Outside Rioja (and off the radar)


For a wine lover like me, a trip to the USA always gives me the chance to taste wines from all over the world, something that’s practically impossible in Rioja, and only marginally more so in Spain.  The bad news is that I also get a glimpse of where Rioja stands among the huge selection available in supermarkets, wine shops, wine bars and restaurants.  The fact is that Rioja is on the very edge of most people’s radar here.

I’m currently spending a few day’s at my sister’s house in Jacksonville, Florida, not exactly the center of the wine world in the USA, so it’s a good place from which to observe where Rioja stands in middle America.

My first stop was at Publix, a large supermarket chain in the southeast.  The wide selection was huge, a good sign, with a whole aisle about 30 yards long, starting with 4-packs of airline-sized bottles of about 187 ml, jug wines, bag-in-box and other new packages, California andother US wines and at the other end of the aisle, the imported wines.

Nestled in a 12 inch space (fortunately at eye level) was a facing of one bottle each of Marqués de Riscal, Faustino, Campo Viejo and Ergo (the Rioja imported by Gallo), all red, while a bottle of Marqués de Cáceres rosé was on a lower shelf.  The wine section was organized by grape variety, with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and zinfandel prominently featured.

With so many brands available, consumers are led first by color, then grape variety and finally, individual countries and brands.  In fact, many consumers think that ‘Rioja’ is a grape variety, not a wine region.

 Later, we went to a fantastic wine bar, The Grape, located in an upscale shopping center at the south end of town.  It was wine lovers’ nirvana, with a HUGE selection of wines by the glass and bottle.  You could get a ‘taste’ for $4 to 8 (a serving about the size of a glass of wine in a bar in Spain), a large ‘glass’ for $7 to 16, or a bottle for $24 to 150.  There’s an adjacent wine shop where you can buy most of the wines to drink at home as well as a good choice of food and  live entertainment. You could spend an entire evening, there and a lot of people do.

 Like at Publix, the selection was organized by color and grape variety: 


  • 10 sparkling and champagne (1 cava)
  • 7 rieslings
  • 5 sauvignon blancs
  • 11 interesting whites and blends (one from Spain – an albariño)
  • 6 pinot grigio/pinot gris
  • 11 chardonnays
  • 3 rosés
  • 8 dessert wines (no sherries)


  • 10 pinot noirs
  • 9 merlots
  • 4 zinfandels
  • 14 cabernet sauvignons
  • 16 interesting reds and blends (no Rioja)
  • 4 Spanish reds (1 Rioja, 1 Calatayud, 1 Priorat and 1 Montsant)
  • 11 Italian reds
  • 12 syrah and Rhône-style blends

So, out of a selection of 141 wines, there were only six from Spain (for the statistically inclined, 4,3%) and only one Rioja, a paltry 0,7% of the total.

This is a poor showing for acountry with the most acreage under vine of any wine-producing country in the world.

From my experience as a wine salesman, clearly what Spain and Rioja need are for export managers from the wineries to make the rounds of places like The Grape with their US distributors.

 This should be a no-brainer for Rioja wineries, whose reputation in Spain was built by a strong presence in restaurants and bars. Hand selling and word of mouth have been and will continue to be the primary drivers of wine sales in this, and most other countries.

(Picture credit:  patentlyo.com)

1 thought on “Outside Rioja (and off the radar)

  1. I can’t forget a comment I read somewhere about Spanish marketing (even though it is of course grossly unfair): “Make the wine. Wait for the phone to ring.” But there does seem to be a ring of truth about it, I mean if even Rioja, who has been at it for decades, can’t market its wines effectively…

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