Alpine Wines Get New Scouts

Photo credit: Archetyp Alpine

Alpine wines have been insider go-tos for at least a decade. Breaking them out to a wider audience has been a stiffer challenge. 

A few pioneering importers, led by legends Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal, were responsible for introducing open-minded U.S. drinkers to the light, fresh, vivid wines of iconic Alpine regions like Alto Adige-Südtirol and Switzerland. Others have followed, folding Alpine selections into their broader portfolios. But few have set their sights so squarely on these relative rarities as newcomer Archetyp Alpine.

The Portland, Oregon-based start-up launched this spring with a mission to showcase wines from seven countries that touch the Alps. But this isn’t its only distinction. Archetyp’s founders are also leveraging a direct-to-consumer model that essentially allows it to operate as a cellar door in the U.S. for the 18 wineries it represents. Integral to the mission is direct investment in social, environmental, and educational projects in the places these wineries call home. 

Archetyp is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Aric Wood and Erin Graham. Graham, who serves as CEO of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), and Wood, CEO of a B-Corp-certified design consultancy called Xplane, are tapping their decades of purpose-driven experience to develop this new channel. The company’s story starts with Graham’s avid love of the outdoors, skiing, and travel and Wood’s long-running obsession with all things Alpine. His undergraduate degree in Central European Studies laid the academic groundwork. A passion for ski mountaineering sealed the deal. He recalls the revelations of a trip along the legendary Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. “Even in that experience, it was remarkable to me how integrated food, wine, and culture was in every hut, every village — and how diverse,” he says. At business school, Wood researched “aspects of quality: How do we define that in the wine industry?” He tested his theories on three leading California wineries, earned his MBA, but then left wine for strategy consulting — with regrets.

“It was remarkable to me how integrated food, wine, and culture was in every hut, every village — and how diverse.”

Ever since, he’s remained close to wine, helping out at harvests in the nearby Willamette Valley, studying it in the WSET program, and of course drinking it. His day job gave him insights into business models, structures, and strategies — and sharpened his appetite to create a new business himself. “I’ve spent a lot of time visioning new businesses,” he notes. “I can’t help but want to do that for myself.” 

He also felt increasingly drawn to building something “analog.” Both the collection of vinyl that lines a wall in his office and the historic Portland home and garden he and Graham renovated with high fidelity attest to this. “I realized that after almost two decades of consulting and investment work, I really wanted to get back to working with creators,” he says.

In some senses, the couple have been creating Archetyp — the German spelling is a nod to what is in effect a lingua franca of the Alps — for over a decade. “It came full circle on a trip with Erin,” explains Wood. “We were in Bozen, at Pftischer’s winery, drinking some of the most transcendent Pinot Noir we had ever had — even coming from Oregon. There we were at 500 meters, overlooking the Dolomites and recognizing that these were wines we were not able to enjoy back home.” They puzzled out the reason. “It’s a structural problem,” he says. “Very few importers are going to bring in wines from a producer farming 2.5 hectares of land. The economies of scale aren’t there.” 

The United States’ notoriously regulated system of imports, distribution, and retail/on-premise sales puts up a stiff barrier to producers seeking access to the US$56 billion market. But a 2005 legal ruling punched a hole in that wall. “That basically created the direct-to-consumer market,” Wood notes. “And that’s what we’re leveraging to be able to do this.” Many of the wineries Archetyp works with are either too small or have too little available stock to get the attention of bigger importers, so Archteyp “flips the model on its head,” Wood explains. “We don’t want more than one pallet. We can give the wineries exposure in the U. S. without demanding half their production.”

By creating a entity that “meets the individual state’s control conditions for being a winery — a lot of states say that to be a winery you have to produce and bottle your wine in the state, others have a condition that you basically have to control the wine — I can work with small producers, bring wine directly from them, and sell it directly to consumers in any states that allow this.” (That number is currently 17.) Archetyp will start in the California and Oregon markets and expand from there.

“Alpine” is a slippery slope. Wood and Graham have it neatly limned.

“Alpine” is a slippery slope. Wood and Graham have it neatly limned. “We’re saying it’s the 750 miles from Nice in the southwest to Vienna in the northeast, across the spine of the Alps, including seven countries in that region: Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, Slovenia, and Liechtenstein.” Additional criteria include geography, climate, and means of production.

Switzerland is usually the map Wood pulls out first when he explains Alpine wines to the uninitiated. “Even here, there are lines to be drawn. If you look at a map and draw a diagonal from the top right to the lower left, you’ve basically drawn the Alpine territory: the lower half is Alpine, the upper half less so. If you look at the high slopes of Wallis or Graubünden or the Merlot made in Ticino, that’s all squarely Alpine terrain, so principally that’s where we’re focused.”

