When Enrique Forner arrived in Rioja in 1970 he really rocked the boat. At that time the business was in the hands of traditional wineries, most of them founded in the 19th century, as well as a few new players such as Savin (Campo Viejo) who nonetheless played the game mostly by the already established rules. Back then, Rioja wines were exclusively blends, aged for years in old oak casks and bottled just before shipment to customers. They were light-colored, with aromas reminiscent of cedar, spice and stewed fruit, and the best among them, while praised for their elegance, could not be called fruity or grapey. Rioja whites were vinified more or less the same way, with long aging in old oak and very little time in the bottle.
Forner applied his long experience in the Bordeaux wine trade (he was the owner of Chateau Larose-Trintaudon and Chateau Camensac) to his Rioja bodega, which he named Unión Viti-Vinícola (the Vitivinicultural Union),although he called his brand Marqués de Cáceres. The winery was known as Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres.
I remember several factors that set Forner apart from his competitors in Rioja. First, he made long-term deals with two coops (Huércanos and Uruñuela, if I remember correctly) in Rioja Alta to assure supply of good-quality young wine. This was the essence of the ‘vitivinicultural union’. The grapes and wine were produced at the coops the under the supervision of the technical team at the winery and Bordeaux winemaker Émile Peynaud, but was blended, aged and bottled at Marqués de Cáceres. This arrangement served Forner well until the winery was able to install its own fermentation plant. Grapes were still sourced mainly from these two coops.
The second innovation was the wines themselves. Forner was a pioneer in creating fruity reds, with the right balance of oak (not as old as the wood used by others) and bottle aging, as well as a range of whites, vinified in stainless steel tanks at low temperature. Forner first created a young white and a crianza, followed by a semi-sweet white (Satinela) and a barrel-fermented white (Antea). In fact, Marqués de Cáceres was (and as far as I know, still is) the only Rioja winery with a wider range of whites then reds.
The third difference was the feminine touch in label design and marketing, led by Forner’s daughter Christine and the ebullient PR boss, the Scotswoman Anne Vallejo. The winery was able to tap into the distribution network already in place for Forner’s Bordeaux properties and it was obvious from the immediate success of the wines abroad that this approach worked like a charm.
One of the strategies that impressed me the most was the winery’s reaction to exorbitant grape and wine prices during the 1999 harvest and the young wine market of early 2000. Grape prices skyrocketed to over 400 pesetas (2,40 euros) a kilo, and most wineries immediately factored this into their cost calculations. Of course, distributors worldwide howled in protest, but nonetheless accepted price increases of over 20 per cent, causing a huge drop in sales. Naturally, grape prices in 2000 were much lower in 1999 but the damage had already been done as distributors blamed the wineries for their short-sightedness. Forner was one step ahead of his competition. Faced with huge cost increases he simply bought the smallest amount of grapes that he could and drew down his inventory of wine rather than raise prices. His grateful distributors never forgot that.
Enrique Forner also lobbied hard for a revamp of Rioja labelling requirements. When he arrived here, wines were not labelled crianza or reserva from a given vintage, but rather ‘4th year’ or ‘6th year’ meaning that the wines were bottled in the fourth or sixth year after the harvest. This was meaningless to the consumer, who was looking for a vintage year, but a boon to the wineries, which could blend wines from different vintages at will. Forner convinced them that the market needed to know the vintage year.
Enrique Forner shook up the establishment in Rioja but was never in the limelight, preferring to work behind the scenes. With his French and Spanish background, he was probably not a fan of Frank Sinatra, but I have no doubt that he would agree with that famous Sinatra line “I did it my way”.