Flying Down to Rio

From penthouse suites above Ipanema to the jungle compounds of Brazilian billionaires, a young American chases his fortune. Dana Vachon reports on the making of a 21st-century entrepreneur.

The Brazilians have their own story of creation. After God evicted man from Eden, he scattered disasters and difficulties all across the earth to make life tough for the apple-eating race. Everywhere except Brazil. "You missed a spot," an angel told him. "This place has great soil, no earthquakes, no tornadoes, no plagues." "I know," God answered. "But wait until you see the people I'm going to put there."

Corruption, unrest, and plutocracy have kept Brazil from a natural spot atop the world order for much of its history. This is the country of the future, they say, and it always will be. No matter how many times the nation caves in on itself, there are always those who believe that their own future lies somewhere among its jungles, its mountains, or, in the case of Matti Anttila, its sugarcane fields.

Anttila, now 28, first visited Brazil in 2001 as a young JPMorgan analyst assigned to an oil deal. While there he was squired about by his colleague Felipe Bittencourt, scion of a wealthy Rio family and a vice president of JPMorgan's legendary Latin America group, and tasted what is regarded as the national liquor, a variant of white rum made from sugarcane and known as cachaça.

He knew, in the way that entrepreneurs know, that he could convince his friends in Manhattan—the denizens of the Waverly, The Box, and Beatrice Inn—to begin drinking the centuries-old slave spirit, mixing it into mojitos and caipirinhas and a host of other, as-yet-unborn cocktails he would create to fuel demand. Anttila would distill it in Brazil for a song, then sell it in New York's exclusive clubs for a hefty $300 a bottle. Seagram's or Diageo would come calling and soon Anttila would be very rich. He raised $750,000 from family and friends with the snap of a few gilt fingers and voilà, Cabana Cachaça was born.

The brand launched in April 2006 at Bungalow 8 in Manhattan, where Anttila hosted a birthday party for the actress Jordana Brewster. Tinsley Mortimer and Amanda Hearst made appearances. Another fête—in celebration of the earlier celebration—followed at 10 Little West 12th. Paparazzo du jour Patrick McMullan photographed it all, and PR pooh-bah Nadine Johnson was retained. Parties followed more parties throughout the summer and, it seemed, for a breathtaking moment, as though the whole world might soon begin drinking Cabana. Only, it didn't. Anttila won accounts and even rave reviews, but the brand failed to materialize in reality as it had in his dreams.

"I have all my own money wrapped up in this thing," he told me in the fall of 2006, as the parties waned and his capital began to run low and Seagram's had yet to call. "I have no choice but to make it work." It was strange to hear someone with a hint of Locust Valley lockjaw sound so hard-pressed. The then 27-year-old decided he still believed in Cabana—the brand just needed more time to catch on, and also more money: another $2 million. By April 2007 he had raised an additional $1 million from New York investors, and in searching for the rest he looked back to Brazil.

This is where I come in. Anttila and I had been a year apart as analysts at JPMorgan, and like many I had raised an eyebrow when he announced his intention to turn himself and his investors into cachaça millionaires. It seemed such a bold proposition, one so dependent on the marketing equivalent of magic: the idea that hordes of people would begin drinking Cabana simply because a smaller group of beautiful, sophisticated individuals had been convinced to as well. Anttila seemed sure that the world ran on such mechanics and that, in its benevolence, had placed him at its levers.

I joined him this spring on an aging Embraer prop plane on a sun-blasted summer day, as he prayed for his lead investor, João Pedro Simonsen, to gain altitude quickly enough to avoid crashing into a hillside of tar-paper huts outside Rio. Anttila fixated on the fast-approaching hovels which, I could not help but note, would spell an enviably poetic end for a writer but a somewhat ironic demise for any young man actively chasing a million dollars. "That was close!" Simonsen said with a smile, when at last the tiny craft puttered above the favela. "Can you do a barrel roll in this?" Matti replied as he took the yoke. "You can," said the Brazilian, "but you don't want to."

Simonsen achieved a minor celebrity in the early nineties, when he became the first Brazilian to surf Jaws, the 40-foot wave on Maui that can kill for anything less than perfection. After this feat he married the daughter of Hector Babenco, the Academy Award–nominated Argentine Brazilian director of Kiss of the Spider Woman and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Tall and chiseled, Simonsen still looks the part of big-wave surfer even as he plays the role of private investor, which his myriad connections and dose of fame allow him to perform with grace. He had agreed to arrange a week of introductions to wealthy friends in hopes of helping Cabana fill its coffers and, in the process, salvage his own stake in the enterprise. The first of these was to have been with Prince João de Orleans e Bragança, who would be a Brazilian prince in fact as well as name had his ancestors not been subjected to a pesky coup before the turn of the century. People still call Bragança "prince" out of respect, and on that day Prince João had most disrespectfully canceled his lunch with Anttila, apparently afflicted by the same unavoidable changes of plans that plagued his family's run in the monarchy business.

