When you are in this business long enough, a lot of wine theories come and go. Some are debunked only to be endorsed a few years later: heavy oak/no oak; dry/sweet wines; low alcohol/high alcohol.

We were reminded of the yin and yang of the wine business after visiting with a very talented and candid winemaker from Chile who, in less than an hour, gave us an honest assessment of his country's wines and an insight into the techniques — good and bad — of enterprising winemakers. At the end of the conversation, we all agreed that there is a tendency in winemaking to overthink wine and to manipulate its creation more than necessary. You have to wonder whether it's out of boredom that winemakers look to do something different from their ancestors who made pretty good wine without the wizardry.


Rodrigo Soto, chief winemaker of Huneeus Vintners South American Wine Portfolio, spent a number of years with wineries in New Zealand and California before settling in his native winegrowing region in Chile. However proud he is of Chilean wines and the progress he is making, he knows that Chile has lost ground to countries such as Argentina.

When we first wrote about wine in the 1980s, Argentine winemakers were in awe of Chilean marketing. They lagged behind their South American neighbor, they said, because Chile didn't have the same marketing genius. But eventually, the Argentines wised up and promoted their ubiquitous maleic. Who's ahead now? Are you more likely to drink Chile's native carmen ere — or Argentina's local maleic?

Chile lost momentum in the competitive marketplace, Soto believes, because its producers were making wines that were "very conservative, academic and too local-centric." Soto says producers were not adjusting to consumer criticism abroad, where wine enthusiasts found Chilean wines "too green in the nose and too dry in the mouth."

We recall those wines: bell pepper, rubber and other offensive notes that left a terrible image for Chilean winemakers to erase. After trying a few of them at relatively low prices, consumers moved on to Argentina, Spain and other places with good values but better wines.

For Soto, the key to making better wine is in organic farming. He was indoctrinated in this emerging winemaking philosophy after spending six years beside David Ramsey, a consultant for Sonoma's Beziers winery — a pioneer in organic and bio-dynamic farming.

However good for the environment, organic farming has benefits to a wine's flavor that aren't entirely clear to consumers. Soto said reducing Chile's offensive bell-pepper flavors requires growers to expose their grapes to more sun. But in this region, more sun can burn the grapes, so there is a delicate balance. Not everyone is willing to take the risk and prefer high yields and low prices — an equation that often creates inferior wines.

"You need a moderate pace of metabolism to get the right minerality and smooth ripening," he says. "Organic slows the ripening process."

He is using concrete egg-shaped fermenters — hardly a new device but one gaining popularity over stainless steel. The design of these fermenters allows sediment to fall naturally to the bottom. They retain temperature more naturally, and the circulation of the fermenting juice doesn't require stirring of the lees. As we travel to various winegrowing regions, we are seeing more and more of them.

Soto is convinced these fermenters give more texture to wine. His sauvignon blanc is evidence of that — unfortunately, this wine can be found only in a handful of restaurants. However, it's not the only wine made under the Ritual label.

We loved the 2012 Vermonte Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir ($20) made from University of California, Davis clones. Its light color masks the depth and quality of a medium body, bright and effusive pinot noir with black cherry and raspberry notes. We dare you to find a pinot noir at this price and with this quality.

We also tasted the 2012 Primus The Blend ($20), a melange of cabernet sauvignon (30 percent) carmenere, syrah, merlot and petite verdot. It's a great value at this price.

Soto's experimentation with fermenting vessels, natural yeasts and canopy management in the vineyard separates him from Chilean winemakers stuck in their old ways. He is the future of this country's fertile winegrowing region.

Wine picks:

•Flora Springs Napa Valley Merlot 2012 ($25). You just aren't going to find a merlot at this price with this kind of depth — lots of rich cherry fruit and spice.


•Tenuta Sant'Antonio Amarone Selezione Castagnedi 2010 ($45). Amarone is a very special wine because of its unique vinification, and no one makes is more special than Tenuta Sant'Antonio. The blend is 70 percent corvina, 20 percent rondinella, 5 percent croatina and 5 percent oseleta. The wine is dense with ripe blackberry fruit and spice with a healthy dose of licorice and pepper. For another treat made with about the same grape varieties, enjoy the fresher fruit character of the Tenuta Sant'Antonio Ripasso Monti Garbi 2010 ($19).

Tom Marquardt is the retired editor and publisher of Capital Gazette Communications. Patrick Darr works in the local wine retail business. Some of the reviewed wines were provided as samples by the producers. To reach the authors, or get help in finding a wine, go to their website, http://www.moreaboutwine.com.