Carlos García-Ogara and the road toward brand recognition for Rioja

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Carlos García-Ogara (right) with Tom Perry at Bodegas Campo Viejo, 1984

Today Rioja boasts over 600 wineries that sell over 400 million bottles around the world, all of them bottled in a Rioja winery. Fifty years ago the scene was very different. Rioja wineries sold both Rioja bottled in the winery and in bulk to be bottled in the importing country. To use official Rioja guarantee labels, a winery was required to have at least 500 oak barriques and at least 337,500 liters of wine in the winery. It was a business for big wineries.

Rioja didn’t have a bad image. It had no image at all.

One of the people instrumental in developing Rioja’s image internationally was Carlos García-Ogara, a man largely unknown today in the wine business except for a few elderly veterans of the Rioja wine scene. Carlos and his mission is a story that needs to be told.

BACKGROUND

In the mid-1960s, the Spanish Ministry of Commerce passed a series of laws to encourage companies in certain key sectors of the economy (including wine) to export. It was not strictly a tax rebate. Taxes were levied and paid. It was the return to exporting companies of a percentage of Spanish taxes paid on the price of their goods sold outside Spain.

The government required exporting companies from a given sector to form an association – in Rioja it was called the ‘Grupo de Exportadores de Vinos de Rioja’ (Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association) – and hire a small staff to process each company’s declarations from Spanish customs as well as assure that the disbursement of the funds due to each company was correct.

The law also provided for 1.5% of the funds to be put into a separate account so that associations could carry out collective image-building activities. If the association was not interested in these activities, the 1.5% would be returned to the individual winery. The Ministry of Commerce contributed funds to help the effort.

In Rioja, the 34 “exporting” wineries in 1968 as well as others who joined the export drive in the following years decided to use the 1.5% for promotions and to hire a multilingual manager to devise, negotiate and carry out the plans. The first target markets were the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland and the USA. Shortly afterwards Canada joined them.

The manager hired to carry out these plans was Carlos García-Ogara.

His primary responsibility was to develop an image-building strategy for Rioja wine, that involved

  • analyzing which countries showed strong demand for wine and were potential targets for a PR campaign;
  • creating, with the assistance of the owners and export managers of the wineries, a public relations and promotional strategy suited to each target market;
  • hiring a local PR agency to develop tactics to carry out the strategic objectives.

In practice, this meant:

  • setting up Rioja tastings for journalists to generate news in the media;
  • identifying potential distributors (most of the wineries did not have distributors in the target markets so this was a main objective);
  • using the agency to distribute press releases and newsletters;
  • attending trade fairs with a Rioja stand;
  • inviting journalists to visit the Rioja region and wineries;
  • inserting generic advertising about Rioja in the trade press.

Practically all of the activities were generic, that is, to develop the image of brand Rioja.

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Generic Rioja ad (Decanter Magazine Wine Guide to Rioja, 1985)

As time passed and wineries began selling their brands in these markets, advertising and PR became more brand-specific while maintaining a strong generic message.

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Ad for Campo Viejo with the generic tag line ‘Unmistakably Rioja’ (Note the Rioja guarantee stamp and the Rioja logo in the upper left corner) Decanter, 1987

As long as the “1.5%” funds lasted, they were used to finance the above activities with the help of funds from the recently created INFE (Spanish Institute for the Development of Exports), later renamed ICEX (Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade). It is interesting to note that Rioja’s PR agencies were the inspiration for Wines of Spain offices created in these and later, other target markets.

When the tax rebate scheme expired and the “1.5%” funds were depleted, Rioja wineries were called on to devote a greater share of investments in generic/brand specific PR and other image-building activities with the financial support of ICEX, and co-managed by the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association.

It was not until 2008 that the Rioja Control Board assumed responsibility for international PR for Rioja with funds from both wineries and grape growers. It was an important achievement that significantly increased investment. Today the Control Board’s PR budget is 16.5 million euros (USD 20.16 million), partially co-financed with funds from the European Union.

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Rioja’s current international brand image ‘Saber quien eres’ – (Knowing who you are) (Courtesy of La Prensa del Rioja)

For almost half a century, Rioja has engaged in promoting the umbrella brand RIOJA under which wineries can take advantage of the generic traction created to promote their own brands. This has been decisive in giving the Rioja brand a strong international identity.

