A winemaking degree has been Grant Phelps’ passport to the world – and some wild adventures. Sharon Stephenson catches up with the entrepreneurial Cantabrian at his colourful hillside hotel in Valparaíso.
“Clutches and brakes are what we replace most often,” deadpans Phelps, 45, on driving in Chile’s second city.
Christchurch-born Phelps opened WineBox Valparaíso, his 21-room hotel, in 2018. Constructed from 25 decommissioned containers, it’s the first container hotel in Latin America and the first hotel in the southern hemisphere to make its own wine (the compact winery is in the basement).
Phelps had no intention of getting into the hotel industry when he left New Zealand in 2000. Making good wine in as many countries as possible was his aim. Which he did – from the US and France to Australia and Hungary. There was even a two-year stint in Hawke’s Bay, where Phelps was assistant winemaker for Esk Valley Estate.
But if everyone has a place where they fit into their skin, then Chile is his.
“Chilean wine is incredible because of the 100- to 150-year-old grapevines that have somehow managed to avoid phylloxera [pests that have decimated vines in many wine-producing countries]. It’s why we can make such good malbec and semillon.”
Phelps spent seven years as head winemaker for a vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, but “Valpo”, as the locals call it, is his sweet spot. He’s lived here for 10 years and owns a house next door to the hotel, which he shares with partner Camila Ulloa, a local architect, and two former street dogs.
“Valpo is such a unique city with incredible architecture, history and street art. Plus, it’s close to the vineyards where I source grapes for both my WineBox label and the Beso Negro label I make with a princess from Malaysia.”
Are you from a wine background?
Not at all. My family were into the classic boxed wine, so it wasn’t until I was 18 that I had a wine epiphany. I was at Canterbury University studying for my first degree [zoology] and working one of three bar jobs when I first tasted a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. I realised there was a whole world of amazing wines out there.
How did you go from zoology to winemaking?
I was chatting to a customer at one of my bar jobs, the Woolston Workingman’s Club, of all places, and he said, “You know a lot about wine, you should become a winemaker.” My reaction was, surely that’s not a job? He told me it was and that Lincoln University had a winemaking degree, so I went there the next day. And as luck would have it, it was the last day to sign up.
After your master’s degree, you worked as a flying winemaker?
I got a job with a European company that made wine for English supermarkets but flew in their own winemaker to work with local wineries. That’s how I managed to work at vineyards in France, the US and Australia.
Is that also how you wound up working for the Hungarian mafia?
I was supposed to be making wine in Argentina, but the peso devalued three times in one night and suddenly I was too expensive, so the company sent me to Hungary for three months. The Hungarian owner used the winery to launder money for dictators and had no idea about making wine. They drove around in cars full of drugs and money and once asked me to take a package of 10,000 ecstasy pills across the border to Vienna! It was all pretty Wild West stuff. They actually offered me a full-time role as head winemaker; not surprisingly, I turned them down.
But South America was always your ultimate destination?
It always fascinated me and I didn’t want to do the usual London OE. I’m lucky that wine took me to some cool places, including Chile, which is a fantastic country, full of amazing wine and people. This is home now.
Speaking fluent Spanish helps?
When I got my first job in Chile, I thought I’d better learn the language as few of the winery staff spoke English. I spent three months in Cuba learning Spanish and then another three in Bogotá, which was challenging, not just because of the intense study but at the time [rebel group] FARC was blowing things up. It was pretty dangerous but it was worth it. These days, I spend 90% of my day speaking Spanish.
You were lured to Valpo by Chile’s fifth-richest man, right?
He owned Casas del Bosque, the winery where I was head winemaker for seven years. I increased the production from 50,000 cases a year to 150,000, and we were the first Chilean winery to win a trophy at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London for our 2012 syrah, which was a career highlight. But the owner wasn’t really into wine and it stopped being fun. As any winemaker will tell you, starting your own winery is the quickest path to financial ruin. But I wanted to keep living in Valpo, so in 2016 I quit my job to make my own wine.
Where did the inspiration for WineBox come from?
I’d been back to Christchurch in 2013 for the Pinot Noir NZ conference and had seen the Re:Start mall, made from shipping containers. I’ve always been interested in the aesthetics of design and was so inspired by Re:Start that I bought a book about container architecture to read on the plane. By the time we landed in Santiago, I knew I wanted to build a container hotel here. I’d spent two months a year out of the last 15 years staying in hotels in Europe and the US visiting customers, so I knew lots about hotels, just not about running them.
How did it come together?
A developer was planning to build an eight-storey apartment block on an empty section that would have ruined our neighbourhood, so I asked them if I could buy the land. As luck would have it, they were having financial issues, so they said yes. The problem is this isn’t a tourist area, so I needed to develop a hotel that was a destination in itself with a winery in the basement, a bar and restaurant on the top floor and a wine shop where people could buy my wine. It was a Field of Dreams moment – if I build it, they will come. Luckily, they have!
It wasn’t smooth sailing, though, getting to this point.
I showed my plans to five local architects and none of them understood what I was trying to do. In the end, I asked Camila, who totally got it and took on the project. Then we couldn’t find a construction firm willing to do the job, so we had to start our own construction company. That had its own challenges – we’d often catch workers drinking or doing drugs on site, which clearly isn’t a good idea when you’re handling power tools. I also refused to pay bribes, which is pretty common here. It would have made my life easier if I had, but it goes against everything I believe in.
But WineBox has been a success since opening in February last year?
It’s a bit like Fawlty Towers with wine! But we’re always full and we’ve had glowing reviews from the New York Times and Food & Wine Magazine, and were voted Chilean Hotel of the Year 2019, which is better than I could have hoped for.
How did you end up making wine with a Malaysian princess?
A friend, an Italian count who owns a vineyard here, introduced us. They turned up to dinner at my house once in big black vehicles with eight security guards, and I was in shorts and jandals, cooking a barbie.
The Princess [Tunku Soraya Dakhlah] and her husband [Sharif Majid] are big wine lovers, and bought a boutique vineyard [about a three-hour drive south of Valparaíso] where I make around 2400 bottles of two different blends for their Beso Negro label each year, along with around 6000 bottles of my own WineBox label.
Do you think being a New Zealander has hindered or helped you?
It’s definitely helped me. There have been so many times when things have gone wrong, or been strangled in red tape – of which there is an unbelievable amount here – when it would have been easier to walk away. But I think Kiwis are obstinate and don’t give up easily.
What do you think of the New Zealand wine industry?
Kiwi winemakers are doing some fantastically innovative things and they have a great reputation around the world. Chile doesn’t have the same kind of wine-drinking market as New Zealand has, with around 73% of the country’s wine exported. But that’s changing slowly as Chileans start to realise how good their wine actually is.
Do you miss New Zealand?
I love New Zealand, but between the hotel and the two wine labels, I don’t have the time to miss it! My parents visit once a year and although I’ve only been back once since 2000, I will take Camila there one day for a visit.
Sharon Stephenson travelled to Valparaíso with the assistance of G Adventures.