Grape growers on the warpath

When you open a bottle of wine, you probably read the information on the back label to get a feel for what the winery is trying to accomplish.  What you don’t see, however, is the politics at work in the wine region. I’ve been involved with Rioja wine for almost 30 years.  Most of the time, things have gone remarkably well. With the exception of some intermittent dips in sales, full recovery always came a year or so later.  One thing has remained constant, however:  the bickering between the wineries and the grape growers.  Practically all of it has been politically motivated, with the fighting taking place between the winery and growers’ associations in the Rioja Regulatory Council.

On a one-on-one basis – growers and wineries – things work pretty well, because the growers and wineries have a symbiotic relationship – in a denominación de orígen  Rioja wineries can only buy grapes from growers in Rioja, so they have to get along.  But when it comes to discussing industry issues, not only are the winery associations in constant disagreement with the growers, but often the different associations on the same side disagree.

The most recent spat is about the process for renewing the seats on the Rioja Regulatory Council and Interprofessional Committee. These bodies’ members total 200 votes – 100 for the wineries and 100 for the growers. 150 votes are needed to approve measures proposed in these bodies. This 75% majority was created to make sure that policies were approved with a broad consensus. As we shall, see, it can backfire, too.

The election rules changed in 2004 from a one winery (or grower), one vote system with the same weight given to each of the players to one based on the number of liters of sales of Rioja wine made by wineries in each winery association and the number of hectares of vineyards represented by each grower’s association. This happened because the independent wineries (those not belonging to any association) threatened to band together, shaking up the status quo– the power of the association (that I happened to be the managing director of) made up of the biggest wineries that held the most seats in the Council.

The new system has its problems, however. Determining seats on the Council is easy for the winery associations.  For the growers’ associations it’s more complicated, because some of them are farmers’ unions whose members also belong to cooperatives.  The coops can show how many hectares of vineyards their members have, but some members of unions also belong to coops so the union can’t count their hectares.  The unions feel that they are underrepresented, which, as we will see, is not true.  

In 2004, the problem was avoided by negotiations between unions and the coops to avoid the burden of proof of hectares, with the coops agreeing to 45% and the farmers’ unions, 55%. In 2008, this agreement held up.  In 2012, however, the coops want more power and the unions consequently feel that they will lose seats.

Another bone of contention is the process of election of the president of the Council and the Committee.  It was agreed in 2004 that the presidency would rotate on a two-year basis between wineries and growers, with the wineries leading off.  When 2006 rolled around, the growers couldn’t come up with a suitable candidate, so the winery candidate remained president.

In 2008, the growers found a highly regarded candidate but he was rejected by the wineries.  The result:  the winery president stayed on.  By 2010, the process was so poisoned that the growers didn’t even propose a candidate.

Now it’s time for a new election.  The growers aren’t about to be hoodwinked again.  In addition, they’re angry about low grape prices (they say the average price in 2011 was 47 euro cents a kilo of grapes, below their cost of production).  They are also angry about the president’s decision to once again demand that both coops and farmers’ unions show the hectares each represents, rather than negotiate the percentages. In this, they are right because the decision to initiate the renewal process must be taken by the Council as a whole, not the president. This time, however, the coops and unions both feel that they will lose representation, so negotiations, if allowed to take place, are sure to founder.

The unions decided that their best show of force was to use their 55 votes to block approval of the Council’s 2012 operating and promotion budget (remember that 150 votes out of 200 are needed).  Last Friday, they partially relented and allowed part of each budget to be approved, but have refused to budge unless an agreement is made to increase 2012 grape prices.

This is impossible because any agreement to fix prices is illegal and would incur the wrath of the anti-monopoly authorities in the government.  The unions know it.

I suspect the real problem has more to do with negotiating representation and assuring that the next president of the Council is a nominee of the growers than the price of grapes and wine.

Until these issues are resolved, I’m afraid that Rioja will have a very small promotion budget.  That’s too bad because we risk wasting over thirty years of hard work and money invested to put our region on the map.

What’s really sad is that until 2002, the promotion budget was funded exclusively by the wineries.  When the growers were convinced to participate, it was seen as a great leap forward. In retrospect, however, it was a leap off a cliff.


(Photo of tomahawk:


Drinking for charity

Here in Rioja, people don’t pay much attention to the typical macroeconomic indicators such as unemployment, housing starts and car sales.  The talk of the town is how full the bars and restaurants are.  Judging from these numbers, Rioja seems to be doing just fine, although my friends in the restaurant business tell me that Mondays and Tuesdays are slower than usual because people burn the candle at both ends from Thursday through Sunday and need a rest.