Carlos García-Ogara died a few weeks ago.  At his funeral old Rioja hands gathered to reminisce about those early days when Carlos led wineries on the road towards the adventure of selling internationally.

We hope the current generation of Rioja managers will recognize and appreciate the ground breaking efforts of Carlos and the wineries on that a rough but exciting trip that paved the way for Rioja’s strong brand image today.

Wines of the week:

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Enate 234 chardonnay (DO Somontano) Enjoyed at a bar in San Sebastian. (Note that 2 3 4 has also been translated into Basque (Bi Hiru Lau)

Not from Rioja (but that doesn’t mean it’s not good!) Lively acidity, ripe stone fruit notes.  Great for a meal of grilled fish – something readily available on the north coast of Spain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Oriental Rioja

Students of wine discover quickly that trying to learn about the world’s wine regions is a daunting task. Bordeaux for example has 60 appellations and Burgundy 84. I could go on and on about Italy, Germany, the USA and other countries but you get the idea.

Until a short time ago, Rioja was easy – one appellation for the entire region. However, the Rioja Regulatory Council recently approved the official division of the Rioja appellation into zones, a further division into villages and even gives vineyards that meet strict criteria the status of “singular” from which, hopefully, singular wines will be made. Currently, wineries are now allowed to label their wines with a zone name as long as they meet certain criteria.

Traditionally, these zones within the Rioja DO were called:

  • Rioja Alta for the area west of Logroño on the south bank of the Ebro river and for a small area on the north bank around the villages of Ábalos and San Vicente de la Sonsierra;
  • Rioja Alavesa for the area on the north bank of the Ebro that lie within the province of Álava in the Basque Country;
  • Rioja Baja for the area east of Logroño on both banks of the Ebro.

The only complication from the wine educator’s point of view was that most of the vineyards on the north side of Rioja Baja lie within the province of Navarra. Rioja Alta vineyards are exclusively within the province of La Rioja. The only coincidence was that Rioja Alavesa lay entirely within the Basque province of Álava.

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(Rioja Alta is dark green, Rioja Alavesa light green and Rioja Baja orange).

In 1998 Rioja Alavesa successfully lobbied the Council to allow wines made entirely from grapes from Alavesa vineyards and bottled in wineries in the Alavesa to be labeled ‘Rioja Alavesa’.

‘Rioja Baja’ however, has caused an uproar because a few producers, notably the grape cooperatives in the Baja feel that ‘baja’ (lower) denigrates the image of their wines. As early as 2004 a few wineries proposed changing the name to “Rioja Milenaria” in clear reference to the historical presence of Roman settlements there. The idea didn’t gain much traction, however.

Official approval for zoning the DOCa Rioja in 2017 revived the movement to dignify the name of the region. After what I understand was a fairly short debate, the Council unanimously approved the term ‘Rioja Oriental’ and submitted the change to European Union authorities to make it official.

What the Council and wineries weren’t expecting was intense criticism from both inside Spain and the USA. Both Luis Gutierrez, Robert Parker’s Spanish taster and Helio San Miguel, a Spanish wine educator living in New York, writing in  Spain’s Gourmets magazine slammed the change because they felt that ‘oriental’ had a negative connotation in English. One Rioja importer even refused to accept a batch of wine labeled ‘Rioja Oriental’.

According to our regional newspaper La Rioja, the agency managing the Rioja PR campaign in the USA isn’t too enthusiastic about the name change either. That should have been a warning sign.

Incidently, a large Chinese wine producer Changyu recently purchased a 75% stake in the large Marqués del Atrio winery located in the Baja. No kidding. Is this the real force behind the change from ‘Baja’ to ‘Oriental’?

Today (April 12), the Regulatory Council announced that ‘Rioja Oriental’ is once and for all the new name of the former zone known as ‘Rioja Baja’.

Getting back to wine educators in English speaking countries, the challenge from now on is how to translate ‘Rioja Oriental’ into English. The way I see it, there are three alternatives:

  • say ‘Oriental Rioja’;
  • say ‘Rioja Oriental’ with an English accent;
  • say ‘Eastern Rioja’.

What do you think?

My favorite wine this week:  Lecea crianza 2014 (San Asensio).  100% tempranillo from vines over 20 years old. Rich black fruit on the nose with a touch of oak; full bodied.  Lipsmackingly good.

http://www.bodegaslecea.com/

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