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Joao Roquette: Hitting the Right Notes

Mon, 02/16/2015


By Eunice Fried 

His first love was music - as a composer, performer, producer and record label owner.  And of all music, it was piano, guitar, rock, electronic music and especially jazz. Joâo Roquette's love of jazz really took hold when he enrolled in a music school in Lisbon. It was his first instructor in his first class who made it clear. "You cannot play jazz well," he said, "unless you're really in love with jazz." While it was a strong interest when he entered the school, jazz soon became a major passion, one that grew even stronger over the years.  "My relation with music in general is very intuitive,"  Joâo said recently. "I don't study notes so much as I feel them."

Jazz, however, may not have been his family's first wish for Joâo. Soon after his father, José Roquette, a banker, purchased Herdade do Esporâo in Portugal's south central region of Alentejo intending to plant grapes and make wine, the family had to leave Portugal. The military dictatorship then in power had nationalized his land. That was 1974,and Joâo spent much of his childhood in Spain, London and Brazil before the political situation changed and the family returned to Portugal. It was 1985 before Herdade do Esporâo was finally able to bottle its first vintage.

The youngest of six, Joâo duly followed his father's financial profession, receiving his MBA in 1997 and then working for Merrill Lynch in London and Madrid. But his heart remained in music.

Finally, in 2001, he left the financial world to pursue his passion, helping to support himself in the early years by selling electric pianos. He set up his music studio in Barcelona and launched his own label which he named Meifumado. Eventually, he moved to Alentejo but with no desire to join the winery business. "I wanted to return to the countryside to set up my music studio there, a place where I could record my own compositions and produce other musicians' recordings. I had no intention of working with wine," he says. "But living there, slowly, I began to fall in love with the place, and I found myself asking my father about wine, about running a winery."

"Do you want to join the winery's board?" his father eventually asked. He did, he said, but with the understanding that "my music still came first." At the same time, as a member of the board, he did get involved, using his financial experience to work on such projects as an analytic study of the winery. "To my surprise, I found the combination of music and winery business worked well after all."

So well that two years later, Joâo was appointed chief executive of the winery. That was in 2006; he was 32 years old. "In music, in Alentejo, I was working alone, relying on no one to motivate me or to make decisions - only myself. As CEO of Esporâo, the sensitivity I developed in music and this ability to make decisions helped me move forward. Also, the creativity involved in music has helped me understand how important it is in this company to have people with creativity and good sense.  That can be more important than education."

Herdade do Esporâo, now one of the larger privately-owned wineries in the country, is an estate of nearly 4,500 acres whose history goes back to the thirteenth century. Over 1,200 acres are planted in vines, mostly in indigenous Portuguese grape varieties. And another 25 acres has been set aside as a kind of genetic bank where 188 grape varieties from Portugal and other European winemaking countries are planted.

Since Joâo has taken over, Herdade do Esporâo has produced its first organic wine. Through its genetic vineyard, it is studying the effects of climate change on different varieties of grapes. In 2008, Esporâo bought property in the Douro region and established a winery named Quinta dos Murças, where it makes both Port and table wine. It has since added several new wines to its Quinta dos Murças list. In Herdade do Esporâo in Alentejo, it has an acclaimed restaurant, and to help expand tourism in Portuguese wine country, it is planning to build Hotel Esporâo, a boutique hotel, on the winery's property. With his passion for the arts, Joâo also commissions a different artist each year to design the label for the winery's Private Selection and Reserve Wines, with all labels evoking the uniqueness of the region.

 In all, Esporâo produces about 75 percent red and 25 percent white for an annual total of 1.5 million cases of wine that cover a wide swath of styles and prices. The United States currently receives ten percent of that production, available in 40 states.

"I'm running the winery and although I have less time to devote to music, I'm still composing, perhaps about ten songs a year," Joâo said.

Long before he became involved in wine, when his sole interest was music, Joâo named his label Meifumado, a concept of several interpretations, one of which is that hell does not wait for you. "It's a path," he said. "You build it by your own good and bad decisions." Considering the many positive moves Joâo has made at Esporâo since becoming its CEO, he is clearly  building a path of good decisions.