Back to the basics

Do you remember your first taste of wine? I do, vividly. It was offered to me when I was around 12 by my best friend’s (now my stepbrother) grandfather, a self-made man of German ancestry who, by dint of hard work had created a paper company from scratch. To instill a sense of hard work and perseverance in his grandson he gave him a kit from which he had to build a model of a four-masted schooner from balsa and other kinds of wood.

One afternoon while I was keeping my friend company, his grandfather stepped from his study with two small glasses of a yellow liquid that he had apparently been drinking. He asked us to take a small sip. It was awful, sweet but at the same time with a bitter taste that totally put me off.

If I hadn’t moved to Spain, this sensation might have defined my attitude toward wine. I know that it has for lots of people. I didn’t drink any wine at all during high school and college because I ran track and cross country. I didn’t turn 21 until my senior year in college and when I did start drinking, my beverage of choice, like everyone else’s, was beer, not wine. I only started to drink wine after I moved to Spain in 1971 because it was plentiful, good and cheap. A glass of ordinary red cost 1 peseta, about 0,6 euro cents. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I could eat and drink all night for less than 100 pesetas (less than 1 euro).

I also vividly remember the simple pleasure of drinking red wine at the dining room table at the boarding house where I lived for six months at the end of 1971. Once in a while the owner would give me an empty bottle and ask me to go around the corner to the local bodega to get it filled from a tank behind the counter. After my wife and I married in 1973 our house wine was Señorío de los Llanos from Valdepeñas that we bought by the three-pack from our local supermarket.

Back in those days before my professional involvement with wine, our attitude toward it was as a simple, tasty accompaniment to lunch, dinner or an outing with friends that got our tongues going. We didn’t ‘taste’, we just drank and enjoyed it.

 I’ve always been amazed that I got into the wine business with so few years of previous practical experience but necessity forced me to catch up fast. Now I smell and taste every liquid that I drink as if it was a wine tasting. Frankly, I’m beginning to think that it’s a stupid thing to do. When I took a step back from the front lines of the wine wars, I told myself that I was going to ‘enjoy’ wine again rather than look at it with a professional eye, nose and palate. This means not paying much attention to what wine writers and magazines say about any given wine.

If there’s one thing that almost 40 years in this business has taught me is that tasting is subjective. I’ve always believed in my own palate. Too many wine lovers have forgotten this simple truth, tending to rely on a so-called expert’s opinion. This is why so many uninspiring wines (in my humble opinion) have filled the shelves at wine shops and supermarkets. The next time you like a bottle of wine, tell your friends about it. We have to make word-of-mouth the driver of sales in the wine business.


Three glasses of grape juice and a small beer

The Rioja grape harvest festival starts today at noon, but like most people who live here, we went to the old town last night to get a head start on the week’s festivities.

I was pleased to see so many people enjoying themselves but I couldn’t help feeling disappointment as time after time, groups of young adults would approach the bar and order ‘tres mostos y un corto’  (three glasses of grape juice and a small glass of beer).

Wait a minute, isn’t this the fiesta de la vendimia, the grape harvest festival?  Isn’t Rioja wine the signature product of our region?   I looked around each bar we entered and for every person drinking wine, there were at least 20 drinking something else. 

Curiously, the bars in the old town in Logroño are huge advertisements for Rioja wine:  hundreds of bottles, new and old, line the shelves, signs advertising the price of scores of brands from young wines to crianzas, reservas and even gran reservas, pictures of winemakers posing with the owners of the bars, vintage charts, wine maps and lots of other material, with not a single sign or poster of grape juice or beer in sight. Occasions like this are the least common denominator of wine culture – you don’t have to order a specific brand or a vintage, just ask for a glass of red or white. In spite of this, young consumers had obviously turned their backs on wine.

It’s no secret that wine consumption in Spain is dropping precipitously but it was a shock to see first hand people ignoring wine in such an obvious way.

I’ve written in these pages about the efforts made by the Rioja Regulatory Council, the regional government and our local newspaper LA RIOJA to promote wine culture among young adults but my feeling after visiting a few bars is that we are failing to reach the new generation of young adults that will have to sustain our industry for the next 50 years. After all, sales to the Spanish market account for 70% of the total, so a plunge in sales here means that Rioja will either have to make up the shortfall abroad – no easy feat in a ferociously competitive marketplace – or hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres of vines will have to be grubbed up.  In comparison to this, farmers’ grumbling about lower than expected grape prices is a petty matter.

However, if you ask a winery here how they feel about sales in the Spanish market, the unwavering response is ‘forget about it, we’re concentrating on international markets’. This head-in-the-sand approach, so typically Spanish, threatens to ruin our industry.

Last night’s events have piqued my curiosity and I’ll be devoting more space here to discovering why young adults have turned their backs on wine and what could be done to reverse the trend.

In the meantime, until my doctor tells me to stop, I’m going to continue drinking Rioja and wine in general.  A cold beer is nice on a hot day, but nothing beats Rioja and tapas!  After the festival officially starts at noon, some friends (all over 40) are going back to the old town for more. We might not be able to reverse the trend in consumption, but we’ll have fun trying!

Bridging the generation gap (2) Spain

Riojapasión_editSince 75% of Rioja sales are in Spain, it’s important for Rioja to grow its user base by attracting new consumers in our home market.  This is not an easy task because of young Spaniards’ lack of interest in wine.  A study carried out in 2006 by the Rioja Regulatory Council revealed that interest in wine begins to grow at around age 28, which coincides with young people’s  getting their first well-paying job.  The numbers aren’t encouraging.  In the 18 to 24 age group , only 15% are regular users and 31% don’t drink wine at all.  The statistics improve a little for the 25 to 35 year olds, with 22% regular consumers and 26% non-users.  Perhaps the most revealing information is that young people don’t drink wine because they believe they don’t know enough about it to ask for a good bottle.  This suggests that getting some general knowledge about wine is the first step.  But where to go?  The survey carried out in Spain sought to discover what young Spaniards are passionate about, with a view to providing information about Rioja in that context.

It was found that travel and music were important to 8,3 out of 10 young Spaniards, with concerts, sports, technology, going out with friends and reading close behind.  So The Regulatory Council created a website devoted to those passionate pastimes in the hope that it would be a reference point, not only for travel, music and concerts but for gaining wine knowledge as well.  For example, in the site you can watch over 1,000 concerts, listen to the best indie music stations, learn how to make a movie, read about sports, avoid the pitfalls of travel planning, and lots of other activities, as well as learn  how wine is made, understand wine vocabulary, visit Rioja wineries and the best wine bars and restaurants where Rioja is served in New York and London. The URL is (in Spanish only, but most of the links are to sites in English).

It’s too early to measure the impact the campaign has on Rioja sales to young Spaniards but it’s a start!