When Alex Guarachi emigrated to the U.S. from Chile in 1985, South American wines were little-known to stateside consumers, who were far more attuned to California and Europe. Guarachi initially came to the U.S. to play professional soccer, but an injury shortened that career and put him on a new path as a wine importer. In this role, Guarachi gave himself the mission of enlightening U.S. drinkers on the potential of South American wines.
From a new home base in Northern California, Guarachi’s fledgling company—then known as TGIC Importers, Inc.—became one of the leading importers of Chilean and Argentinian wines, and Guarachi himself gained recognition as a bullish advocate for the continent’s vintners. He ushered in such major labels as Viña Montes and Bodegas Norton, showing American consumers the luxury side of South American wine, which had mostly gone unexplored and underappreciated. As TGIC’s notoriety spread, brands from elsewhere around the world partnered with Guarachi, creating a portfolio that today represents 16 wineries from across the globe.
While Guarachi remains committed to showcasing the immense potential of South American wine, in recent years he’s shifted focus toward domestic labels, many of which are made or owned in part by him. Now, domestic wines—which initially played no role whatsoever—comprise around 30% of Guarachi’s portfolio. This shift toward domestic business partly influenced the company’s name change to Guarachi Wine Partners in 2015, as a means of better representing the increasingly diverse portfolio. Higher-end labels are also fueling growth, and the majority of Guarachi’s new acquisitions fall primarily at $15 a 750-ml. or above. And even as a growing number of more boutique operations like Guarachi’s merge with their mammoth competitors, he foresees having sole control of his evolving company well into the future.
South American Stronghold
Educating American consumers about South American wines has proven to be a long and arduous road for Guarachi. “When I was telling people about Chilean wines 34 years ago, they were asking me, ‘Where is Chile? In South Africa?’” says Guarachi. “It was extremely difficult in the beginning, especially given that there wasn’t a lot of access to free information—no internet, no personal computers—like we have at our fingertips today.” His company kicked off in 1985 with a single winery, Chile’s Viña Montes, a luxury producer of high-elevation red wines—including Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot—that Guarachi also partially owns. Soon after, Guarachi added Argentina’s Bodegas Norton to the portfolio, followed by the likes of Achaval-Ferrer and Pascual Toso, and his business had a solid catalogue of mid-range and high-end South American producers in its fold.
While Montes and Bodegas Norton were hugely important in raising the bar for South American wine and putting Guarachi’s company on the map, both recently departed the portfolio, as have a handful of other South American brands. In their place, Guarachi has supplemented his imports with a few new luxury wineries: Chile’s Vik and MontGras, and Argentina’s Kaiken.
Vik is the newest South American addition, having joined the Guarachi Wine Partners portfolio in late 2018, and Guarachi sees great potential for the boutique brand. “To me, Vik is akin to first-growth Bordeaux, given that each bottle comes from a single plant,” he says. “It’s an incredible project, and some of the best quality I’ve ever tasted from South America.” Founded in 2004 by Norwegian entrepreneurs Alexander and Carrie Vik, the Vik brand offers three estate-grown, red blend wines: Milla Cala ($45 a 750-ml.), La Piu Belle ($100), and Vik ($165), all of which are sourced from 11,000 acres of land in Chile’s Millahue Valley. Altogether, Guarachi currently imports around 1,600 cases of the brand. He notes that while the limited nature of the label stateside has posed a marketing challenge, the incredible quality of the wines has thus far propelled them forward.
At a slightly lower price point, though still present within the luxury segment, Guarachi also represents MontGras, which is based in the Colchagua Valley. The winery has expanded over the past decade to include projects in the Maipo and Leyda valleys, and its portfolio now counts 12 different tiers of wines, chief among them the Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend Ninquén ($48 a 750-ml.) and single-vineyard range Antu ($25).
Kaiken rounds out the luxury end of South American offerings imported by Guarachi; the brand is owned by Aurelio Montes, of Viña Montes fame, and focuses primarily on upscale expressions of Argentina’s primary calling card, Malbec. Guarachi acknowledges that even as he continues to support the growth of South American wine in the U.S., challenges remain, namely in that both Argentinian and Chilean imports have faltered in recent years. At the luxury end, however, the potential for growth is still robust.
Outside of South America, Guarachi Wine Partners imports brands from Spain and Italy. In January, the company announced the addition of Rioja winery Vivanco to its portfolio. “We’re very excited by this development,” says Guarachi. “Rioja as a region has such great potential, as there are so many great wines being made there, like Vivanco, that people simply don’t know enough about.” Moving forward, Guarachi will handle sales, marketing, and distribution for Vivanco, which produces Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Malvasía, among a handful of other indigenous varietals. The winery’s production capacity is at around 100,000 cases a year. Elsewhere, Guarachi imports Spanish brands Araex, Castillo de Monséran, The Pedaler, and Bodegas Baigorri, and is hopeful about their future growth and that of the category overall. “Spain is an especially interesting country for wine, and people have yet to really discover it, as there’s no dominant, Gallo-like producer that’s flooded the market,” he says. “That leaves an opportunity for us to further spread the message of its quality and value.”
