WWC23 – Leo Erazo, by Jimmy Boldt

Les Erazo (right) speaking with a fourth-generation País farmer, harvest 2022

In this moving 2023 wine writing competition entry, aspiring winemaker Jimmy Boldt writes about Chilean vintner Leo Erazo and his resilience in the face of the wildfires that devastated Itata earlier this year (for more on these fires, see Alistair Cooper MW's article Itata on fire). See this guide to our competition.

Jimmy Boldt writes Cleveland-born Jimmy Boldt is a winemaker-in-training, currently working for Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, California. Prior to making “the leap” into production, Jimmy worked in wine sales and distributor management for E&J Gallo for 6 years after graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in history. Jimmy’s winemaking experiences have included harvests with Brooks Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Leo Erazo in Itata, Chile (subject of his entry below), Weingut Prager in Austria’s Wachau, and Mullineux & Leeu in the Western Cape of South Africa. Jimmy plans to start his own wine project in the US Great Lakes region in the years to come.

A Portrait of Leo Erazo, Itata Pioneer 

“There are not words to express this feeling.”

Leonardo Erazo, standing solemn, looking through noxious, smoke-fouled air at devastation, at tragedy, at profound loss before him. Ancient bush vine leaves singed to a crispy yellow, their gnarled trunks blackened, burnt fruit still hanging, becoming of death. Stands of proximate pine and eucalyptus scorched further, the ground ashen-white beneath, resembling a midsummer’s snowfall. Throat and sinuses stinging, mucus black, eyes veined red beholding a hellscape incarnate. It is early February 2023, and bushfires have ravaged the heartland of Itata wine country, home to Chile’s oldest vines and many of the oldest productive vineyards on Earth. Leo Erazo, steward of these vines and ambassador of Itata wine to the world, is at a loss. 

Eleven months before Itata’s cataclysmic fires, I arrived in-country to work the 2022 harvest in Leo’s cellar. Arriving by bus to the town of Coelemu on a hot, dusty afternoon, I meet Leo for the first time, and, not wasting time, hoist my duffle into the bed of his pickup and we speed off, needing to sample several vineyards before sundown. At the wheel, Leo, wearing a navy-blue beret and thick-framed glasses, makes a dozen calls, speaking a rapid-fire español chileno that befuddles my rusty university Spanish. Leo takes us straight to Guarilihue to sample his La Resistencia vineyard, an undulating blanket of vibrant green bush vines – país, cinsault, and moscatel dating to the 1870’s. We march, almost bushwhack, through the dense, serpentine rows and taste for ripeness. La Resistencia may well be on another viticultural planet from the orderly rows of trellis and post of most wine regions of the world. Leo and Dani, my travel companion and Leo’s longtime vinous collaborator, discuss the vintage, and eye the distant plume of bushfire smoke with unease, an eerie omen.

Back into the pickup, we drive to La Leonara vineyard over rocky dirt roads, the three of us swaying and jarring with every deep contortion of the steep track. La Leonara is a bastion of viticultural heritage, an amalgam of país, cinsault, and carignan, with a block of país vines dating to 1798. Sloping down to verdant rolling hills of pine forest, farmhouses, and vineyards, La Leonara has been farmed by the same family for five generations, keeping these ancient vines productive and healthy, a living testament to the enduring resilience of farmer and vine. 

On our final stop, we meet a pick crew after their arduous day harvesting a rounded slope of cinsault. We give the group, reclined in the shade of a pear tree, bottles of water and soda, which are drunk quickly and gratefully, sugar and hydration immediately lifting spirits. Leo, meanwhile, works with Don Carlin, the vineyard owner, to calculate each person’s pay based on their crates picked. Leo then calls each picker over, reviews their numbers and pays them for their day’s work. Golden hour unfolds sweetly into evening as Leo troubleshoots an export issue on his laptop, hotspotting among the bush vines, while Dani and I chat with Don Carlin, a man of mid-seventies with a sun-creased face and twinkling, hopeful eyes. We bid him farewell in falling light, as he retires to his shipping container-cum-bungalow, and we drive toward the coast to Leo’s solar-powered winery. An amber-orange sky lingers long after sunset, “Welcome to Itata.”

