Opening a Resort in an Eco-Paradise with The Vines Resort & Spa’s Frances Lalas

May 6, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome today to Green is Good, and it’s so great to be in studio today and also, we are so honored today to have Frances Lalas, the Director of The Vines of Mendoza based in Mendoza, Argentina on us from Argentina. This is the first time we’ve ever had a guest on Green is Good from Argentina. Welcome, Frances Lalas, to Green is Good. FRANCES LALAS: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m excited to be your first international guest. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Actually, we’ve had international guests but never from Argentina so you’re the first from Argentina. FRANCES LALAS: Well, I’ll take that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s great. First of all, for our listeners out there so they can follow along a little bit, Frances is down in Argentina. She’s at The Vines of Mendoza and you’ve gotta go check out the website, VinesofMendoza.com because I’m on the site right now while Frances is in Argentina and I’ll tell you it is just spectacular and so I want our listeners to go look at her website. Frances, give us a little bit of history on yourself and the journey you’ve taken to get to where you are today before we go in and talk about this beautiful property that you’re the Director of. FRANCES LALAS: Sure, sure. As hopefully you and some of your listeners are looking at the site, you’ll see what beauty I’m actually looking at in person and calling today from the finca, from our property here in Mendoza and I’m staring at The Andes Mountains and the vineyards. It’s fall for us right now. I know that it’s springtime up in North America but we’re sort of seeing the leaves change right now from green to a beautiful yellow. A little bit about me, I am currently managing the development of The Vines Resort and Spa, which is a luxury boutique hotel in the Uco Valley and part of The Vines of Mendoza, which you mentioned earlier. I also direct the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative and I’ll get into that a little bit today when we’re talking a little more about the project specifically. I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest so kind of far away from home. I went to the University of Washington for both undergrad and graduate school. Needless to say, I’m quite comfortable in the gray and the rain but I’m also managing to get used to the 300 days of sunshine here in Mendoza. Prior to my experience at The Vines of Mendoza, I did project management and strategic communications for a number of organizations in a variety of industries, including philanthropy, technology, and a lot of political and issue campaigns on a state and local and national level so I happen to know our CEO, Michael Evans, and I’m just crazy enough for a couple of years ago when he suggested that I come down here and project manage this project, I said yes. I just jumped in and it was one of those serendipitous moments where I think you just have to grab the bull by the reins and go where it takes you and it took me to Argentina. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is amazing. I’m looking at these pictures and the vineyards and the mountains and it’s just spectacular so correct me if I’m wrong. You’re building now a five star hotel called The Vines Resort and Spa in Mendoza. FRANCES LALAS: Correct. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, so what is the plan? What part of development are you in? When is it going to open? What’s the vision here? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. Like I said, I’m calling in from the finca, which means farm in Spanish, and we’ve got over 1,000 acres at the base of The Andes and as you said, from the pictures it’s absolutely stunningly gorgeous. The Vines of Mendoza, just to give a little bit of background on the overall project, is based in Argentina and you can own a vineyard in the Uco Valley. We’d really like you to think about it where wine lovers can turn into winemakers and give people the opportunity to own their own vineyard, work with our expert wine making team that helps them along the way and we actually currently have over 120 owners from all over the world planting their own grapes, harvesting them, and then enjoying the wine with their friends and families and some of them are even selling them. At the end of the day, our mission was to create extraordinary Argentine wine experiences and we do that through all facets of our business. Now, we’re looking to extend that to The Vines Resort and Spa and all of this started in 2005, when a winemaker from Mendoza, Pablo Jimenez Riili, who’s one of our co-founders, met an American entrepreneur, Michael Evans, while he was vacationing in the Uco Valley and Michael quickly just fell in love with the area for the scenic beauty of the region, for the warmth of its people, and of course its great food and wine and it might be kind of funny to say but the friendship just kind of grew as easily as the vines do here. Michael has a very entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for delivering wine experiences and Pablo’s sort of natural warmth and expertise as a winemaker and as a lawyer sort of led to this vision of this place. When we first were here, you’re looking at pictures now five years, seven years later, they saw the base of The Andes as this natural oasis with 300 days of sunshine flourishing on the vineyards and sort of the arms and the tug of the majestic and rugged Andes and so they started to cultivate that land and a vision for the vines and part of that vision is really a commitment to the environment, which is really simple. We love this land. We think it’s beautiful and we all want to do what we can to take care of it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right, so the interrelationship between the spa that you’re building and the environment, you’re saying, is really being considered in everything you’re doing? FRANCES LALAS: Absolutely. It’s really critical for us to take care of this region. We wanted to design and build something that was to respect and honor the beauty of the area as well as the local culture. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how big of a place are you building? How many rooms in this beautiful place and all that kind of stuff? