Jon and Arlene Malinski remember when a friend gave them a case of wine in the late 1990s to celebrate the sale of Jon’s Twin Cities office equipment business.
“We drank 11 of those 12 bottles with burgers and pizza,” said Arlene Malinski, Jon’s wife of 50 years. “Then someone said, ‘Do you know what you have here?’ ”
“It was Latour ’86,” Jon said sheepishly, referring to the legendary French Bordeaux, which he later discovered sold for about $90 a bottle at the time. “Yes, things have changed.”
They changed the day the Excelsior couple, on vacation, walked into a struggling winery in the mountains of western Argentina. In what was apparently a signature Jon Malinski move (he calls it “a blind leap of faith”), the Malinskis owned half the vineyard in five days, and all of it two years later.
“Either you’re in or you’re out,” he said, shrugging. “If you want to make a splash, make a splash.”
Malinski, 72 — a Minnesota business bon vivant whose pursuits have ventured from office equipment and real estate to bison, senior housing and the Russian telecom industry — is emerging as something of an Argentine wine baron.
From his office in Richfield, he and his family own and operate the Piattelli winery, which has vineyards in the Mendoza and Salta regions of Argentina, a label that has become among the state’s favorites. For midpriced Argentine wine ($12 to $25), Piattelli is No. 1 in Minnesota.
“Piattelli is really phenomenal,” said Mitch Spencer, a wine buyer at Haskell’s for 31 years. “There is a lot of overpriced wine out there. But Piattelli is excellent, consistent, at the right price point. … It’s become a go-to wine around here.”
This summer, Piattelli is set to deliver the first shipments from its new 500-acre, $12 million vineyard in Cafayate in Salta, near the Bolivian border, an emerging wine producing region.
With production of more than 100,000 cases of malbec, cabernet and torrontes this year, Malinski has become one of Argentina’s top 10 exporters. Ahead of its release, Wine Spectator, the industry bible, has rated Piattelli’s 2013 Malbec Cafayate Valley Reserve a 90 on its 100-point scale.
But the winery is just the latest example of what is clearly Malinski’s playfully intense approach to life.
“He wakes up every day thinking about business stuff,” said Ross Malinski, his 47-year-old son. “A friend of mine once said he thought my father is the purest entrepreneur he has ever met in his life. … He might not be fearless, but he is definitely up for adventures.”
From copiers to cowboy
Those adventures began in 1996, when Malinski sold Copy Duplicating Products of Richfield to copier giant IKON. Malinski said he had gone into the business in the early 1970s with no particular plan, and found he was good at it.
His interests, however, wandered, to real estate (he was behind the Akin Park Estates development in Farmington) and then those Russian investments. (He tells complex and colorful stories of post-Soviet-era escapades that begin with copiers, move into telephone equipment and end with him profitably fleeing. He left a small piece of the Russian business behind. “Which,” Malinski said, “you can have.”)
Then another complex and colorful diversion: raising bison in Lakeville. (Ask him about the time the herd escaped.) “Basically,” he said, “we got in and we got out.”
On the road from Richfield to the vineyards of Argentina, there would one more diversion: Wyoming.
He bought a 700-acre cattle ranch in northwest Wyoming (“I always wanted to be a cowboy”). During his downtime on the ranch, he bought 350 acres in Cheyenne, where he built a 750-home subdivision. (“They needed the housing.”)
Malinski, a man of means and curiosities, was searching.
“I remember my father saying he wanted to be able to do what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, how he wanted to do it,” son Ross said. “That sale [of CDP] in 1996 let him do that.”
But a South American vineyard? His friends and family weren’t alarmed. At first.
“We were just going to be a silent investor,” Arlene said. “But we got not-so-silent pretty quickly.”
“We all thought this was just going to be a hobby, in retirement,” Ross said. “Then he said he was going to look at Cafayate, and I said, ‘Where is that?’ ”
In his defense, Malinski said, “It’s not like this was the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
Sip and relax — maybe
If the Piattelli vineyards are a reflection of Malinski, then he’s an intermittent micromanager who can also delegate and an aggressive but careful businessman.
During construction of the Cafayate vineyard, Malinski often Skyped in to watch progress. When he noticed that the masons working on a prominent rock wall used slightly different mortaring patterns, he asked them to tear down the wall — twice — until they found a way to make the wall consistent.
When he became frustrated with the distributors’ deals to sell his wine, he built his own liquor and wine distribution company in 2006. Vinocopia, headquartered on Cedar Avenue S. in Richfield, now distributes more than 300 brands of wine and liquor from more than 20 countries.
Malinski’s vineyard is not a vanity project. In fact, if you look at Piattelli’s website, it’s difficult to find the Malinski name. And despite the fact that he arrived in the small Argentine town of Cafayate with $700,000 in earthmoving equipment, Malinski has tried to be respectful to his neighbors. He created about 100 jobs just for construction. And Piattelli’s restaurant is open only for lunch, leaving dinner to the town’s existing restaurants.
“We don’t want to compete with people there,” Malinski said. “We like the feel of that.”
He also likes the idea that, maybe, he’s done building businesses.
If you ask him about long-range plans for Piattelli, he waves off the discussion, saying that will be the work of “the next generation.”
He’d rather talk, with the delight of the vintner he has become, about a pet project, the one in which his crews handpick and hand-press malbec and cabernet grapes from a certain corner of his vineyard, make wine in new French oak barrels (hand-rolled to delicately distribute sedimentation), then bottle it and store the bottles for 18 months before shipping. There’ll be just 3,000 bottles when the wine is released this year. The label will read “Arlene.”
Malinski isn’t concerned about its prospects in the market.
“I really don’t care if I have to drink it all myself,” he said.
“I’ve learned that this can just become all-consuming,” he said. “I think [with Piattelli at] about 125,000 cases, you can have a good life. Why scale up now? I don’t want to.”
The Malinski family has heard that before.
“My father says those things,” Ross Malinski said. “But this could all change on a dime if another deal comes along.”
Tony Brown is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.