Itata is an old wine region, the oldest in the Americas. With the first plantings dating to 1551, Itata embodies the fallibility of the wine world’s distinction between “old” world and “new.” Abundant growing season sunshine, sufficient winter rains for dry farming, and propitious proximity to the port of Concepción positioned Itata to thrive for centuries as one of Chile’s principal wine regions. But as the industrial age dawned over Chile, and as the proud, newly independent nation began to integrate into a globalizing world, the winds of vinous prosperity began to shift away from this hilly, bucolic land of old bush vines and humble farmers to the stately, largescale haciendas of Santiago and its surrounds. Plantings of, and preference for, Bordeaux varieties in the Zona Central quickly dwarfing the centuries-adapted bush vines of the Zona Sur

While Itata remains on the fringes of Chile’s wine industry, it is re-emerging, invigorated by winemaking and viticultural talent drawn to ancient vines sited on high quality, rocky terroir. Significant improvements in wine quality over the past decade give clear indication that Itata has been building momentum towards breaking its unfair reputation as a sleepy, behind-the-times backwater and is regaining its rightful place at the center of Chile’s vinous soul and custodian of its oldest vines. This momentum, however, came to a standstill on February 2nd, 2023, as bushfires decimated many of Itata’s oldest vineyards, the product of a rapidly warming local climate and criminally negligent forestry practices resulting in the proliferation of highly flammable, water-intensive pine and eucalyptus plantations throughout the area. But if there is one person who embodies the regeneration of Itata’s wine fortunes over the past decade, the heartbreak of its recent fires, and hope for the future of a region, community, and culture rich in vibrant traditions, it is Leo Erazo. 

Santiago-born with winemaking and viticultural experience spanning five continents, including a viticulture degree from the University of Stellenbosch with a soil science specialization, Leo Erazo knows his terroir, and he knows how terroir informs his wines. Several years spent digging soil pits in Mendoza, running experimental winemaking projects for Altos Las Hormigas isolating terroir factors such as soil type, bedrock depth, and drainage, have prepared Leo to blaze his own trail in Itata, where he now produces some of the most soulful, terroir-expressive wines on the continent. Leo has taken a “by the bootstraps” approach to his Itata projects. His winery and family home, sited on a ridge overlooking the Pacific-facing fishing hamlet of Cobquecura, are made of recycled materials, 100% solar-powered, and use a clever water recycling system. “Off the grid” is an accurate characterization. Growing throughout the property, which was painstakingly cleared of rugged brush and stubborn thorn over several years, are nascent vines – riesling, chenin, chardonnay – that Leo hopes will thrive in this ultra-cool coastal frontier. But it’s an hour’s drive inland, into Itata’s viticultural heartland, that Leo has emerged as a leader of the region’s regeneration. 

To explain Itata’s macro terroirs, Leo divides the region on a north-south geological axis. The western zone, or colinas, lies in the Coastal Range foothills, and is composed of 250-million-year-old granite dating to the Triassic Period. The soils derived from this weathered parent rock, rich in coarse materials like quartz, sand, and silt, offer ideal conditions for vines, providing ample drainage and deep root penetration. The eastern zone, or terrazas, is made up of volcanic and alluvial river terraces of much younger provenance that lay along the Itata and Ñuble Rivers. Leo’s intimate working knowledge of these terroirs stems from local farmers, whose familiarity with propitious sites has been refined over generations, a latticework of understanding tracing to the 16th Century. This deep connection to Itata’s longstanding winegrowers is central to Leo’s mission: to support family growers of old vines, pay them fair prices, and incentivize sustainability, all while keeping Itata’s rich and unique winemaking traditions alive for future generations. Leo’s commitment to this mission enables him to tell the story of the region, its vines, and its history through his wines. 