One of my friends, the owner of the Cafetería Monterrey (which happens to be next door to our apartment building), a wine writer and I usually have lunch together once a week at a nearby bistro, El Lagar.  A few weeks ago, Roberto, the owner of the bar, informed us of an idea he had to get more traffic in his place on Mondays and Tuesdays:  a series of wine tastings whose proceeds go to a local soup kitchen.

Casimiro (the journalist) and I thought the idea was terrific and wondered why no one else had thought of it.  Here’s how it works.

Every other Monday and Tuesday the bar invites a winery to give a sit-down, tutored tasting to 20 customers.  Each taster pays 50 euro cents to taste three wines. The winery and the bar each put up 50 cents, so the soup kitchen gets 1,50 euros a taster, or 30 euros a tasting.  In addition, there’s space at the bar so others can listen in on the winemaker’s comments, even though they pay full price for their glasses (here a white costs 1,50 and a crianza 2 euros a glass, so it’s still not expensive).

The selected winery is the house wine for the two weeks that the promotion lasts, so there’s an economic incentive for wineries to participate.

This simple promotion achieves four goals:  more people visit the bar on normally slow evenings, customers can learn about the featured wine and improve their general knowledge about Rioja, relatively unknown wines get some well-needed exposure, and last but certainly not least, the profits go to a worthy cause, because there are lots of needy people here.

I hope this promotion goes on for a long time.  With over 600 wineries in Rioja, there’s certainly enough supply for years to come.  And, given the Spaniards’ propensity to copy others’ ideas (one of the most famous sayings in Spanish is “¡Que inventen ellos!” -Let others invent it- by the early 20th century essayist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno), maybe the idea of teaching the locals about Rioja wine will catch on!  They need it.

The name game

Once upon a time there was a young winemaker in Rioja who wanted to bottle a batch of wine.  He went to his bank and asked for a loan.  The loan officer refused, explaining that wine was a risky business.  That same officer would have gladly given the young winemaker a mortgage loan for 120% of the value of his house, but that’s a different story.

Faced with this situation, the winemaker asked his friends to lend him the money, but not before creating a brand for his wine:  ‘Gran Cerdo’ (big fat pig), an allusion to his banker (and all others), telling the story on the back label calling him a ‘fat, sweaty suit’ and putting a picture of a pig on the front label.

Revenge is sweet.

This story is true and illustrates the point that to make an impression in the wine business today you not only need to tell a good story but also grab people’s attention with your label.

The new world is running rings around the old.  While the Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Californians are the talk of the trade for their zany brand names and eye-catching labels featuring exotic reptiles and marsupials as well as insults (Fat Bastard) and plays on words (Goats do Roam (Côtes du Rhône, get it?), the old world is obsessed with titles of nobility, castles and the names of their vineyards.  In Spain, the only departure from this trend is a dizzying list of pseudo-Latin names such as Aurus, Apricus, Irius, Infinitus, Gaudium, Unnum, Zenus and the unforgettable Tremendus.

Finding an attractive brand name is a hard job and registering it to protect it from usurpation even harder.  There are a number of companies specializing in brand generation that use computers to come up with pronounceable names.

Once you have a name you have to make sure that it doesn’t mean anything offensive in another language (I especially remember the Chevrolet Nova, a flop in Spanish-speaking countries because ‘no va’ means ‘it doesn’t run’).

Two of my favorite examples of brands that wouldn’t work in Spain are the chianti classico brand ‘Cabreo’ that means ‘temper tantrum’ and the New Zealand winery Te Mata, ‘it kills you’. And I love ‘Gran Caus’ from the Penedés, south of Barcelona, whose name sounds like ‘huge chaos’ in Spanish. Maybe that’s why it’s successful.

In Rioja, as far as I know, only one company, Vintae, has really gone out on a limb to use eye-catching names and labels as marketing tools. This strategy really seems to work. Check out their website:

I hope Rioja wineries let their hair down a little more with their brand names and packaging.  Wine is a tough business but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun.

(Picture credit:



Marqués de Murrieta – the old and the new

I’ve mentioned many times that even though Rioja is a big wine producing area, there are surprisingly few opportunities to learn about wine here, unless you go to a winery, where you take your chances running into a police checkpoint to get a breathalyzer test. What’s the fun in going to a winery if you can’t have a few glasses of wine?