Though disappointed, Anttila remained unfazed. Everyone knows that the new Brazilian monarchs are the country's billionaires, and at the end of the week Simonsen had arranged for Anttila to be flown by private helicopter for a meeting with the most illustrious of the bunch, supermarket heir João Paulo Diniz, whose personal history is as staggeringly blessed as it is cursed. Born to the largest retail empire in the nation, Diniz lived the early life of a demigod, jetting after his every whim, sometimes with Gisele Bündchen in tow. Then in late July 2001 the demigod tempted the actual gods by choosing a particularly stormy night to fly the model Fernanda Vogel to his oceanfront compound in Maresias. The helicopter crashed: Diniz and a copilot were the only survivors. A week later Vogel's body was found floating off the coast. "Don't bring it up," Simonsen warned. "It's something he'll have to carry for the rest of his life."

The little Embraer was cutting fast up the coast. Sun-spackled ocean and paradisiacal rainforest spread in all directions below, and as the morning's trials faded the former JPMorgan analyst flew the plane along the coast toward the posh resort town of Búzios, where fashion designer Oskar Metsavaht was having a party for his wife's 40th birthday. There would be a bar and full waitstaff at the family's villa, and although neither Metsavaht nor his wife knew it, they would be serving Cabana Cachaça. The French glass bottles of the American's Brazilian liquor jingled in the small plane's hold—a subtle reminder of the journey's pressing agenda.

 

I am known in the Amazon, to the Amazon tribes," said Metsavaht to several of his guests that afternoon. Recently nominated for honorary Estonian consul to Brazil, he had just returned from snowboarding in the Himalayas, where he had meditated for two nights in the temple of the Dalai Lama. "I don't even like to say 'meditation,' " Metsavaht explained. "It is just a moment." His face sparkled with silver stubble. He wore a thin white linen cowboy shirt and a pair of flowing pants, both of his own design. "This very spot here? This spot, right here?" he liked to tell guests, gesturing out onto the pristine bay stretching beyond his villa. "This is the very spot where the Americas broke from Africa." Metsavaht, who practiced as a medical doctor before becoming a fashion designer, still carries something of a certain doctoral authority. You wanted to believe his every claim, even the last one about the beach house's ancient geological history.

It was early in the evening and the lawn of the clay-tile villa was already filling up with the first of many old friends who had arrived for the birthday celebration—designers, soap opera starlets, editors from Brazilian Vogue, and a great many Rio socialites. Everyone knew almost everyone—except, of course, for the one person who knew almost no one: Anttila came to Nazaré Metsavaht's party as the guest of a guest, a tenuous position in any social hierarchy. And yet, changed into a loose polo and slightly tanned from the long afternoon of flying, he seemed quite at home from the start. "If I go to a party in Marbella or London, what's the difference? Maybe the temperature," he said. "The world is getting so small." Anttila had only known Metsavaht for a few brief minutes when he pressed a bottle of Cabana into his hands and suggested that—as it was superior to the cachaça being served—a switch ought to be made. It would be forward for any guest to approach his host in such a manner, but it was especially so in this case; Anttila, the fledgling Amer- ican entrepreneur, had presumed to teach Metsavaht, the noted Brazilian designer, a thing or two about good taste.

Metsavaht appeared taken aback. "I like to decide what goes on my bar," he later said, recalling the episode. In truth, he had been outmaneuvered. By being just a touch bold in his suggestion, Anttila had challenged his host to be doubly bold in refusing it—and Brazilian etiquette simply would not allow this. So Metsavaht forced a smile and perhaps pondered a recently acquired mantra as his bottles of Sagatiba Cachaça, the Grey Goose of Brazil, were replaced with the entirely unknown Cabana. It was a fully brazen act and a fully natural one for a person operating in an industry where brands are still built cocktail by cocktail. The great liquor importer Sidney Frank became a billionaire in this exact manner, forcing Jägermeister down undergraduates' throats until the undergraduates began forcing it down each other's throats. Grey Goose was a bit more refined but, as a brand, still created one converted Stolichnaya drinker at a time. Several guests presently professed to like Anttila's spirit, and Metsavaht was pleased. Soon he was back in the Himalayas. "I began with a single question," he announced, looking fondly at his wife as she received old friends over by the pool. "Why did we never dream of surfing the sky? I think this is the closest we can get to the Icarus dream. You know, to the dreams of our childhood."

