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


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