullshit", says Juan without laps.
"Actually, quality wine is not made with high yields, what you need is a balance to reach a certain aromatic intensity, of phenolics and tannins, and get a certain taste in your mouth. Whereupon, inducing the plant to produce more is an unnecessary goal".
However, little by little, viticulture was copying the vices of the rest of agriculture, adding chemicals: it was industrialized. "That concept is what we want to reverse because if you want to manage financial commodities, stock options, then better dedicate yourself to something else", says Juan.
"In what world do we want to live? Do we want to live in a world in which the industry provides everything or in one in which know-how and personal connections have a component of quality? What we do is unique, it is inside this bottle, it has this story. You can’t repeat. That's good, it's always different".
The roots, the famous and promoted terroir - the soil on which the grape grows, which drives the taste-, all that short story that is usually told around wine and its marketing strategies mean little and nothing - according to Juan's gaze - if the process of production is completely riddled with artificial interventions, such as injection of flavored yeasts or, even, the use of sulfite to standardize the results, an extended and accepted practice in viticulture, even in Chakana. "We can’t risk not knowing how the wine that you are going to take from the bottle will be, we can’t even imagine as possible that a product does not have twice the same flavor. That's wrong", says Juan, and for that, he's here among us, fighting even against his own prejudices.
The new life
February 2002. Juan was about to turn 37 and was an employee at Movicom, where he worked as an engineer in telecommunications. Subsumed in the familiar mandate, the questionings to a way of seeing life (study-work-progressing) were just insinuations channeled through readings and contacts with the latin-american situation. His father, an Italian immigrant who had escaped from Europe after the Second War, had arrived in Argentina at age 18, with absolutely nothing. He graduated as an engineer and achieved some professional success. He wanted the same for his children, but Juan - he says today - was always in tension with that progressive look, the mandate of economic success. Before the country exploded through the air in 2001, Juan's father died and his savings were left in the bank. "I did not know if we had lost the money. But it was the moment to do brave choices. I asked for work vacations and I went on a trip through Argentina with my wife, looking for opportunities in the food farming. I fell in Mendoza and a friend put me in contact with people who ran a viticulture business. I arrived in Agrelo, it was a traditional farm, a little abandoned, where livestock had been made", says Juan recalling that first visit where then the winery would be built.
"Until then, I had not had any contact with the world of winemaking. I had taken a sommelier course, I saw it as a hobby, even a fantasy”. In that fateful moment, everything shod. Bought the land (300 hectares), with the feeling that there were no parameters, that Argentina was re-founding itself among the ruins of neoliberalism. The country default did not hit Juan badly. Quite the opposite: "It pushed me, I convinced my family to do things they would never have done".
With the wine executive’s suit he began to make the cellar, first in a small shed, some little tanks and grapes from some old vines that had remained in the farm. "I was anxious to prove myself that I could do what my old man had done, that feeling that you do America, that you sublimate the difficulty and you transform it into a chance to live". In May, he resigned from Movicom and moved to Mendoza, rented a small apartment, where he lived with his wife, Mariana Salas. It was, he says, an "excess of self-confidence".
Shortly after, they decided to make a trip to Peru by car, as a kind of rebaptism. It was a discovery: the Andean peoples, the solitary routes and the wild landscapes. On that trip, they decided together that the winery name would be Chakana, an indigenous Quechua word that represents the Southern Cross constellation. Juan explains: "The Inca Empire was based on the stars; the priests were dedicated to predicting when it was going to rain. It seemed to me that, in Mendoza, there was not much association between wine and the populations that they inhabited these places. "Since then, he has practiced the Ayni (and that's the name of one of his wines), the Andean principle of reciprocity: to receive something, you must first give.
