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PengWine takes flight

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 10 min read
PengWine takes flight
Co-founded by chef-turned-winemaker Chris Milliken, PengWine is banking on light-hearted branding and artisanal winemaking — plus a new app that fights wine fraud — to reach out to wine drinkers.
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Co-founded by chef-turned-winemaker Chris Milliken, PengWine is banking on light-hearted branding and artisanal winemaking — plus a new app that fights wine fraud — to reach out to wine drinkers.

Chris Milliken knew nothing about penguins before he co-founded PengWine in Chile. “I knew they were black and white,” he says with a laugh. However, his business partner, Chilean native Max Eyzaguirre, had a fondness for the aquatic birds unique to the Southern Hemisphere. The duo wanted their wine label to smack of light-heartedness and adventure — like penguins — which is how the quirky name for their micro-boutique label came about.

Each blend from PengWine is named after a local penguin. There is the Rockhopper, christened after the species that stands out due to the spiky feathers on its head. The wine has the fruity Carménère grape varietal making up half of its blend, while the other half comes from Cabernet Sauvignon. Carménère was almost wiped out by a pest plague in France in the mid- 19th century, but found its way to Chile and flourished in the arid climate. Today, it is the country’s defining grape.

The Rockhopper, priced at $45.50, is currently PengWine’s fastest-selling wine. By volume, the top seller is its entry-level wine, the Magellan. The white wine takes its name from the Magellanic penguins that make their home along the South American Pacific coast. The Magellan is an easy-drinking Chardonnay, which has skirted the strong oak tones often associated with Chardonnays, with a rare infusion of Sauvignon Blanc (20%) in the mix. The Magellan retails for $39.50.

The wine that does best at restaurants is its premium blend The King. Named after the second-largest species of penguins in the world, it is a big wine with a hefty price tag of $116 and an uncommon 50-50 fusion of Carménère and Malbec. “It is a very South American blend,” says Milliken, adding that this is a combination that wine enthusiasts are warming up to. What Carménère is to Chile, Malbec is to Argentina.

PengWine rolls out eight types of wine in total — a varied range for an emerging wine brand. The winery releases between 5,000 and 12,000 cases a year, depending on the year’s vintage. “The larger Chilean labels export more in a day than we produce in a year,” Milliken says, conceding that it has not been easy jostling for space within the congested wine world. The Chilean industry is dominated by juggernauts such as Concha Y Toro and Santa Rita, whose scale allows for bargain prices and heavy marketing.

Wine is sold, not bought
“This is a very cut-throat business,” Milliken notes, adding that there are more than 500,000 wine labels in the world. Moreover, PengWine’s price point is more than double the export price of the average Chilean wine. “People say to me, ‘You’re so expensive. How are we going to sell your wine?’” To that, he replies, “Wine is not bought. Wine is sold.”

The No 1-selling wine on almost every wine list tends to be the second-cheapest wine, notes Milliken. “That is where you want to be if you can. But if you can’t, you need to have a personal impact on the people selling the wine,” he says, referring to wait staff, sommeliers and people in the wine trade. This is where he hopes PengWine’s whimsical association with Chile’s sea-loving birds and its artisanal approach to winemaking help it stand apart.

Milliken, who trained and worked as a chef before moving to the wine business, handcrafts every blend along with Eyzaguirre. “Max and I have very similar palates and expectations of what we want to make,” he says. They experiment with different grape ratios, then decide what goes into each blend. For example, they added a dash of Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay and found that the crisp, dry varietal added zip to the Chardonnay — a departure from the current style which leans towards a heavy oak finish. Incidentally, Milliken recently discovered he is allergic to oak.

They also keep an eye on what their wines will taste like in five or 10 years. Milliken points out that most wine producers try to bring their wines to market as fast as possible, with some winemakers micro-oxygenating their wines to make them age faster. PengWine refrains from micro-oxygenation and pre-cellars its wines for two to five years before releasing them to the market. “I guarantee my wines can be open for five days and still be good,” says Milliken, adding that he tells restaurants they can sell Peng- Wine’s premium wines like The King by the glass without fear.

Fighting wine fraud
The brand is looking to build relationships with the people who sell its wines and the people who drink them. To do that, it is taking the app route. “I had this dream for over a year,” Milliken says about developing a digital platform that would connect end-users and middlemen directly with wine producers. However, he was held back by the cost of building it from scratch.

