That said, the overwhelming feeling here is that pushing for quality is what will start turning heads and building the wine's reputation on the world stage and at home. Many in the industry are ready to prove that there is more to the country’s offerings.
"I wasn't motivated to stay and keep making the same thing," says Aresti export manager Vincente Aresti, who grew up working summers at his grandfather's winery, which made only bulk wine until 1999. "It changes a lot to put your name on the bottle."
"I had everything," Aresti says of a life he had created for himself in San Diego, but in 2002 a call from his grandfather who wanted to make better wines changed everything, "I broke up with the girlfriend, I broke my lease, I sold my car and left."
With Usabiaga, Aresti persuaded his grandfather that making better wines meant producing less, and coddling their grapes more. The winery went from making 35 tons per hectare to less than 12. "It was hard to convince him to change," says Aresti of his grandfather, who came from the typical Chilean winemaker's "more is better" mindset.
"We used to use concrete vats from 40,000 to 400,000 liters. It's stupid," says Usabiaga, summarily spitting out the bulk wine business he walked into.
"It's much easier to sell them now," says Aresti.
The leadership that Aresti and other aspiring Chilean winemakers are now following tends to come from top-end producers. These vineyards are often run by foreigners or rely heavily on experts who learned the trade in countries with a longstanding, high-quality wine production, like France and Italy.
Though purists might balk at the homogenization outsiders might bring in, this foreign influence is a major part of the driving force that pushes the perception away from the Volvo stereotype and also has the cash and branding wherewithal to make it happen.
Leading the charge for both quality and brand awareness is the Colchagua Valley’s Casa Lapostolle. The winery is a collection of foreign viticultural all-stars that includes Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle de Bournet of Grand Marnier liquor fame, controversial "flying winemaker" Michel Rolland and Jacques Begarie, Lapostolle's chief viticulturist and winemaker.
They've brought with them quality-improving techniques that would make local bulk producers gag: they hand destem their grapes and their new, gravity-fed winery eschews the mechanical pumps that can rob a delicate wine of its flavor.
"Two thirds of [Chilean] wines retail for $1 per liter but the category of fine wines [in Chile] is slowly growing," says Marnier Lapostolle, who heads up Casa Lapostolle and its marketing efforts.
Despite the sense of what they're up against, Marnier Lapostolle is convinced the local market is refining its tastes and ready to pony up for the good stuff; here and abroad, Clos Apalta—Casa Lapostolle's top-shelf offering—can retail for more than a US$ 100. Their first vintage, a 1994, was consciously positioned on the market as the highest-priced of Chilean wines.
"The perception of wine in Chile has been changing a lot for the last ten years," says Marnier Lapostolle, who notes that when she got here, no vintages were on restaurant wine lists.
"When we launched our 1997 Clos Apalta in 1999, it was the only wine above $50. Today, we are above $100 and [in Chile] one can find more than 10 wines priced around $100 a bottle," she says. The Clos Apalta has big berry smells brought by the merlot grape in the blend along with fine tannins and coffee aromas from Chile's carmenère grape—smells, flavors and structure that are miles ahead of the country's average offerings.
In many Chilean cafes, bottles of wine are still cheaper than an entrée. Making this switch away from something more closely resembling ordering a beer has relied heavily on getting the wine into the right places.
"Our approach is mainly to choose the place where to be: restaurants or wine stores or international hotels. Positioning is the key of our strategy," says Marnier Lapostolle.
In the United States and on the international market, it's an uphill battle with its own quirks and challenges. Asked what's hardest about selling abroad, Marnier Lapostolle responds, "To build up the brand awareness of Chile itself in restaurants and wine shops."