Chakana was born at a time of explosion of the Argentinian wine market. With good prices, chances of exporting and growth of domestic consumption, the winery did not stop growing until 2011, when it reached its production peak. Until then, Juan had not questioned its production methods. In a way, he was a rookie who had come to agriculture in an unconventional way. At that turning point, when the financial equation generated stressful commitments, Juan began to question everything: "There is a point where you realize that growth by growth itself is not funny. Selling more and more wines put me in a riskier situation. Very complicated". Then, he saw it: "This is all about quality and not quantity".
With that idea in mind, he hired a Chilean consultant, Pedro Parra, who after analyzing and studying the soils of Agrelo's farm, concluded that in that place would have been impossible to produce industrial high quality wines. Parra explained that this soil had the tendency to compact very easily (in the place had been practiced conventional intensive agriculture). "And how do you improve the soil structure?" asked Juan. "Organic agriculture", responded Parra, briefly. What's more, the consultant encouraged him to look for other vineyards with calcareous soils, which have more water and air retention. Finally, they bought two farms in Paraje Altamira and one in Gualtallary, in the Uco Valley.
Parra opened a door to the other dimension: biodynamics, a practice sometimes labeled as esoteric, but based on empirical evidence about the lunar calendar. Chakana is a biodynamic winery certified by Demeter. "Parra recommended us to work with Alan York, an old, mellow person, with long white hair tied with an impeller. He had a clear vision about agriculture; he was one of those people that show you the other side of things. He made us click. We started working with him in 2011, and in 2012 we began the conversion", recalls Juan. "He passed me one new book per month. He was a wise guy, he wasn’t graduated, but he had a lot practical knowledge and a certain aversion for the academy", says Juan smiling.
Alan York died in 2014, but left an indelible mark on Chakana: an agricultural, idealized, vision, a kind of carrot on the mountainous horizon of Mendoza.
Pushed by the interest awakened by all that universe (until then, unknown to him), in 2014 Juan went to Dartington, Totnes, Devon (England), a village of 1300, to attend a course at the Schumacher College, an holistic school founded in 1990 by a group of ecologists. There, he says, he experienced a change at all levels: spiritual and human. The classes were in a house where the 30 students were living together with five teachers who, before and after the classes, had to carry on the home, prepare their food and clean.
In one of the days, Juan listened attentively to a BBC journalist who was making a documentary about the transition he had made in his life, leaving the city to dedicate itself to organic sheep farming. Obsessed, perhaps still trapped, in the economist vision, Juan asked him if that way of production really was more profitable. "He replied: “I never asked myself the question of profitability, this is the only way to do things, then I checked if I gave myself to live on that”. That changed my schemes: it is true. We do not ask ourselves why we do things, we just ask ourselves if we are going to make money. The difference is fundamental".
There was only one step missing for the integral transformation: the arrival in his life of Jonathan Nossiter, North American filmmaker, author of Mondovino and Natural Resistance, a mix of documentary and fiction about four Italian winemakers who recovered the tradition of natural wine, absolutely free of any chemical manipulation, but, in a point, unmanageable results. Juan invited Nossiter to a meeting of biodynamic farmers and established a relationship; then he traveled to Italy, invited by the filmmaker, to learn about natural wine production. "Jonathan is a very critical person, who defies the established ideas and bares the hypocrisy. Natural wine plays that role because allows us to see that when agriculture is linear is stupid".
"You are crazy" was the warning that countless times Juan and his agronomist, Facundo Bonamaizon, a young guy form Mendoza, also got on the train of exploration and the challenge of the pre-established in the world of wine, when they started telling about the Chakana transition. They answer in chorus: traditional viticulture wants to control everything happens in the process: kill all the bugs and leave an inert, aseptic wine. They inoculate yeasts to control fermentation because they are designed to work according to your business goals. "It's incredible," jokes Juan. And he adds: "You can put yeasts that give a strawberry flavor to wine or that produce more alcohol. We're talking about a practice common to the majority of wineries, not one. We are among the few that are beginning to work in another more attractive and interesting way".
