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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Setting the record straight

 

Last Sunday night I organized a dinner with a group of visiting Canadians with María José López de Heredia from R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia.  María José, ever the engaging speaker, treated the group to an enlightening lecture about the 133 year history of her company.

Everyone knows that after phylloxera attacked French vineyards towards the end of the 19th century, French winery owners came to Rioja in search of wine.  If you read about this period of history in wine books, it was the Bordeaux wine trade that came here.  María José, however, claimed that after extensive research into  records in her winery and others in Rioja, it was discovered that most of the French wineries were from Alsace because Rioja wineries were producing  white, rather than red wine.

Surprised?  I certainly was.  María José explained that in the 19th century, more white wine than red was made and consumed in Rioja, and consequently white was taxed at a higher rate.

Did you ever wonder why red wine in Spanish is called tinto (tinted) instead of rouge (red) as in French or negre (black) as in Catalán?  According to María José, most red wines in Rioja in the 19th century were whites that were ‘tinted’ with red wine to pay lower taxes! While some reds were produced and exported to Bordeaux, according to historical records, most Rioja was white and shipped to Alsace.

In fact, in the 19th century, doctors recommended consumption of white wine for health reasons because the tannins in red were believed to be harmful.

I think it’s fascinating that María José hired an ethnographer to study the winery archives to set the record straight. I’m sure that because of this research, other interesting facts will come to light about the history of Rioja.