A Life in Wine: Alfredo Bartholomaus, South American Wine Ambassador

Listening to Alfredo Bartholomaus

Alfredo Bartholomaus

Alfredo Bartholomaus, in Santiago’s Mercado Central

On our recent trip to Chile and Argentina, Alfredo Bartholomaus served as a guide and translator. His work bringing South American wines into the United States helped establish what was then a non-existent category of wine, and bring recognition to what would become not only value, but also quality wine in Chile and Argentina. Thanks to such work, Robert Parker awarded Bartholomaus “Wine Personality of the Year” in 2005, naming him “the premier importer and promoter of South American wine.”

His company, Billington Imports served as one of the primary vehicles for bringing South American wine into the United States, and launched such well respected labels as Catena Zapata into a new North American market.

Bartholomaus originates on a family farm in Southern Chile, at a time when interactions between Chile and its neighbor Argentina were minimal. His work, then, helping to establish not only Chilean, but also Argentine wine in the United States is significant.

Elena Catena, of Catena Zapata, described trusting Bartholomaus with their brand in the US market as a risk that paid off. As Elena explains it, asking a Chilean to showcase Argentine wine was unheard of at the time. However, she tells us, Nicolas Catena knew Bartholomaus was the best choice.

Throughout Argentina people greeted Bartholomaus with thanks, explaining to our group he had been their mentor. In working with brands in South America, Bartholomaus also worked to help them better understand the United States.

Operating as ambassador for South American wine in North America, however, placed Bartholomaus as a mentor for people in the US wine industry as well, with him serving as bridge to understanding wines from a then-new region to the global market.

After the closure of Billington, Bartholomaus moved with portions of his portfolio to WineBow, where he has continued to serve as a Brand Ambassador for South American wines.

At the end of this year, Bartholomaus retires. He intends to split time between his home on the coast in Northern Chile, and his home in Virginia near one of his two sons, and grandchildren.

The recent trip to South America was planned partially as a special finale for Bartholomaus. It was an honor to be selected as one of people to participate. Thank you to Marilyn Krieger, and David Greenberg for including me.

Asking Bartholomaus to share his story, following is some of what he had to say.

Alfredo Bartholomaus with Viviana Navarrete, Leyda Wine

on the coast of Chile, in the Leyda region, Alfredo Bartholomaus speaking with Leyda winemaker, Viviana Navarrete

“I knew at one time I wanted to leave Chile. I was curious. But I knew that I had to finish high school. So, I befriended the Chilotes [people in Southern Chile on the Chiloe Peninsula]. They would fish with a boat through the inside passage. That way I learned more about other people. But I wanted to learn more. So I started hitchhiking all over Chile. I was very young. In high school.

“I wanted to leave Chile, but I was one of five children, and knew my parents would not afford to send me to school, or away. I started hitchhiking when I was young to get myself used to it. Then one day I started hitchhiking North, and that’s how I got to the United States. It took six months.

“That was 50 years ago, 1 or 2 months before the march of Martin Luther King, Jr. If someday he would only know we would have a black president.

“My original plan was to travel the world for five years. But since I couldn’t hitchhike to Europe, I started washing dishes when I reached the United States, in DC. By the time I had enough money to go, I realized the incredible opportunities available in the States and decided to stay.

“For a while I was a taxi driver in DC. I was the only one that would pick up Black people and Hispanic people. There was a lot of prejudice. This was almost 50 years ago. But you must remember I didn’t know I was white until I got to the United States. It is different here [in Chile].

“I had a teacher of literature in high school who told us we should read because when someone has written a book it has taken them most of their life to write it. So, if you read a book, you will know almost as much as they do. I read as much as I can.

“When I got to the United States, I worked to raise money to go to Europe and hitchhike there. But I read Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and had to ask myself who do I want to be? I realized I didn’t want to turn into Goldmund, looking in the mirror to ask, what have I done with my life?

“I had a girlfriend in Chile when I left, so after two years I had raised money and I came back [to Chile and brought her back to the States], and she is the mother of my children.

“Then I worked in hotels for a while, and in 1978 started my first of several businesses. Eventually I started selling wine from here person to person out of the trunk of my car. And, as Paul Harvey say, now you know the rest of the story.”

***
Thank you to Alfredo Bartholomaus.

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