Serendipity stepped in. Milliken was supplying PengWine to a friend’s corporate event, and there he met an executive from Authenticateit, a company that sells software to track and trace a product’s authenticity from producer to consumer. Together, they customised a system that attaches a unique data matrix code to each PengWine bottle and an app that enables consumers and tradespeople to check whether the wine is fake, by scanning the barcode. It also offers drinkers information on each product, such as tasting notes, and gives PengWine an avenue to reward the wait staff who promote their wines.

At about 13.5 cents a bottle, the system would seem a cost-effective way to boost visibility along the supply chain and gain consumer trust. Given the serious issue of counterfeit wine, it is a wonder that more wine brands have not latched on to it. A new film out this year called Sour Grapes depicts the rise and fall of wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan, who was convicted in the US of what is believed to be the largest case of fine wine fraud in history. Kurniawan, an Indonesian, bought prodigious amounts of less expensive wines and relabelled them as prestigious and rare wines, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from Burgundy, and then sold them to big-name wine collectors and at auctions.

Best place to grow grapes
Milliken, who is from the US, did not set out to be a wine producer. From a young age — six, according to his book White or Red, It’s All in Your Head — he has had a passion for food and culinary arts. During his first year at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, he took a semester in wine appreciation. However, he was disappointed to find he did not like a single wine he tried. “I was over wine as fast as I was introduced to it,” he writes.

After graduating, he worked as a chef in restaurants and hotels, as well as a personal chef. In his mid-20s, his girlfriend took up a job in Chile. He had never left the US and could not speak Spanish. But he relocated with her and discovered new frontiers for agronomy as well as a fresh respect for wine. Chile’s unusual combination of geography and climate has given rise to a varied mosaic of terroir, much of which is rich in minerals.

“When I first went there, I was shocked to see kiwi fruits larger than my fist, corn and carrots larger than my arm and celery that was 1m long,” Milliken recalls. As he sees it, Chile is scientifically the best place on the planet to grow grapes. The country has one of the longest grape-growing seasons — ideal for the finicky Carménère grape, which needs a growing period of up to 60 days longer than other red varietals. Yields at Chilean vineyards are also often significantly higher than in other wine-growing countries.

Soon after landing in Santiago, he met Eyzaguirre, whose attention to the most subtle and delicate flavours in each bottle of wine “just blew my mind”. A friendship was forged and it continued even after Milliken and his wife moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 2000 for her work. During that time, he trained as a sommelier and worked in the cellars at LVMH’s Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley.

In 2004, despite being half a world away, Milliken and Eyzaguirre embarked on their wine business. Eyzaguirre found a family-owned vineyard in the low Maipo Valley, 17km from the coast, near Melipilla village, southwest of the capital city. “In Chile, who you know could not be more important. Even if I went there waving money, it would not be any use. Family name is everything and Max has a renowned family name,” says Milliken.

The estate sits between the cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, resulting in sunny days and temperatures that can dip drastically at night. “In the mornings, you can be 100m from the winery and not see the vines,” he says, referring to the low-lying fog that rolls in most days. He feels that those conditions help create intense flavours in the grapes and allow the grapes to express themselves.

PengWine does not own or manage the vineyard. “I didn’t want to be a farmer,” says 43-year-old Milliken, who grew up in an agricultural town in Ohio. “You are too dependent on too many different things. I wanted to focus on production and building a brand.” Through a partnership, PengWine has first access to every vintage from the estate. It takes the juice it wants and puts them in its own barrels. The vineyard sells the remaining grapes to other wineries.

Milliken has been based in Singapore since 2008, after his wife’s job brought them here. The father of two shuttles between Chile, the US and Asia, where he is trying to build PengWine’s profile. He is also busy working on two new wines, one being PengWine’s first oaked Chardonnay which will be available by year-end.

The other is a sparkling wine made of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and a touch of Chardonnay. Milliken is excited about the bubbly as it is entirely hand-produced, unlike sparkling wines from many popular labels, where the process tends to be largely automated. PengWine plans to release 150 cases of the inaugural 2014 vintage to the Asian market, priced at about $70 a bottle.

The wine will be named after the Chinstrap penguin — called as such due to the narrow black strip under its head. The strap resembles the wire cage that encases champagne corks. When Milliken started making Chilean wine, he never realised there were so many different types of penguins. Since then, he has learnt much about the various species and their characteristics. “Now, I know more about penguins than I ever did,” he says, chuckling.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, usually finds inspiration after a glass of win.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 748 (Oct 8) of The Edge Singapore.

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