From Italy, the company currently imports two labels: sparkling wine brand Deor and Nobilissima, whose lineup includes a Prosecco DOC and a Friuli DOC-designated Pinot Grigio. Guarachi notes that his Italian imports are steady, as consumers have long flocked to the country’s wines, and will likely continue to do so well into the future.
Domestic Business Booming
Though imports remain integral to Guarachi Wine Partners, comprising some 70% of the business, today the company’s domestic wine offerings are a major focus. Guarachi’s inaugural own-make label, Guarachi Family Wines, debuted in 2007, marking the first domestic offering in the portfolio. The winery launched with a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, whose debut vintage earned a 94-point score from Wine Spectator in 2010. “After that, we sold out of everything in just a few weeks,” says Guarachi. “With the next vintage, the people I had purchased my fruit from didn’t give me the same plots I had initially used; they kept those for themselves. So I knew then and there, the only way I was going to control my destiny was by having my own vineyards.”
With that in mind, in 2013 Guarachi purchased the 42-acre Sun Chase vineyard in Sonoma, a property that’s among the highest in elevation in Petaluma Gap at nearly 1,500 feet. Not long after, Guarachi complemented Sun Chase with a Napa Valley vineyard located atop Atlas Peak—the 62-acre Meadowrock—where Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Petit Verdot are grown, for use in Cabernet Sauvignon ($95 a 750-ml.) and G by Alex Guarachi ($75), a Bordeaux-style red blend. In total, Guarachi produced around 2,500 cases of wine under the Guarachi Family Wines umbrella last year, with the majority of volume going toward Cabernet Sauvignon. “Cabernet is king in Napa, and in focusing on the varietal I’m following what the consumer wants, but also targeting the highest quality that Napa can offer,” Guarachi says. He adds that in the future, the winery has significant opportunity for growth, given that it’s licensed for up to 8,000 cases.
Outside of Guarachi Wine Partners’ luxury domestic wine business, which is centered exclusively on Guarachi Family Wines, the company is relentlessly active at the premium and super-premium California tiers. From the Central Coast, Guarachi offers Tenshen ($25 a 750-ml.), whose lineup currently includes four wines: a red blend, white blend, rosé, and the recently released Cabernet Sauvignon, which consists of 100% Paso Robles-sourced fruit. “In Paso Robles, you can get great Cabernet Sauvignon for an exceptional price,” says Guarachi. “The fruit ripens well, there are good aromas, and it’s all for a fraction of the cost of Napa Cabernet. We’re banking on Paso Robles as the next frontier for the varietal.”
To that end, Guarachi Wine Partners recently debuted a Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($18 a 750-ml.) within Parker Station, a previously Pinot Noir-focused label that the company acquired from Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in 2018. Alongside the Cabernet launch came the arrival of a Chardonnay ($15) sourced from Edna Valley, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. For at least the next four years, Parker Station will continue being produced at Fess Parker, as will the Tenshen brand.
Among the newer entrants to the domestic portfolio is Black Ink, a California-sourced red blend that retails at $10 a 750-ml. in wholesale channels. The wine features an innovative label, complete with tattoo imagery and peel-off temporary tattoos. According to Guarachi, the brand is being aimed at millennial consumers, given their penchant for discovery and interest in such unique packaging.
Additionally, the company produces the Bacon and Surf Swim brands. Launched in 2018, the former is a red blend made with Syrah, Grenache, and Merlot from the Central Coast, as well as fruit from Guarachi’s own vineyard in Napa Valley, that’s set to receive a rebrand in the near future due to its relatively slow start. “The brand hasn’t quite connected with consumers yet, but we’re confident we can turn that around,” says Guarachi. “We’re going to transition the label, so the varietals are more front and center, and make clearer that it’s a wine for bacon lovers, not some sort of bacon-infused wine.” As for Surf Swim, the brand is one of a few in the Guarachi Wine Partners portfolio that has capitalized on alternative packaging, available in 4-packs of 250-ml. cans.
The Road Ahead
Looking ahead, Guarachi is keeping busy with several new projects, among them the acquisition of a 50% stake in an Oregon vineyard through his Guarachi Family Wines brand. “I’ve partnered with a vineyard management company, and we recently purchased 360 acres of land in the Willamette Valley,” he says. “Of those acres, 60 are already planted, and our plans are to release a luxury Pinot Noir from the vineyard within the Guarachi Family Wines lineup in the near future.”
While Guarachi plans to maintain sole ownership of Guarachi Family Wines, he’s open to more partnerships like the one he currently has with Fess Parker, or even selling a portion of the import business. “Consolidation is happening all over the place, so should we do the same?” he asks. “Maybe. I’ve had several companies offer to buy us, but I love what I’m doing, so that’s not currently in the cards. Ultimately, I’m looking at how we can become smarter and more relevant to our distributors—and a better company overall.”