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. We have a main building and there’s going to be 22 villas so 22 little villas where people can stay so when the Resort and Spa opens at the end of the year, we will have 22 villas but 30 keys in the hotel business because some of the villas are a two bedroom unit. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, got it. And, your marketplace is who? Is it people from Argentina? Is it people from North America? Is this going to be considered part of the eco-travel world or where are you marketing this? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. A lot of our current owners are from North America, so both Canada and the United States, although we have a big group coming from Brazil. As you can imagine, they don’t have the mountains that we do here in Argentina and they’re a lot closer. Eco-travel is something that is part of it. We definitely, like I said, have thought about the environment and being green as we’ve built this and as we think about the services and amenities that we’ve provided but also, it’s wine and it’s not just wine as in drinking it, although everyone enjoys that, but it’s also kind of getting your hands dirty, getting the opportunity to learn about the agriculture and learn about the harvesting that we do here so it’s kind of getting involved in that entire process and making that part of your luxury vacation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Even though you’re being sensitive to the environment and you’re building it sustainably, it’s a five star property. FRANCES LALAS: That’s right. We knew that a lot of our owners are used to staying in five star properties and we think part of luxury is being sustainable and considering the environment too. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For instance, talk about that a little bit. Talk about how you’re working to integrate the preservation of nature and the reflection of nature but also taking sustainability into consideration as you’re building in your services and amenity. Can you talk about that continuous loop that you work on as you build out your great property? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. The construction and design from location to style really allows for the maximum use of natural resources. One example of that is we built a number of pieces. like sinks, tubs, fireplaces, and others out of concrete that we actually make here locally, which helps minimize our carbon footprint because we’re not buying sinks from somewhere else and then moving them to the property. We’re making use of what we have here but the property is quite rocky, which actually makes for some great wine, which is also another discussion but what it means is that we have a lot of beautiful stones that we’ve used throughout the design of The Vines Resort and Spa so a lot of the walls that we’ve made are not, again, from granite or something imported. It’s made from the stones that we have found on the property so this is just from a couple of the examples. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And, how do I pronounce it, Uco Valley? FRANCES LALAS: Uco Valley, that’s perfect. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Uco Valley. And, is the Uco Valley known for it’s great vineyards and is the wine that you produce there just for the private use of the clients or does it actually ever go to commercial retail sale? FRANCES LALAS: The Uco Valley is renowned for its great wine. Varietal is king here although we actually have a couple of up and coming varietals. We do make property here. A lot of it is for the use and distribution for owners so the people who are making their own wine, they can choose to sell it online as they see fit or use it for personal consumption or we also have a brand called Recuerdo, which means “memories” in Spanish, and that is available for public consumption and available on our website. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do I have to be a wine grower to come and enjoy the resort and spa or can I just be a wine aficionado and a food aficionado and come down there, enjoy relaxation, and enjoy the wine and the food without having to go actually harvest it? FRANCES LALAS: You can absolutely come on down. Everyone is welcome to experience what they can of the property and no, you do not have to be an owner of one of the vineyardsto harvest with us, to help us with punch downs and kind of get your inner Lucy going on and punching down grapes. We really love this area and I think one of the things that we really focus on is sort of education, not in the painful way where you take a test but really learning about where wine comes from, how it’s harvested, and all that goes into it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What is the plan? When are you going to be opening? FRANCES LALAS: Like I said, we have 1,000 acres. We have close to 800 planted and so the project overall has been on its way for quite some time. In terms of The Vines Resort and Spa, we are still very much under construction. We have a model unit that people can visit and can stay for now. The services aren’t quite open yet but we’re in construction and we’re going to be finishing within the next six months. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and for our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Frances Lalas on from Mendoza, Argentina and she’s talking about the great project she’s running right now down in Argentina, The Vines of Mendoza, and the spa that they’re building, VinesResortandSpa.com and VinesofMendoza.com and that’s Mendoza. Please go on their websites because I’ll tell you what, I’m on them and I am just entranced with the beauty that I’m seeing of the environment, of the vineyards, of the skies, of the mountains, and of the spa that you’re building. It is just absolutely stunning. FRANCES LALAS: Thanks so much. It’s not hard to be inspired by what you’re looking at. