A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Martin Bernal-Hafner, Winemaker
Roger Peng, Business savvy
“Once you pop, the fun don’t stop!”
I have to give the Pringles folks some credit: in a sea of advertising slogans with varying degrees of accuracy, theirs is dead-on. I don’t say that lightly; with respect to one of the largest fast-food chains in the world, I am not, in fact, “lovin’ it,” nor have I found most of the folks at a certain hardware store to be particularly helpful. But Pringles… I truly cannot stop eating them once I start, or at least not without a somewhat embarrassingly high level of self-control. Especially the dill pickle flavor.
I don’t know if Martin Bernal-Hafner, winemaker at Sip Wines partner Topel and Orsa Wines, shares my fondness for Pringles (although he must, right? Who doesn’t like Pringles??), but I know he’s experienced the phenomenon described by their slogan—because he told me so, right at the beginning of our conversation. In his case, however, he was referring to something far more important and life-altering than a snack food, and that was his introduction to Wine Life. He took one bite, and the next thing he knew…
In Martin’s case, that woman would be his wife, Kate, without whom he may never have stumbled onto the wine path. A native of Bogotá, Colombia who grew up in Boston, Martin began his career in the New York finance world. Sure, he had an interest in wine from a consumer point of view (as so many of us do), but Kate comes from a multi-generational California wine family and knew that she wanted wine to be a part of her life. In fact, it wasn’t long before Kate suggested to Martin that they go to France to participate in a harvest. Martin was amenable, so they decided that they would have a little adventure before moving to California, where Martin would return to finance. Little did they know that wine had other plans for them…
One harvest was all it took for Martin to be totally hooked (just like Pringles!!). As he described it, the harvest work was incredibly hard, with long hours and terrible pay, and he completely loved it. Working with his hands, getting to know people from all over the world, making something tangible—it was basically the opposite of finance, and it was his calling. The plans for returning to finance were already out the window.
[Side note: I’m pretty sure my husband would never let me participate in a harvest for exactly this reason. It’s just like how he won’t let me volunteer at an animal shelter because he knows I would start bringing home dogs. I mean, he’s probably right about all of it, but don’t tell him I said that.]
That first harvest in France was just the amuse-bouche, as it turns out. Instead of going back to Cali, they headed over to Argentina for the next eight harvests (which equals seven years for us lay people). Martin worked at a prominent American-owned winery during that time whose winemaker, Paul Hobbs, had a philosophical focus on precision viticulture. The Argentina years instilled in Martin a deep appreciation for what he calls the “farmer’s perspective” on wine. It’s the same perspective shared by many of our Sip Wines winery partners, that drives them to pursue sustainable, organic farming practices: a fundamental respect for the land itself and a holistic understanding of how to make good wine. A devoted pupil by then, Martin followed his mentor back to California, where he continued working with Paul and learned the ins and outs of every aspect of the business.
I was really hoping to continue my fine dining metaphor for Martin’s career trajectory, but all I can think of are the names of Italian courses, which is pretty inconsistent with the French amuse-bouche. Oh well. So let’s call Argentina/Paul Hobbs Martin’s primi (aka the pasta course, which is delicious but also basically a second, bigger appetizer, which is also very inconsistent with him being in Argentina, gaaaah why am I worrying about this). Some people might be satisfied after primi, but fortunately for wine, Martin was gearing up for secondi (the meat course) and found it in a new opportunity at Topel.
Omg more sheep
HAHA I love sheep so much, it cracks me up how consistently they keep appearing in the wine world. Topel is at least the third Sip Wines winery partner I’ve spoken with that has some important connection to sheep; in this case, the Topel family (the original founders of Topel) purchased an old sheep farm in 1989 because apparently land that is perfect for raising sheep is also perfect for growing grapes! Specifically, the Topel family realized that the former… sheepery?... was sitting on some very special soil, with a very specific topography, that was ideal for growing Bordeaux varieties.
If you’ve read anything about wine, you’ve probably come across the term “terroir” as an important aspect of wine. Terroir refers to the complete environment in which grapes are grown, one component of which is the soil; in the case of Topel, the soil plays a HUGE role in the incredible quality of their grapes. I don’t want to risk an error by summarizing, so I’ll pull directly from Topel’s website to explain:
“This site is made very special by the Maymen-Etsel-Snook complex soils hosting our vines. Maymen-Etsel-Snook complex soil type is mostly composed of weathered shale and sandstone. This contributes to excessive drainage and tough growing conditions; yet it’s perfect for premium grape growing. The battle for water, nutrients, and minerals results in small, concentrated berries, with phenomenal color and flavors.”
Topography definitely plays another role, although it’s combined with a dedication for a very hands-on type of farming. Topel is located on a very hilly property, and it is planted in small sections such that every aspect of cultivating and harvesting the grapes is done by hand—machinery wouldn’t be an option, even if they wanted to use it (which they don’t), because it would be almost impossible to navigate the land without damaging the vines. This type of farming is a LOT OF WORK and takes a looong time, as you can probably imagine. I mean, most vineyards use machines for a reason.
You can probably also imagine that this slow, laborious, by-hand farming means that these people KNOW.THEIR.VINES. I mean like, personally. Topel’s vineyard team is aware of everything that happens on those vines and can use that knowledge to basically run a bespoke harvest, picking each area as they know it will reach optimal ripeness. Of course, they’re able to do this in large part because it’s a quite small operation; on the 160 acres of Topel property, only 15 acres are planted for grapes, with the rest left natural to preserve and enhance biodiversity.
The Topel family operated their vineyard and winery for 25 years until they were forced to retire from the business due to health reasons. As their window closed, it opened the door for Martin, who was brought in to oversee every aspect of the business: growing the grapes, making the wine, and sales. And see, stories like this are what make me wonder about whether destiny is real, because I have to imagine that a former finance guy with almost a decade of old-world winemaking training possesses the uniquely perfect combination of skills and knowledge to do what Martin did… which was to step into Topel, make it his own, and make it successful.
Part of Martin’s alchemy results from the training he received in France and Argentina and the beliefs he absorbed, specifically related to sustainability and respectful farming practices. At his very first harvest in France, he was exposed to the philosophy of biodynamic farming, which is relatively rare even now and represents a very rigorous embodiment of regenerative farming. In Argentina, the focus was precision viticulture, which prioritizes optimizing vineyard performance, in particular maximizing grape yield and quality while minimizing environmental impacts and risk. Blend all these beliefs, and what you’re left with is a beautiful harmony of sustainable, respectful practices and an intimate relationship with the land, the grapes, and the wine. That’s Martin’s magic.
Um, why haven’t you mentioned Orsa?
I was getting there! When the Topel family retired from their winemaking business and Martin entered the picture, he teamed up with Roger Peng, businessman extraordinaire, and together they founded Orsa Wines in 2019. They’ve still preserved the extraordinary history and practices of Topel, and their older vintages are still under the Topel label, but Orsa is a new label designed to move their wine forward while still honoring and preserving the Topel legacy. I think their website says it beautifully:
"To us, wine is an ongoing chaptered story that vintage-to-vintage narrates the changes and influences of land, weather, farming practices, and winemaking legacy."
Orsa is the next chapter of Topel, but they’re part of the same story… and if the quality is anything to go by, it should be a bestseller. After all, it has all the important elements of a classic: history, twists of fate, personal discovery, a whiff of destiny, triumph, and sheep. Obvi.
Topel and Orsa wines are, in a word, exquisite. I truly hope you’ll do yourself a favor and try a bottle or two—you only think you’ve tasted good wine until now.