Hannah Schaefer is following her passion for wine
The name of the Alpasion winery in Mendoza, Argentina is a combination of soul and passion in Spanish.
And that is exactly what Bermudian sommelier Hannah Schaefer is discovering during a three-month internship there.
“I used to work at Discovery Wines in Bermuda,” the 27-year-old said. “I came to learn about Alpasion through selling their wines and learning about their story.”
Former Bermuda resident and Alpasion co-owner, William Fischer, helped her get the internship there, after they met at Discovery Wines.
Ms Schaefer arrived at Alpasion on January 26. The 210-acre winery is located in the heart of Argentina's wine country, famed for malbecs and other red wines. The place has a lodge and a restaurant, and makes about 250,000 bottles of wine a year, aged in French oak.
“It is stunning here,” Ms Schaefer said. “I am on a huge farm with vineyards running from left to right.”
Many of her tasks centre on the ongoing harvest of grapes such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot and syrah.
“My work at Alpasion changes on a daily basis,” she said. “I never really know what my job will be. I am shadowing the wine maker and the other enologists.”
She has been helping to monitor the temperature of the wine during the fermentation process. She is also getting to sample and see how the wine changes from the beginning of the fermentation process to its final result in oak barrels.
William Fischer started Alpasion Winery with a group of friends he met on a business course in France.
The group of 22 loved their time together and wanted a project they could work on once they’d left Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires.
“We decided that starting a winery would be fun. But none of us had any experience with it,” said Mr Fischer, the chief executive officer of Harrington Reinsurance.
To make it more affordable, they picked a rural property in the Uco Valley region of Mendoza, Argentina. The area sat at a high altitude and was particularly known for its malbecs.
Even better, it was surrounded by well-established, successful wineries.
“We knew that the region produced wonderful wines,” Mr Fischer said. “We were confident the grapes would be excellent.”
The 22 new vineyard owners bought grapes from their neighbours and established Alpasion with a restaurant and lodge.
Its launch, in 2008, was “a bit traumatic” as it coincided with a global financial crisis.
The winery bottled its first vintage in 2011 and has since won several awards including ‘Best in Show by Country’ with 93 points and a gold medal at the Paris Wine Cup last year.
“Our big markets are in Texas and Florida and other parts of the southeastern United States,” Mr Fischer said.
Despite that it is a challenging business and the group will not see any financial reward for a long time.
“We have had to deal with issues like Covid-19 and inflation is now problematic,” he said. “But it has been an interesting venture and I have met many great people along the way.”
Alpasion is well known for their grand malbec, and also their private selection. The composition of that changes annually, but might typically contain cabernet sauvignon, malbec, syrah and cabernet franc.
“Their grand malbec would sell out at Discovery Wines,” Ms Schaefer said.
One of her challenges has been the language. She took Spanish in school, and tried to brush up on it in the few months she had to prepare before going to Argentina. Still it was not quite enough.
“But my knowledge of Spanish is growing,” she said. “And I am thankful for Google translate.”
So far, she has not dealt with any unpleasant tasks at the winery, but she has found one little annoyance when walking in the vineyard, grass burrs.
“I love walking through the vines but it is really annoying that there are these little tiny things that get attached to your clothes,” she said. “They call them pinchas in Spanish. They pinch you and they are super sharp. They get everywhere on your clothes. That is why I always wear long pants.”
But she has loved being exposed to great wines on a daily basis. The internship in Argentina has allowed her to hone her palate. One of her favourite discoveries so far was an Argentinian wine from a different winery in Mendoza, Zuccardi Poliganos Paraje Altamira cabernet franc.
“It has been great seeing how everyone is excited about working for this company,” she said. “I can see why they called it Alpasion. From the winery to the lodge to the restaurant, everyone really loves wine. It is just really refreshing to see that and be working with people who are passionate about wine like I am.”
Ms Schaefer did not initially start out in the wine industry. She studied film and television at the University of Vermont and graduated in 2017.
She returned to Bermuda two years later, not really sure what she wanted to do.
“I was working at Brew on Front Street and they had a little wine bar there,” she said. “Kevin Rhyno from Burrows Lightbourn Ltd would teach us about wine. I had always had an interest in it. I loved drinking it.”
After that she eagerly snatched up an opportunity to take the Wine & Spirit Education Trust first level sommelier exams.
“They did this food and wine pairing experience that blew my mind,” she said. “One of the basics they teach you in that first course is pairing an acidic wine with a really acidic tomato-based sauce makes the wine taste fuller-bodied, smoother and fruitier. For me, it was magic to see that happen.”
After that, while waiting to take her WSET second level exams in December 2019, she successfully applied for a job at Discovery Wines.
“I started as a sales and marketing associate and then became assistant manager,” she said.
While at Discovery Wines, she successfully passed her WSET second level exams in 2021 and was then on to the next level.
Passing this exam would allow her to call herself a sommelier, but was much more difficult than the earlier levels. Only 25 per cent of candidates pass.
“At the time it was Covid-19 so I did most of my learning solo,” she said. “But I did do a virtual tasting with a few other people in Bermuda. Over the course of three or four days we tried a whole bunch of different wines.”
There is a theory part and a tasting part to the WSET third level exams.
“For the tasting portion you have to assess the quality of a red wine and a white wine,” she said. “You have to say why it is considered a good wine. Most people pass the theory and fail the tasting. I actually failed the tasting, the first time I took the exam.”
She had to wait a few months before taking the exam again, and then several more months before finding out her results. She burst into tears when she knew she was officially a sommelier.
“Then I opened a really nice bottle of wine to celebrate,” she said. “It was an amazing burgundy from 2003.”
She cannot say yet, what she will do when she leaves Alpasion at the end of this month. She is not ruling out taking the WSET fourth level diploma programme.
“People take two years to complete it,” she said. “If I go down the more business path of wine, then it would definitely be helpful. Right now, I am just learning by doing, and learning as much as I can. I feel like a sponge.”
She moved to Henrico, Virginia last July to work for the Coopers Hawk Winery as a tasting room attendant.
“I wanted to explore the production side which is something not offered in Bermuda,” she said. “I don’t work there any more, though.”
She has found the wine industry to be very male-dominated, but improving.
“In the last decade or so, a lot more women are entering and excelling in the world of wine,” she said.
At her previous job at Coopers Hawk Winery, the master sommelier was Emily Wines, who was also the vice-president of the wine and beverage experience.
“In Bermuda alone, I think of women like Karen Plianthos, the founder of Bermuda Wine Concierge and Rachel Wilks, who owns Two Fish in a Barrel and even my old colleague at Discovery Wines, Alli Estis who are all doing amazing things within the wine industry.”
She said it is a very supportive community.
“Women in the industry are always rooting for each other and want to see each other succeed,” she said.
But she said she had actually experienced more age discrimination than gender bias.
“People assume because I’m young that I don’t know what I’m talking about or they want reassurance from someone older with more experience,” she said. “I am actually very knowledgeable about wine, and qualified, and have a fair bit of experience in the industry.”
Ms Schaefer will be giving a wine tasting for Discovery Wines, virtually, on March 15, from 6pm to 8pm. Participants will meet at Discovery Wines’ warehouse at 5 Bakery Lane. Tickets are $60, available by calling 296-9463.
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