 

Matti Anttila's parents divorced when he was three years old. He assumed the role of star child from an early age. His mother, a noted equestrian from an old St. Louis brewing family, raised him in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, California, where she later lived with her second husband, the real estate developer Terry Flatley. It was a youth spent playing tennis at the Knowlwood Club, polo in Santa Barbara and lounging on the beach at Coral Casino—an idyllic American upbringing with all the trappings of wealth, but for a stepson and not a son, only those trappings. From his family Anttila received what would be considered only a small favor in his world: just the cost of his college education. His back, covered in Turnbull & Asser broadcloth for much of that week in Brazil, was at every moment very much up against the wall.

"I grew up with privilege," he told me in a moment of introspection. "But I knew it was up to me to see how my life would proceed beyond that point. Not just the business angle but the lifestyle angle." Cabana is first and foremost a lifestyle brand. The cachaça space will never grow large enough or fast enough for Anttila to make money on volume. So the play is cachet, the idea that Brazilian culture and cachaça as a liquor will be perceived as being so fashionable that some established player will pay a huge premium just to enter the market. At the very moment Anttila was in Brazil, one of his biggest competitors, Agua Luca, was negotiating to sell its operations to Heaven Hill Distilleries for a rumored $25 million. Agua Luca was slightly better capitalized than Cabana and its owners more experienced, but Anttila still maintains that it was selling too early. He says he is in this to build a brand that will go for far more than $25 million, so the idea of Cabana Cachaça as a drink of choice for the beautiful, international, and discerning set is just as important as any sales figure.

The evening's festivities began with just a few introductions from João Pedro Simonsen; Anttila knowingly chatted with these Brazilian strangers about playing polo in Wellington, surfing stationary river waves in Berlin (who knew?), and quail-hunting in Maryland. Most of them shared his enthusiasm for all these pursuits and, though hardly able to speak the same language, they could communicate in a sort of haute bourgeois Esperanto, relating through the continued recognition of commonality in lifestyle. Invariably they had mutual friends. "Do you know Felipe Bittencourt? And his wife, Priscilla Dantas?" Anttila often asked, invoking the better part of his Brazilian social sphere. He knew they would be known—they always were. "Well, Felipe worked with me at JPMorgan," Anttila would say. "He and Priscilla are great friends of mine. Actually they're both partners in Cabana Cachaça." Soon Anttila would make a friend and casually encourage that friend to try a passion fruit cocktail mixed with Cabana and served by one of Metsavaht's hired hands.

It went like this throughout the night. He met Lívia de Bueno, the young, creatively dissatisfied starlet of the middling soap opera Bicho do Mato. He chatted with Alexia Deschamps, the most famous Brazilian soap opera actress of her generation, who had faded in recent years yet still wouldn't give the time of night to De Bueno. Deschamps's mother, Renata, brought Mick Jagger to Búzios in 1976, adding to the notoriety bestowed upon its beaches by Brigitte Bardot in the sixties. Anttila then discussed the country's soap opera obsession with an editor from Brazilian Vogue, who expressed cultural disdain for telenovellas but admitted that she was powerless to resist them. Soon he was telling Lenny Niemeyer, the Brazilian swimsuit designer, just how much his wife loved her bikinis. Somewhere along the way there even came an introduction to Noel Lehman, the noted plastic surgeon, with whom Anttila discussed everything but plastic surgery. He climbed up the social rungs of the evening until finally he was in audience with Bettina Haegler, the Rio society fixture whose snowy skin and golden hair would cause many to perceive her as distinctly un-Brazilian. But not Anttila. "For the most part the really wealthy people in this country are of European descent," he explained to me. He ordered a bartender to mix Haegler a caipirinha with Cabana, making sure to call it a Cabana Caipirinha. He told her about his life and his company as she drank it. She decided that they could not be strangers after all.

"Do you know Marisa Noel Brown?" she asked, trying to fix him within the Manhattan of her mind. He replied that he did; I suppose that in some sense this was true. Like many people in New York, he had seen the socialite in pictures and across the room at parties they'd both attended.

"She is my cousin!" exclaimed Haegler.

"Oh, really?" said Anttila.

"Oh yes!" she replied gleefully. Now that they had the person of Marisa Noel Brown in common, Haegler wanted others to meet Anttila.

"Matti," she said, daintily extending her arm to summon Fafa Oliveira, the gorgeous São Paulo–based fashion designer, to the conversation. "Do you know Fafa?"

As it happened, he did not.

"Matti," said Matti to Fafa.

"Fafa," said Fafa to Matti.

"Matti owns a cachaça company!" Haegler said with excitement.