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re not kidding. I want to get on a plane when we finish the show. This is really great stuff. FRANCES LALAS: We would love to have you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, is this a trend? Are you following anyone else’s paradigm in building a vineyard where it’s attached to a spa and people can come down and be part of the process or just enjoy the products of the process? Has this been done in other parts of the world where you’re actually following a paradigm or are you guys and your team creating a new paradigm? FRANCES LALAS: That’s an interesting question and there are certainly properties that are very similar to ours in North America and in Europe in a lot of the different wine regions. I think our approach really is significant because what we wanted to do is really highlight the Argentine culture and it’s pretty unique to Argentina, what we’re doing and the education process that we put into it. We want people to feel like they’re family and that they’re our friends here as well so it’s not just about creating a stay. It’s about creating an experience and a memory and having people take that with them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about sustainability. I know you’re not only the Director at The Vines of Mendoza but you’re also in charge of sustainability. Can you share with our listeners some of the other corporate social responsibility initiatives that you’re trying to execute while you’re down there? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. Our social corporate responsibility initiatives, again, are focused on really a company culture of caring for the environment. Not only are we using sustainable viticultural principles in our farming, but we’re also working with local community partners and these aren’t just green initiatives but sustainable projects for the overall community like schools, health care centers, and addressing some of the local needs that the local people have here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, and how many employees do you actually employ on the property for both the spa and also for the vineyards? FRANCES LALAS: We’ll be growing the company as soon as we are ready to provide some of those services and currently right now, we have about 80 employees and we’re looking to add 60 more employees to the roster of the team that will help out at The Vines Resort and Spa. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on the site and the fascinating thing about your website is not only do you show the beauty of the property and the surrounding area, but you actually have some of the owners’ stories here with regards to who they are, where they came from, and why they’re involved. Can you give some color to our listeners of what it means to be an owner and why they’re so involved with this wonderful property? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. Like I said, a lot of our owners come from the United States and North America. I think many of them have an adventurous spirit. All of them are wine lovers. Not all of them are wine experts but for many of them, they were looking for a hobby and looking to sort of fulfill a dream to be able to own their land. I think a lot of people feel that way when they’re at their desk job and just having to pluck away at their computer. They’re really wishing that they were plucking some grapes off of a vine. Our owners are a great group. I actually had a wonderful lunch with them. We had what we call an asado, which is a traditional Argentine barbecue. We often have our owners down here when they are harvesting and planting and an asado is really a family style meal that Argentines do with plenty of grass fed beef and great local vegetables and of course, the wine. Really our owners, a lot of them want to get involved and this is our personal honor. They’re thinking about what they’re growing. They’re thinking about what the varietal is, what the label is going to look like, what the name is going to be and it’s something that they can share with their friends and families and business colleagues so that’s something that they want to really get involved with and that’s what we encourage them to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Frances, we’ve got about three minutes here and we’ve got listeners all around the world and obviously throughout North America but around the world also. If they’re really interested in coming down and participating, can you give them some instructions what to do next and take some action so they can get involved here? FRANCES LALAS: Sure. I would encourage them to go to TheVinesofMendoza.com so www.vinesofmendoza.com. We have a mailing list and a contact information form. If you want to book a stay at the resort, you can email us and let us know if you’d like to be put on that waiting list or if you’re just planning on planning a trip and would like to know about the wine project, we would be happy to receive you in our tasting room and do a little barrel sampling and if the time is right, you can help with some planting or some harvest activities. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know Frances, we’re down to the last bit here. A lot of young people out there listen to the show and they want to be the next Frances Lalas. Can you give two or three pearls of wisdom about how to now get on that journey? FRANCES LALAS: I would just say jump at opportunities when you get them and learn another language. It is so crucial to working internationally and I learned Spanish later in life and it’s been much more difficult than I think learning when you’re younger. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are you ever going to come back to the United States or North America or is this it? Is Argentina home for you for it? FRANCES LALAS: Argentina has a very big part of my heart, but home is always going to be where my parents are in the Pacific Northwest. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Have they been down there yet to visit you? FRANCES LALAS: They haven’t. I’m holding them off because I want them to come and stay at The Vines Resort and Spa. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. Well, Frances, this has been fascinating and for our listeners out there again, you have to go to their websites and check them out and see what’s going on. It’s www.vinesresortandspa.com and then of course, www.vinesofmendoza.com. Frances Lalas, you’ve been just a delight. You’re always welcome to come back on Green is Good. We want you to continue to fill us in on the journey and when you open, we want you to come on and do the grand announcement here and invite everybody across the world who’s interested in wine and great food and of course, sustainability and nature to come on down to The Vines of Mendoza and The Vines Resort and Spa. Frances Lalas, you are sustainability leader and truly living proof that green is good. FRANCES LALAS: Thanks so much.