The Great Race

Sometimes I think that wine writers are the Spanish wine trade’s worst   enemies.  A few weeks ago I read an article in El País (Los locos del vino or The Mad Men of Wine) praising the efforts of a few small, brave winemakers who represent the purest essence of Spanish wine, while at the same time slamming the large producers for using fertilizers, tractors and marketing.  Regional and national marketing organizations were savaged for failing to create a positive image for Spanish wine, while most producers, except for the anointed few micro-wineries favored by the author, were excoriated for not traveling personally to promote their wines, delegating this job to their distributors “many of whom have never been in Spain, weren’t familiar with the winery they represented and didn’t speak Spanish”.

This comment, made following the visit of this particular journalist to a wine fair in theUS, is ridiculously far from the truth.

In my 36 years in the wine business I have never had a distributor who hadn’t visited the winery. My colleagues agree.  In fact, most of our distributors even send their sales forces toSpain from time to time for visits to their suppliers.

As for not speaking Spanish, this possibly hindered dialog between the Spanish journalist and the US distributors at the wine fair, but I’ve never heard that the ability to speak Spanish is a prerequisite for selling wine to US distributors (with the exception of a few specialists in New York, Miami and California). Given that most distributors carry wines from around the world, proficiency in several languages would make a salesperson more suited to a career in the United Nations or the diplomatic corps than in the wine business.

The second premise of the article accuses the Spanish wine trade of being practically invisible compared to “the glamour of the French, the congeniality of the Italians and the cool touch of the new players”. In the same breath, Spain is accused of losing ‘the great race’ (the volume business) toFrance, Italy, Australia, Argentina and South Africa.

I think that if Spanish wines are known for any particular traits today, they are inventiveness, well-made wines using local grapes and labels that attract consumers’ attention. This goes for the large as well as the small producers.

It’s easy to imagine a wine trade composed solely of first-growth bordeaux, grand cru burgundies and a smattering of small family-owned estates located among vineyards and olive groves on sun-drenched hills, as I heard one of Spain’s premier wine writers argue several years ago when we were together on a panel at a wine fair. This is what a lot of wine writers promote as the essence of our business. But it’s a far cry from reality. Do these guys think Spain can improve its international visibility with a small number of family producers?  Let’s look at the issue from the consumer’s point of view.

First of all, most wine sold in the world is for under $US10 abottle.  This price point is hopelessly out of reach for the small premium producer.  The wine trade needs attractive, low-priced, high volume products, especially in our current economy.  Sadly however, when one reads the wine columns in Spain, the USA or the UK, too much is written about small producers (whose wines are almost impossible to find) while precious little is said about the really good, under $10 bottles that make the wheels of our business turn.  Since so many consumer purchasing decisions are driven by journalists’ recommendations, putting so much emphasis on these small producers is doing a disservice to the goal of increased interest in and consumption of wine that is so essential to the survival of the wine trade.

As a veteran of this business, I can attest to the fact that it is harder to make and profitably market a good wine to meet a critical price point than to make a high-priced wine.

I have absolutely nothing against small, family owned wineries and have gone on record numerous times for praising and drinking them. Some of the best in the world come from Spain.

But let’s not forget that if Spain’s goal is to win ‘the great race’, the medium and high volume producers need encouragement to succeed.  Wine writers can do a lot by judging them objectively.

For Spanish speakers, the article can be accessed at


The Spanish love affair with speed

Spaniards have a thing about driving fast. You might think that in a country where arriving late is a way of life there would be a more relaxed attitude about speed, but this is precisely the reason why most people are fast drivers. They leave as late as possible for work, so to arrive on time to the office or factory, they have to put the pedal to the metal.

Here, the speed limit isn’t the fastest you are allowed to drive, but the rate at which you have to keep up with traffic in order not to get run off the road. This has frustrated the Guardia Civil (Spain’s highway patrol) for years. It was actually hard to get a speeding ticket because there were so few police cars, and until a few years ago, speed traps were unheard of. As a matter of fact, the Guardia Civil is better known today for stopping people suspected of being terrorists and drunk drivers than  speeding.

Getting a ticket is almost a pleasant experience, because after you’re pulled over, the policeman salutes you as if you were his superior officer, politely informs you that you have been speeding, asks you for the car registration and your drivers’ license, and writes you a ticket, which you can pay in cash and get a discount. At least that’s what I remember. The last time I was pulled over, I was politely told that the little door on the back fender that hides the gas cap was open. Thanks, officer!

This is a stark contrast to getting pulled over in the U.S., where the police work in tandem, with one officer questioning the driver and the second behind the car, ready to draw his revolver. It’s scary.

The speed limit has become a political issue in Spain. After the current government got a rap on the knuckles for not enacting economic reform with the desired celerity, three months ago it announced that as an energy saving measure the limit on divided highways would be reduced from 120 kph to 110, and overnight, every speed limit sign on these highways was covered with a decal that read 110. The automatic speed traps (conveniently announced a kilometer or so in advance, another polite gesture) also had to be recalibrated to take a picture of the car’s number plate at 110 rather than 120. Most Spaniards didn’t pay any attention, and continued driving 140 and even faster, slowing down only to avoid being caught in the trap. This actually makes driving more dangerous, as people jam on the brakes only to re-accelerate once they are out of range of the radar.

There is a pecking order on Spanish highways, where the Audis, BMWs and Porsches rule. They get right behind other drivers who happen to be in the passing lane (so close that you can’t read their license plates in the rearview mirror) and furiously flash their high beams as a warning to get out of their way. Small cars get the worst treatment. My wife, who drives a Citroen C2, is always complaining about bigger cars cutting her off.

Yesterday, the government did another about face by raising the speed limit to 120 again, explaining that the Guardia Civil had recommended it so as not to confuse thousands of drivers from other European countries who have come to Spain for summer vacation. This makes no sense to me at all because it meant that overnight, all the speed limit signs had to have their ‘110’ decal removed and the speed traps had to be reset again, at great expense to taxpayers. Nothing really changed – the German cars drove at 160 and everyone else kept up with the flow of traffic. And in spite of the fact that July 1 was one of the ‘red alert’ days with the heaviest traffic, I only saw one police car between Logroño and Santander.

Does all this seem strange to you? Don’t worry. Our most popular tourist slogan (from the 1960s, but still true today), is ‘Spain is different’.