"I do," answered Anttila, though Haegler's enthusiasm for her new friend appeared to pale just a bit as he began to tell Oliveira so many of the wonderful things about himself and Cabana that he had just told her. It didn't matter. She had already invited him to dinner in Rio, and by that late hour the young man had already met everyone worth meeting anyway.

Waiters in white ties circulated with silver platters of Johnnie Walker Black Label, and a fireworks display went off by the beach—one final gift to Nazaré Metsavaht on her 40th birthday. Blue and red plumes blotted the Southern Cross from its sky, erasing the last visible reminder of Catholic restraint.

Anttila departed Búzios for Rio the next day. On the tarmac at journey's end, he allowed himself to dream out loud. "That's what I want," he said, eyeing the hindquarters of a large private airplane that poked from an aging hangar like an alluring pinup. Anttila could not tear himself away. "That's my goal. Once I have a Gulfstream…." His face tanned from Búzios and his BlackBerry brimming with new contacts, he looked fondly at the sleek jet. They would be great friends in time, he knew, but just now they were estranged by circumstance. He spoke of $40 million aircraft as he pulled cardboard boxes of Cabana from the plane's hold and lugged them with his bags down the tarmac. "What I like about Ivanka," said Anttila, "is that I was sitting with a group of people once and she came up and said, 'Hey, I'm Ivanka.' Which was cool because Donald would never pass up the opportunity to introduce himself as Donald Trump." He carried his things through the bustling terminal, outside to the street. There he hailed a taxi to his hotel.

Back in Rio there were brunches with current investors and lunches with prospective ones. There were phone calls to a suddenly hard-to-reach Haegler. There was dinner at Gero with Bernardo Dantas, a Cabana investor and Rio-based M&A banker who reported that the Brazilian economy was booming and that he had his hand in various deals. It was all well and good, but Oskar Metsavaht—the Himalayan-snowboarding, Amazon-revered honorary Estonian consul nominee who spoke of Icarian dreams and seemed to make them real—remained foremost on Anttila's mind. And Rio did not fully come alive for Anttila until he dined with Metsavaht at Sushi Leblon, Rio's Nobu, where the two men made plans to see one another in São Paulo at the Fasano Hotel. They would both be there the following day, and this was expected as the Fasano was really the only place to stay in that city.

Anttila, full of hope when he left for São Paulo the next day, didn't even mind that he was flying commercial, João Pedro Simonsen having departed in the Embraer days earlier. Anttila had, in fact, been scheduled to meet the fabled João Paulo Diniz for lunch on his first day in the city, but the billionaire had canceled abruptly, citing a change in his schedule. Anttila understood that he had to understand. "I know millionaires," he said. "I've been around them my entire life. But billionaires? Billionaires are different." So his spirits stayed high that first day in São Paulo. What mattered was the coming weekend in Maresias, and he turned his thoughts to his other target.

"I'd love to have Oskar invest in Cabana," Anttila said the next day in the lobby while smoking a cigar and hoping for news on the helicopter flight to Maresias. "He told me he wanted to buy stock in it." Metsavaht had also invited Anttila to a party in Rio for the cast and crew of The 300, a welcome invitation that had been declined in favor of the already planned weekend with Diniz, whose wallet was rumored to be even larger and more easily pried open. Upon parting Metsavaht had presented Anttila with a pair of gray-green fish-leather shoes—and a promise to discuss a brand partnership when Metsavaht opened his SoHo store in a few month's time.

So Anttila sat in a leather chair wearing the only tangible gains from his trip thus far on his feet and contemplating just how he might approach the white whale of a billionaire from whom he was awaiting word. It was then that Simonsen arrived, fresh from a meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce. He wore a tan gabardine suit, looking a touch pale as he walked over to his young American charge to tell him that the weather in Maresias was predicted to be awful that weekend, that Diniz had decided to take his helicopter to a place where it wouldn't be, and that he would not be taking Anttila with him. There would still be a trip to Maresias, however; Simonsen had arranged for the young president of Cabana Cachaça to stay at a $100-a-night posada, just across the road from the beach.

The next afternoon a small Chevrolet departed from the Fasano Hotel just a little past noon. Anttila seemed sad to be bidding the hotel goodbye, not speaking as we left the city and traveled southeast, up through the mountains then out toward the coast. We passed an ancient billboard of Gisele Bündchen. The road bowed around a favela. A shirtless man walked along the side of the road wearing a cape of tattered trash bags for a raincoat. Clouds rolled in from the sea, gray and bulbous. The air began to smell like rain. A fading remnant of sun some miles ahead was the only trace of the day that might have been. Anttila studied it through the fogging glass of the car window—it was enough to light his eyes with a glimmer of romantic hope. "The weather's clearing," he observed. "Diniz might be there after all."