Sulfite appears as the great savior. It controls microbiological activity, over all of the bacteria. And it is applied all the time, many times in the vineyard itself. The contraindications of this chemical are several, although not very widespread: it reduces intestinal flora, there are many allergic people who do not know it and can affect the stomach. To make matters worse, there are no controls on the amount that is applied (and it is a lot).
"When you make wines without sulfur, the wine has many detours, one bottle is very different from the other, the bottle may be fine today, but in six months, no. It becomes a more uncontrollable product, but it is alive", explains Juan: this decision (this year, Chakana made a whole harvest free of sulfite and will launch two natural wines, a bonarda and a tannat), with his previous mental scheme, would not have been possible: "I could never have left something to nature". Now, ahead, there is an almost evangelizing task, absolutely against the stream: that consumers accept a wine with imperfections, that the corset is removed of the dominant wine culture. And, to give that fight, Juan believes that the price is fundamental: "It does not have to be expensive, there is no reason for that, 5-10 dollars is a reasonable value".
The truck takes an internal road of the farm and Juan announces: "Now you are going to see something that you will not see in any other vineyard". Between two rows of vines, there’s an intense green hectare: it is alfalfa. And, further on, an extensive organic garden - a little punished by the frosts - that the workers of Chakana maintain for their own consumption. "This is a sacrilege for the other producers," says Facundo. "They consider it a 'lost zone', the language is not innocent", he adds.
Alfalfa is the key to them. Not only they use it for compost - which appears, dark black, everywhere on the farm, stacked at the ends of the rows -, but this legume prevents the soil from compacting thanks to its extensive roots, which also help the generation of nitrogen (key to fertility). "We do not lose anything; it helps for an effective organic agriculture. Facundo did a job in which he showed, actually he proved to itself, that nitrogen should not be added, that with what comes dissolved in the water, in the rain, plus what we add with cover corps, it reaches a good amount. If you add nitrogen, is an overstimulation that only stresses the vine", explains Juan.
Facundo studied Agronomy Engineering at the National University of Cuyo (Mendoza) that, of course, it is focused on viticulture. Traditional schools, he says, are designed to feed the industry with new professionals to whom the most important thing is the application of agrochemicals. "It's the culture of fear," says Facundo. "Fear of your wine going bad: we attack the symptomatology, the consequence, instead of going to the causes. We have to ask ourselves: Why is my vineyard unbalanced? It takes time, but it is the only sustainable way. We are our own enemies. Nobody considers the cost of the damage we do to the environment with the use of agrochemicals. Everything is focused on maximizing the profit".
Facundo has in his hands one of the 180 horns buried in Chakana’s farm: it is one of the most widespread and effective biodynamic practices. The cow horn stuffed with dung is buried in autumn, and a horn filled with silica, in spring. When dig up one, bury the other. Then the contents are emptied into a barrel with water and it is spread with a sprayer in the field. This is combined with a process of composting: "Basically, you're throwing microbiology that was in the cow's intestine, recovering it with air and water", he explains and expands: "The vine is a multi-annual plant that generates symbiosis with fungi, which allows them to make more efficient use of water. By impulsing that microbiology, you help the soil to reach its balance".
Juan looks carefully at a bottle while recognizing that his road was full of doubts and fears that little by little he had defeated with enthusiasm and conviction. "I know I'm making a very strong critic of the system, and it's worth doing it to be able to say this: they are fooling you! There are a hundred ways of doing things in a different way: you are not obligated to pay some expert to tell you that your wine is good. Is money the only thing that moves you to make wines? They're losing all the cultural part of the wine, which is worth living, it’s beautiful".
There is no false humility in its predicament, but an unrepentant search for not repeating mandates without questioning and the recovery of the importance of that moment that follows winemaking: a good time at the table. Juan asks again and again why it has to be expensive, why is there such a tendency to remove pleasures and quality from popular consumption, and why we have to produce more and more to not be a “loser”, someone who didn’t succeed in the industry. As usual, asking the right questions is a powerful weapon of mass destruction of preconceived truths.