In addition to sourcing fruit from local growers, Leo has purchased vineyards with the potential to produce single vineyard wines with vivid, singular terroir expressions, the result of extensive soil and climatic research and conversations with experienced local winemakers. Owning vineyards also enables Leo to showcase the benefits of organic viticulture to growers in the region. Despite yields declining precipitously in the first few years after switching to organics, Leo reports that yields have nearly always rebounded to their industrially farmed levels by year-seven post-switch, with the quality of the fruit often improving by a factor of three or more. Underscoring his conviction, Leo has been paying grower partners enough for their organic fruit to offset early yield declines. In working relentlessly and patiently to improve the health of Itata’s vineyards, Leo is paving the way for long-run profitability for the region’s historically underpaid farmers and helping to make sustainability a regional hallmark. 

In striving for a prosperous future for Itata, Leo incorporates local winemaking traditions, both as an earnest homage to five centuries of viniculture, and to express Itata’s inimitable flavors and textures. Tinajas, earthenware amphorae Leo sources from old bodegas, have profound effects on the wines they carry through fermentation and beyond. Leo uses these tinajas for his striking, luridly complex Piel de Arcilla (“Skin of Clay”) bottling, 100% Moscatel that spends 45 days on its skins (white maceration is de rigueur in Itata and has been for centuries). For his red wines, which include several single vineyard bottlings of país, cinsault, and carignan, Leo intervenes as little as possible to emphasize the deep expression of their geologically distinctive terroirs. Native yeast fermented and aged in spherical concrete tanks nicknamed Galileo’s, the wines brim with character, and, emblazoned with names like La Resistencia, Amigo Piedra, and Hombre en Llamas written in Leo’s incomparable calligraphy, they have the label panache to match. Crafting exceptional quality through minimalist techniques requires Leo to be extremely diligent in the cellar, his mantra “in order to do less, you have to know more” a concise summation of his philosophy. Keeping with his vision of minimal impact, very little cellar equipment runs on electricity, most notably the press, a 100-year-old, beautifully crafted colossus requiring the corporeal strength of at least four more-than-able-bodied people. While one cannot taste the sweat, sore backs, and calloused hands that make Leo’s wines, it is impossible to deny their uncommon sense of soul, wines that speak to the deep, beating heart of pastoral Chile. 

In working the 2022 harvest with Leo, I witnessed firsthand his indomitable desire to support local growers. In one instance, our team helped harvest a small vineyard sited on volcanic terroir that Leo was working with for the first time. Marta, the family matriarch in her early eighties who possesses the verve of someone half her age, supervised the pick of her 200-year-old país vines all morning, through hot sun and buzzing wasps. Cheerful and retaining a feisty energy, she directed us around the vineyard to carry crates of picked grapes to our waiting truck. As we loaded the final crates, sweaty and dusty, I saw Marta out of the corner of my eye, watching us with a musing, prideful smile. And as we readied to drive off, I could hear her say to Leo, hand gratefully over her heart, “Gracias por la oportunidad.” 

Less than a year later, 90% of Leo’s old vines burned in a single day. These vines, a majority of which will not recover, represent a profound loss to many – to Leo, who has dedicated his life to being their steward and champion, to an agricultural community that has nurtured the region’s vineyards through the centuries and against the odds, and to the greater wine world, that has lost an irreplaceable piece of living history. But Leo made wine in 2023, a triumph in the face of agonizing hardship, and a testament to his resourcefulness and skill at identifying promising sites and working with new growers. A long and painful road lies ahead for Leo and his family, but in the face of abject disaster, Leo looks forward with hope, a hope that some of his burned old vines may be nurtured into recovery, a conviction to re-plant, and, with bushfires posing an annual existential threat to Itata’s viticultural heritage, a determination to fight for change, for forestry reform, for investment in conservation and biodiversity, and for preparedness to fight the inevitable fires of the future. In Leo’s words, “The challenge to look ahead …” 

The photo of Leo Erazo (right) speaking with a fourth-generation País farmer, harvest 2022, is the author's own.