Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Uruguay
Unique Family Winery Tackles Challenges in Uncertain Climate
SAN JOSE, Uruguay – When siblings Tamara and Alejandro Rovere assumed control of the family winery in 2013 upon the death of their father, the word among their neighbors and friends was: “They’ll be out of business in two years.”
Ten years later I was sitting with them on a newly constructed, elevated platform deck 50 yards in length that provides a stunning vantage point of their vineyards. Clearly, their forecasted demise was premature.
Tamara will be the first to tell you that between distribution, weather and other issues, it hasn’t been easy.
“Every day there’s a new challenge and we have to keep going. We’re trying to increase our wine sales and get more people to visit our vineyard.”
Not surprising, as Rovere Winery’s sales, marketing and tours director, Tamara, 44, has the livelier personality of the two. Alejandro, 48, is the hands-on guy, overseeing the vineyards and the wine-making process. He’s friendly, smart and passionate about his work, which has played a significant role in the vineyard’s longevity.
“I have worked here my entire life,” he said.
Four Generations of Roveres
Of Uruguay’s 180 commercial vineyards, few likely are as unique – or quirky - as the Rovere Winery. That quickly became apparent as I entered the grounds of the 25-acre site in rural San Jose Department - how they name states here - about 60 miles from the capital, Montevideo.
On one side of the gravel entranceway were a collection of six antique tillers. The first one was dated 1930, the year, I later learned, that Tamara and Alejandro’s great-grandfather, Raphael, bought the property. On the left was a massive wood and metal grape press. It looked like an old washing machine for giants. It had 1930 stamped on it as well. There was nary a grape vine in sight. Rather, there was a common green with chairs and benches scattered about and small gardens, giving it the feel of a park. Beyond that was a thin forest that partially shielded an old homestead and other buildings. Only as I moved farther up the road did the platform and first signs of a vineyard come into focus.
Absent were the polished marketers you normally find at most wineries hawking wine tastings, tours and bottles of the vineyard’s finest wines.
I soon would learn that the charm of Rovere Winery is everything that it’s not.
It was late afternoon on a warm spring day when Tamara, Alejandro and I stood on the observation deck and talked about the winery’s journey. [As Uruguay is south of the equator, its seasons are opposite from ours.] Their great-grandfather immigrated here from Italy during World War 1. He found work as a hired ranch hand in San Jose, saved money and brought his fiancé Margarita over from Italy. Raphael used his savings to buy 200 acres, which he turned into a vegetable and citrus farm. True to his roots, he nurtured a small vineyard and made his own table wine. He and Margarita raised eight children. Upon their deaths each of their children was given 25 acres. Tamara and Alejandro’s grandfather, Tito, started a small commercial winery on his parcel. It was only moderately successful. It was their father, Milton, who elevated the vineyard into a serious business.
“My father was a great man,” said Tamara. “And he had a great vision for the future.”
Perhaps the most important decision he made was in 1996 when he contracted with the governing body of the country’s wine industry to replace all of the vineyard’s old vines with a better strain of grape. Milton expanded the vineyards from five acres to 20, upgraded all the equipment, hired help and promoted his wines, all of which greatly increased the vineyard’s sales.
When Milton died in 2013, Tamara and Alejandro had already been working at Rovere long enough that they were confident they could continue the business – despite the negative vibes floating around.
“There have been many obstacles,” Tamara says. “But we are growing, year by year.”
We left the vineyards and headed to the winery along a grass-covered path. Amid a cluster of buildings was a one-story concrete house with a metal roof. It required a facelift. Alejandro said it’s where he and his sister were raised. I peeked inside the vacated home; remnants of a working kitchen, a few tables and several chairs. Little else remained from their past life. Tamara, a single mother, said she currently lives with her three children in the closest town, San Jose de Mayo. Alejandro, his partner and their two children reside in a country home 15 miles from Rovere. Their sister, Geovana, helps with the business on occasion. Their widowed mother, Beatriz, lives elsewhere and is not involved in Rovere.
To the side of a large building across from the house was an odd-looking, cylinder-shaped machine filled with holes. Tamara told me it’s a grinder – dating from her father’s era - that pulverizes the harvested grapes and sends the liquid down a trough into a holding tank. From there the wine-producing process begins. Inside the building were five concrete vats where last year’s harvest was fermenting. Tamara said her father had the vats built more than 30 years ago but that they still worked beautifully. [I later found out that the trend in the industry has been moving away from oak and stainless vats to concrete, a fermentation method that goes back centuries.]
As we discussed the process, I asked Alejandro about his routine.
“We harvest in March,” he said. “From May through June we prune the vines. Then comes the bottling, which takes anywhere from one to two months depending on the size of that year’s harvest.”
He does all of this with only three fulltime employees, a herculean task.
Next door was the wine storage facility. As we walked through, it looked like an above-the-ground cave. The cool temperature was perfect for the stacked bottles of, among others, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, arinarnoa and tannat, Uruguay’s most famous red grape. I tasted the cab, which won a gold medal last year. It was delicious.
Nearby was the winery’s store, a small narrow building that looked as if it housed the family vehicle at one time. I asked Tamara how much Rovere’s most expensive wine cost. “Three hundred pesos [$17.75],” she said. To me, that sounded cheap as Uruguay is one of South America’s more expensive countries.
The explanation was related to distribution. Rovere’s wines are only sold in the immediate area, where the income level is considerably lower than Montevideo.
Our discussion, which had been informal, turned more serious.
I asked Alejandro about the upcoming harvest. He said that as the result of an unprecedented draught the yield is going to be half the usual 180,000 kilos [400,000 pounds].
“I’m very worried about the impact of climate change on our business,” he confided.
The siblings diversified their business long ago. Dairy cows, sheep and chickens residing on their property have always added extra income. New ideas are simmering, they said. Meanwhile, five years ago, Rovere began offering winery tours for the first time. Tamara spends a considerable amount of her time selling the uniqueness of Rovere to tourism agencies and through social media. [She helped Rovere win a tourism ministry competition over 68 other wineries resulting in the funds to build the observation platform.] Tamara also is working at expanding distribution to Montevideo, which would be a huge get.
As for the future and whether Rovere will reach a fifth generation, she said that is something she can’t predict.
“I hope that one of my children will join the business one day, but it’s too early to know.”
Editor’s note: Last in a series from a reporting trip to Uruguay Oct. 8-12, 2023
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