By Published: Sept. 1, 2015

Jennifer and Michael Schmelzer

Michael and Jennifer Schmelzer, brother and sister winemakers, produce premium Old-World wines on a family estate in Tuscany. Don’t be surprised to see the name Monte Bernardi on menus in London, New York, Tokyo and Boulder.

For Michael Schmelzer (Bus’99), the end of spring exams at CU-Boulder usually marked the start of a new season of learning, one you might call the season of seasoning — he would fly to Europe to study at Le Cordon Bleu, the celebrated Parisian cooking school.

One summer he enrolled in a wine course led by a master sommelier.

“The first thing he said is, ‘Don’t brush your teeth in the morning, because it will ruin your palate for tasting wine,’” says Schmelzer, then about 20.

Coursework involved weekend field trips to France’s famed grape-growing regions and daily tastings, plus lectures on fruit spectrums, microclimates and soil subtleties.

Schmelzer had envisioned a life in food, but felt the center of his epicurean world shifting.

After meeting an Englishman producing wine at an Italian vineyard owned by an American, he beheld the life he really wanted — and saw that it was possible.

“Wait, you don’t have to be born into this?” he remembers thinking. “That was the final key for me.”

Schmelzer graduated from CU and went to Australia to study viticulture and winemaking. Today he is the winemaker at Monte Bernardi, the 130-acre vineyard, winery and agricultural estate he operates with his sister, Jennifer Schmelzer(ArchEng’96), in the heart of Tuscany’s Chianti Classico region, midway between Florence and Siena.

Italy illustration

Michael tends to the grapes — primarily sangiovese, the region’s defining variety — and the wine. Jennifer, who had a career in construction management and real estate finance, cultivates the business. They produce six estate wines, mostly reds, including their hallmark Chianti Classico Retromarcia.

Monte Bernardi wines are served at Momofuku Ko in New York, Quo Vadis in London, Osteria Beverino in Tokyo and, in Boulder, at Frasca, among other top restaurants. They’re available in 20 U.S. states and more than a dozen countries.

Writers for the New York TimesSan Francisco ChronicleWall Street JournalFine Wine Magazine and Decanter, among others, have all taken notice, with Eric Asimov of the Times describing one Monte Bernardi Chianti Classico as “balanced, with flavors of violets, cherries and a touch of oak.”

Says Jennifer, “It’s been the experience of a lifetime.”

grape bud tree trimming Montebernardi wine cellar trimming wine cellar grapes harvest team hands bottling sorting grapes Piegatura Michael working

As winemakers, the Schmelzers, who grew up in the U.S. and Europe, are traditionalists. They prune vines and pick grapes by hand, age and store wines in large oak casks and favor native yeasts and bacteria as fermentation aids, which they say makes for more distinctive and traditional wines.

They believe low-tech, traditional methods, combined with Monte Bernardi’s high altitude, steep slopes, rocky soils and multiple exposures, result in wines that manifest the region’s full potential.

He remembers thinking: “Wait, you don’t have to be born into this?'That was the final key.”

Yet the Schmelzers are also pioneers: They’re the only Italian producers offering wines in the United States in boxes (Tetra Paks), and one of a still small group of producers bold enough to offer premium wine in something other than a bottle.

Last year they produced about 65,000 bottles (5,400 cases) and a similar amount of wine in Tetra Paks, lightweight, paper-based one-liter containers. About half their U.S. Tetra Pak sales are to restaurants and half to wine shops.

Their bet is that, in the United States, where most wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, consumers increasingly accustomed to box wine will sacrifice the aesthetic appeal of a bottle for a greater amount of high-quality wine at a lower price.

One Tetra Pak package costs about the same as a bottle cork, Michael says. The Schmelzers share the savings with consumers, who can get a one-liter Tetra Pak for $14 instead of the $20 it would cost in a 750 ml bottle.

The approach appears to be working: Last year, the Schmelzers sold 63,000 Tetra Paks in the United States, up from 12,000 a few years ago.

To reach Monte Bernardi from Florence, you take the Chiantigiana south for about 20 miles. The buzzing of Vespas in the Tuscan capital yields to olive groves, vineyards and forests of oak. The landscape starts flat, then grows hillier and curvier. You reach Monte Bernardi at Panzano in Chianti — “the bellybutton of Chianti Classico,” says Michael.

The estate has existed as a named place for nearly 1,000 years. Over the centuries farmers there have grown peaches, apricots, grains, barley, oats, clover, potatoes, olives and, of course, grapes.

The Schmelzer family bought the property in 2003, after a three-year search throughout Italy and France. Michael and Jennifer operate the business. Their father, Willi Schmelzer, is chief investor, and their brother, David (ElEngr’00), is a partner. In addition to grapes, the Schmelzers grow olives for olive oil and rent the villa as a vacation home.

Monte Bernardi remains a small operation — one neighboring winery produces 450,000 bottles annually. At the height of fall harvest, the Schmelzers employ about 18 people, including themselves and visiting friends and relatives.

The modest scale of the enterprise allows them to blend the profitable practice of a painstaking craft with an intimate, pastoral lifestyle. Michael lives down the road with wife Claudia and their two daughters, Olivia, 9, and Sabina, 4. Jennifer splits her time between the estate and Rome.“I feel like one of the few people in the world who’s doing what he should be doing,” says Michael, “and enjoying every minute of it.”

Illustration by Eric Hanson; Photography courtesy Jennifer Schmelzer/Monte Bernardi