It's all about roots - family and homeland

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2008 - 1:35 PM

Photo: Rhinostudio.com, Star Tribune

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Naming his vineyard in Argentina was easy, Miguel Azar said. "We call it Silvia's Vineyard because I bought it with money from my wife," Azar quipped over lunch at Café Barbette.

Then he quickly turned serious. "This wine will be a fitting tribute to her, I hope," he said, pointing to an unlabeled bottle of delicious cabernet sauvignon. The wine not only will bear the name of Silvia Azar, who died of breast cancer four years ago, but most of the profits will go to the Silvia Azar Breast Cancer Foundation.

Both Azars were longtime professors at the University of Minnesota. They emigrated from their native Argentina to the United States in 1960, the same year they had wed, and came to Minnesota in 1969. Silvia, a kidney specialist, taught internal medicine and "did important research on blood-pressure disease," Miguel said, while he worked with Dr. Robert A. Good, one of the nation's top immunologists, and taught pathology.

The Azars also raised six children, three of who remain in the Twin Cities: Manuel is a corporate attorney, Daniel is a contractor/builder who is running for mayor of Edina, and daughter Sandra Deutsch is CEO of Salud America, a national importer and distributor of wines from South America and Spain.

Among those wines: Solemne torrontes, made with grapes grown at Silvia's Vineyard. There was, however, a problem with the first batch. "I couldn't smell anything out of the torrontes, and I've got a big nose," Azar said with a chuckle. "So a friend brought in some wine he made for his dad, and we mixed them."

Although torrontes is planted on only about 20 percent of Silvia's Vineyard, located at the foot of the Andes Mountains in southern Mendoza (Argentina's foremost wine region), it produces half of the grapes because of its high yield per acre. The other 80 percent is planted with cabernet -- "it makes such tiny bunches that it's very low-yield," Azar pointed out -- and plans are afoot to add malbec and tempranillo.

The latter is the signature red grape in Spain's Rioja region, where Azar's maternal grandfather (his father was Lebanese, his mother Spanish) had a vineyard and winery. "I never met him; he was way gone by the time I was born," said Azar. "But I would always see a picture of this fellow in the house where I grew up, and maybe that is part of what drew me to wine."

Azar, 71, always had enjoyed wine -- he recalls buying mixed cases that Haskell's Jack Farrell would put together decades ago -- and retained strong roots to his homeland. He talks daily to "friends from when we were 5 years old."

But when he retired in 2001, Silvia was quite ill, and he spent the next few years taking care of her. She died April 30, 2004 -- her father and Miguel's father had died on the same date years earlier -- and a year or so later, Miguel purchased the vineyard in her name.

Now he divides his time between Minnesota, where he directs the Allergy Clinic at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, and Argentina, where he splits monthly trips between his hometown of Cordoba and Mendoza, "to see if my vineyard is still there."

He does more than that, of course. Azar said he's most involved in the torrontes (see Wine of the Week), but his favorite varietal is cabernet.

The winemaker for the cabernet named in his wife's honor is a former hockey player named Manuel Lopez Lopez, who won Best of Show at last February's Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience for his 2002 Patron Santiago cab. The '06 Silvia's Vineyard was sourced almost entirely (95 percent) from its namesake vineyard, and Deutsch is putting the final touches on this family affair:

Choosing a label that befits her mother's legacy.

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com

  • WINE OF THE WEEK

    Solemne 2-2-Tango Mendoza Torrontes 2007

    The experience: An excellent introduction to Argentina's signature white grape, this seriously quaffable wine is a mellow fellow redolent of honey and peaches. (The vineyard is right next to a sizable stand of peach trees.) It retails for $11 but often can be found for less.

    The setting: Like most torrontes, this wine would be swell with sushi or most chicken preparations. And in what could qualify as truth in labeling, it probably would be pretty tasty and certainly refreshing after a spirited turn on the tango floor.

    The back story: Several red and white wines have been made in recent years under the even punnier 2-2-10Go label, but this wine got a name tweakage and a new label, which features a graphic artist's depiction of two professional dancers.

    BILL WARD
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