New buds new beginnings

(Author: Peter)

I have received many messages from Chile in the wake of the massive earthquake that stunned the country before dawn on Saturday 27th February 2010. (Click here for my earlier report.)

Of all of them, one stood out for its vivid, intensely personal, very moving and ultimately thought-provoking nature.

It was from Andrés Sánchez. Andrés is a respected winemaker in Chile, albeit still young and also something of an outspoken maverick. He married Daniela Gillmore, daughter of Francisco Gillmore, and together (she does the viticulture, he does the winemaking) they now run Gillmore and Tabontinaja in the coastal secano of Maule, not far from the town of Loncomilla.

I’ve been to visit the winery on several occasions. I’ve stayed with them, tasted their wines, eaten at their family table (they have a four-year-old son, Martin, and a baby daughter Dominga). They are a personable, opinionated, engaging couple.

At one dinner, I remember arguing long into the night with them about the internal politics of Chilean wine. While I couldn’t have been more at odds with their viewpoint, I respected their stubborn loyalty to a position (a rare character trait in Chile).

(I later wrote this incident up as a vignette in my 2006 book The Wines of Chile. Andrés subsequently told me it made him laugh…)

I also admire their wines. Andrés, who also consults for a number of wineries, is committed to producing drinkable, food-friendly wines, based around refreshing acidity, fresh (not over-ripe) fruit character and firm tannins. (He also makes his own beer, which I haven’t tasted, but am relishing the prospect.)

The winery and wines at Gillmore are only part of the attraction, though. Over the years, considerable investments have been made in facilities including impressive guest houses, a pool, a mini zoo (morning elicits a deafening cacophony), bike trails and a traditional “artisanal” adobe village typical of the indigenous people of the are

That was before the quake.

When the earth moved at a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale (the seventh largest earthquake ever recorded), with an epicentre off the Maule coast, this was Andrés’ account of what happened:

(The translation is mine; apologies for any lumpy bits.)


At 3:30am on Saturday 27th February 2010, the earth goes into coronary arrest.

Instantly, the lights go out.

As if weeping, our old adobe house begins to shower earth and dust down on us. It’s like being down a mine: dark, dense, stifling.

I grab my four-year-old son Martin from his bed and leave him outside on the patio underneath the pergola. I rush back in for Daniela and Dominga. It’s so dark I almost have to sniff them out, but I find them and help them to the relative safety of the pergola.

Then, as if in a nightmare, we notice Martin is nowhere to be seen.

He’d followed me back in to the house.

Almost blinded by the dust and earth, I find him in his room. We stumble back out.

The following two minutes are nothing short of apocalyptic. We huddle together.

Finally, the tremors start abating. It was at that moment we realised this wasn’t a bad dream: it was really happening.

I leave Daniela and my family in the small guest house behind our home. Somehow, it has remained intact. I begin a shocking tour round the homes of the winery workers. Almost all are razed. Luckily, there are no injuries or worse; everyone got out in time.

We hand out blankets. Many people had left their homes simply with what they were wearing at the time. Others need to shelter their kids from the cool night air.

Finally we head of to assess the material damage.

The main winery is still standing. It’s surrounded by a fog of dust sent up by the adjoining adobe buildings which date back over 100 years.

Fortified by the courage that dawn brings, and perhaps overly caught up in the moment, we decide to go into the building.

Dust. A penetrating odour of wine. Earth. So much earth.

It’s 6am before I see my family again.

In the crisp, clear light of day, the full extent of the earthquake’s power becomes apparent.

The old manor house – fruit of the dreams and hard labour of Fancisco Gillmore – is irreparably damaged. The artisanal village, built for the bicentenary, is almost entirely razed or collapsed, leaving in tatters the cultural legacy built up by community contributions over a decade.

The other guest houses will need long and costly repairs.

As if by magic, in the midst of so much destruction, the hundred-year-old winery has remained standing. Its walls are rendered by the scars of the night, and yet it has stood firm, unyielding.

Inside, the losses are insignificant: just a small tank damaged and three barrels lost.

Despite this silver lining, our souls are filled with a profound sense of hurt and impotence. Years of hard work have been demolished in just a few minutes.

It was only then we realised we hadn’t carried out the final check. The vineyard.

The old vines remain intact: rock solid. Amidst so much sorrow and destruction, their grapes remain juicy and full. We understand this is nothing new for them, hardened as they are by summers spent surviving without water.

The full beauty of this message – its utter simplicity – finally hits home with us that afternoon.  The vines are alive. They were alive and they will remain so. Our people are the same.

Our spirit and our enthusiasm are not dimmed or damaged. They are as alive as the vines, thriving in the pain and the adversity, pushing forth new buds and succulent fruit.

That night we all sleep together, wearing the same clothes as the day before, happy to be alive, happy to be together and with the hope of new buds, and new beginnings.