One regular event within the Logroño city limits where there’s little or no risk of meeting the cops is the wine and food dinner organized by the Cofradía del Vino de Rioja (Rioja Wine Brotherhood) at the Kabanova restaurant. The December event was hosted by Bodegas Marqués de Murrieta.

Marqués de Murrieta is one of the historic Rioja bodegas, founded by Luciano de Murrieta in the early 1850s.  According to the winemaker, the very talented María Vargas, in 1852 its wines were recognized in Cuba as coming from the Rioja region.

The winery is located in the middle of a 300 hectare estate just east of Logroño on the Zaragoza road.  It’s been closed to visitors for several years while undergoing an extensive renovation and lots of people are excited about the bodegas’ reopening, according to María “some time in 2012”. Ah, the mystery…

I used to visit the winery all the time in the 1980s and vividly remember it as a place with bright yellow sand floors (bullfight fans call it albero), very old oak vats and barrels and row after row of cement niches holding ancient vintages, some of which dated back to the 19th century.

I hope you’ve learned by now that traditional Rioja was a blend of Rioja’s classic red grapes (tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano), with a healthy dollop of viura and malvasía to increase the wine’s acidity to help it age more gracefully.  The young wines were aged for years in old oak barrels which had long lost their ability to interact with the outside air, so it could be said that the barrel aging (very slow oxidation) and bottle aging (reduction, that is, no contact with air) processes took place in the same container.  As a matter of fact, traditional Riojas were bottled just before shipment because they didn’t need time in the bottle to improve their drinkability.

Another characteristic of traditional Rioja was that reds and whites were made exactly the same way – with long aging in barrel.  I remember being given two glasses of wine, one red and one white by Jesús Marrodán, Murrieta’s legendary winemaker, with instructions to taste each of them with my eyes closed.  I was then asked which one was red and which white.  I couldn’t tell them apart! It wasn’t me; nobody could!

The Murrieta family sold the winery to Vicente Cebrián, Count of Creixell, a Galician businessman, in 1983.  He passed away suddenly in 1996, leaving the business to his widow and two twenty-something children.

The family began at once to redesign the wines.  I remember attending a wine auction in London a short time later and was surprised by a new wine, Dalmau, a huge departure from the style the winery was known for.  At that time I had my doubts about the direction the winery was taking.  It was a time when ‘modern’ Riojas were all about power, defined by high alcohol, inky color, new oak and in most cases, overripe grapes.  It was only later that winemakers began to give elegance more prominence in these modern wines.

The recent winemaker’s dinner showed that Murrieta had received the message loud and clear.  It was one of the best wine and food events I had ever attended.

The menu was:

Shrimp croquettes and sautéed pineapples/Pazo de Barrantes 2010 (D.O. Rías Baixas)

→  the combination of acidity and sweetness of the pineapple was a perfect   match for the elegant, complex fruit of the albariño grape.

Grilled scallops with wild mushrooms au gratin/Capellanía white reserva 2006, barrel fermented (D.O. Ca. Rioja)

→  the scallops and mushroom dish was full of flavor and texture that was complemented perfectly by both the fresh acidity  and weight of the aged white Capellanía.

Cod brandade/Marqués de Murrieta reserva 2005

 →  Cod and red Rioja is one of the most popular pairings in northern Spain.  The reserva, which for me showed both traditional (a blend of several varieties, stewed fruit, American oak) and modern characteristics (firm, ripe tannins) stood up well to the hearty cod, potato and garlic dish.

Stewed Oxtail/Dalmau reserva 2005

 →  Here we had a powerful rich meat dish that needed a powerful yet elegant wine to match.  The Dalmau was perfect.

 Entrecôte/Castillo de Ygay gran reserva 2004

→  After the oxtail, the steak was almost an anticlimax. I would have changed the order of the last two dishes  The Ygay gran reserva was a classic, with subtle aromas of stewed fruit and high acidity that didn’t overpower the meat, which was served very rare.

When we left the dinner we agreed that we would remember these pairings when asked in the future about food and wine in Rioja.

I was talking about the dinner to a friend the other day. I mentioned that in a way it was a pity that Murrieta had decided to make more modern wines, in a sense walking away from 160 years of history.  My friend pointed out that Rafael López de Heredia, the founder of Viña Tondonia, considered himself a revolutionary in his time and that it was always important to innovate.

In this context, Vicente Cebrián has done the right thing.  As times change, so do wine styles.  With Murrieta you can taste both the old and the new in the different wines made by the winery.