- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

Andres Basso figures he will have at most 35 chances to do his job perfectly once.

Mr. Basso, 30, is a winemaker at the Tarara Winery, a 475-acre farm near Leesburg, Va. It’s harvest time at the vineyard, which means that every day about 10 tons of grapes are picked, pressed and fermented into a little more than 1,000 gallons of wine — a once-a-year experience.

“You only have 30 to 35 chances to make wine in your whole life,” Mr. Basso says. Each harvest is a different experience, a new education and an ongoing experiment on the way to making, this year, about 8,000 cases of wine.

“The approach needs to be different every year. And there’s not a recipe. There’s just guidelines,” he says.

About 80 wineries in Virginia are going through a similar process this fall, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office.

The number of Virginia producers has skyrocketed, from only six in 1979, and winemaking has become a big business in the state. Production last year reached 264,123 cases of wine, and retail sales topped $42.7 million, the marketing office says.

Virginia more than 200 years ago was home to America’s first winemaking experiments and first oenophile, Thomas Jefferson. More recently, it has become the 10th-largest wine producer in the United States among farm wine and commercial grape-growing states. Wine Spectator magazine called the state “the Virginia wine machine.”

“It’s absolutely successful,” says Mr. Basso, speaking with a slight accent of his native Spanish.

Mr. Basso was born and raised in Chile, where he studied enology and viticulture at the University of Chile in Santiago, and gained his first experience at some of that country’s major commercial wineries.

He moved to the United States in 1998, speaking no English. He has worked at wineries in Illinois, California’s Napa Valley and Washington state. But Virginia caught his eye for the opportunity to work in an up-and-coming region, and to try and produce some award-winning wines.

“It is not a famous winemaking area, but it is gaining a lot of importance and respect,” he says.

Mr. Basso arrived at Tarara in July, and has been hard at work since.

“It’s really tough to work in Virginia, especially in a year like this,” he says, indicating the rainy weather was bad for the grapes. And almost every year diseases, like powdery mildew and black rot, along with hungry birds and deer can cause problems.

“But if you can put up with all of these problems, the quality is good,” Mr. Basso says.

This week, Mr. Basso is splitting his time between the vineyards where grapes are ripening and being picked on about 52 acres of the farm, and the man-made cave where they are processed.

“I’m stressed but not very. I think it’s normal for a winemaker to be stressed during the harvest,” he says.

Sometimes armed with a shovel, a wineglass, or sometimes with a shovel-sized tool to punch down and mix fermenting grapes and juice, Mr. Basso oversees the winemaking process from vine to bottle.

“I’m always carrying a glass, trying to taste for effect,” he says.

The grapes have to be picked at just the right time, and have just the right sugar content. Then they are trucked near the cave, where they are weighed. Grapes for white wines are pressed and grapes for red wines are crushed, and pumped into tanks. Eventually the sugar turns into alcohol, turning the juice into wine. The product is aged in a tank for a few months, then moved to a barrel for more aging.

The barrels are made of French, American or Hungarian oak. A French barrel goes for about $700, an American for $350.

Through the process, Mr. Basso checks for flavor, acidity, color and other factors, and makes decisions along the way — like how to treat different wines with different yeasts or which wine goes in which kind of barrel.

“I feel pretty good about this Cabernet Franc,” he says of one batch that he tries from one of the vats.

A Viognier at about the same stage is especially fruity, like peaches.

“This will be a good seafood wine,” Mr. Basso says.

Each wine will be bottled and sold at the winery, with prices ranging from $12 to almost $30 per bottle.

Mr. Basso got his job when he guaranteed Tarara’s owner, Whitie Hubert, that he would become the best winemaker in the state.

Despite the year’s bad weather and its effect on the grapes, this vintage of wines should turn out well, he says. But he is still looking forward to the perfect vintage.

“I told Whitie I would make the best wine in Virginia, and he said ‘go ahead,’” Mr. Basso says. “I’m not sure when that will happen, but it will.”

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