From the Jura to Styria, a wide range of soils, intense sunlight, erratic weather systems, and of course elevation determine the character of Alpine wines. So, too, do the tiny scale of steep-slope plots and the handwork and mindset of the growers who work them. As Alpine wine expert Wink Lorch points out, the inaccessibility and poverty of these regions tended to limit outside influence. Yet at the same time, Lorch notes, the Alps’ broader role as an international crossroads explains the diversity of rare varieties scattered along the way. 

Elevation naturally comes into play. As the climate crisis rapidly redraws areas suitable to traditional Alpine varieties, growers with access to higher sites are clamoring for them. Lorch notes of France’s Alpine regions, “the highest, steepest vineyard slopes were once deserted because they were too hard to work” but “since the 1990s the high ground is slowly being reclaimed.” The same holds true in the mountainous zones of Italy, Austria, Germany, and beyond. Higher isn’t always necessarily better from an ecological perspective, but it does allow Alpine growers to keep the signature raciness and intensity of their chosen varieties.

Archetyp’s producers farm vineyards at an average 400 meters above sea level. Wood cites Weinhof Kobler, on Alto Adige-Südtirol’s Kalterersee, as a prime example. “The vineyards around that lake are at about 200-250 meters and scale up from there,” he explains. “It’s fascinating to be able to look at a wine made in Kaltern, a wine made 200 meters up the slope in Eppan, and another made another 300-400 meters up the slope at Metan. We want to show that range of influence of the terroir, those incredible differences from microclimate to microclimate.” 

Highlighting Alpine throughlines is another Archetyp mission. “Whether in Switzerland, France, or Italy, vineyards are typically on steep slopes and very small plots of land and they are 100% hand-tended, hand-harvested.” The concentration of multi-generational families and outsider start-ups links these regions, too. Wood points to Sabine David of Vulgo Ritter in the Kärnten region of southern Austria – best known for its 3,000-meter-high peaks and skiing – as exemplary of the growers and wines Archetyp is showcasing. “She’s a Quereinsteigerin, trained as a mechanical engineer, but got the wine bug, went back home to plant a ‘pilot’ plot on her grandmother’s land, then fully committed,” he explains. “She farms her three hectares herself and makes the wine, and she’s crushing it. Pun intended, but she’s probably the most awarded Carinthian winemaker today.”

Archetyp has been publishing an uncommonly informative and visually striking Instagram feed since mid-2022. “We see the opportunity to spread awareness of this region that very few people have had the opportunity to touch or taste,” Wood says. This has included features on winery architecture, which tends to the eye-popping in these regions, little-known grower associations, and glimpses behind the scenes at understudied engines of regional advancement such as local oenology schools.

Photo credit: Archetype Alpine

Dispelling myths is another big piece of this work. “I think the biggest misconception about Alpine wine is that it’s all white,” he says. The list of rare indigenous reds — from Cornalin to Mondeuse, Lagrein to Blauer Wildbacher — is surprisingly long. Wood and Graham to showcase these alongside the largely unknown cellarable side of Alpine wines. 

Archetyp is also pioneering partnerships with oenology schools in the regions from which it sources its wines. “We’re actually co-producing wines under the Archetyp brand with viticultural schools in the region,” Wood explains. “Our Weißburgunder and Grauburgunder will be made with Silberberg” — Styria’s viticultural school. “Those will be our value-based daily drinking wines. But they carry the social mission of supporting the institutions that are raising the next generation of winemakers in these regions.” 

Wood looks to partner only with producers and wine schools that demonstrate open, progressive thinking. “Silberberg was one of the first schools we went to because they’ve converted a third of their production to organics and are, let’s say, biodynamic curious. If we can help support that mission, that’s going to make the fabric of Styria stronger for the future.”

Environmental responsibility is built into the Archteyp model. “One challenge I want to overcome is the environmental cost of importing bottles across the sea,” Wood says. “We’re offsetting 100% of our carbon footprint by specifically and mindfully investing in the very place we’re partnering with.” Among the projects Archetyp is supporting are two that work on forest conservation and protection of Alpine ecosystems: Bergwald Projekt in Switzerland and Nature Office, with its Austrian arm Oesterreich Plus

This approach fits smartly with younger consumers whose purchases are increasingly values-driven. “Alpine-curious Gen Z and millennials who are looking for wines that are environmentally conscious, diverse, and food-friendly and more traditional wine drinkers with a glut of reds in their cellars who aren’t aware of the incredible, cellar-worthy whites that are out there,” are the two groups Archetyp hopes most to convert to Alpinists.

The mountains are calling. Archetyp Alpine offers a new way to go.

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