The waters are choppy once again down the Ebro River as it flows through Rioja. Following the Basque government's recent approval of a plan to create a new designation within its boundaries called Viñedos de Álava, Bodegas Familiares de Rioja, an association representing 216 wineries out of the 417 in the three sub-regions, have banged their fists against the table and demanded a greater say and visibility in the decision-making process of Spain's most internationally renowned wine-growing region.
"If there is no real commitment to undertake reforms," said Eduardo Hernáiz, member of the Rioja Board and president of the association, "on 25 May 2023 Bodegas Familiares de Rioja will leave the Rioja Wine Interprofesional Organisation (OIPVR) and the Regulatory Board".
It is a rupture with the decision-making body, but in no case represents an exit from the appellation. "We would never leave Rioja because we have the same right as the big players," says Juan Carlos Sancha, vice-president of Bodegas Familiares de Rioja. "Personally, I have fought all my life to try to improve the DO, but we will leave the Regulatory Board because we no longer want to take part in this farce.”
The grievance of Bodegas Familiares de Rioja focuses on the need to reform the Interprofesional —which brings together organisations representing the interests of the wineries as well as cooperatives and agricultural associations and whose delegates sit on the board of the Regulatory Board— to adapt it to the needs of the DOCa Rioja.
In 2003, when the Interprofesional was set up, each winery had one vote. "It was totally irrational, as it is now because the number of producers is not taken into account. We have the backing of 216 wineries out of the 410 registered for the voting. This represents more than 50% of the total but we are left with only eight votes, which is incomprehensible in any minimally democratic system," says Sancha. "This happens because all that matters in this appellation is to sell cheap wine on the supermarket shelves.”
At the root of this complaint lies how these votes are distributed. According to the statutes, 100 are for the commercial sector and 100 for the farming sector. In the commercial sector, the votes are based on the number of bottles of wine sold, while in the farming sector, the number of hectares of vineyards is decisive. Grupo Rioja —with more than 50 partners such as El Coto, Marqués de Riscal or Marqués de Cáceres (see all the wineries here)— has 78 of the 100 votes in the commercial sector. The cooperatives of La Rioja and the Rioja farmers' association Araj-Asaja, many of them suppliers of the Grupo Rioja wineries, have 68 of the 100 votes of the farming side.
Sancha explains this using his wines as an example. "Each winery with a bottling register votes according to the number of back labels it has requested from the Regulatory Board. I sell Cerro La Isa at €25 to my distributors and at €45 retail, but as it has a generic back label, even though it is certified as Viñedo Singular, it is worth €2.40 a bottle for the voting. This figure is the average price of all the bottles sold with the generic seal. A Reserva sold for €3 in a supermarket is worth €4.85. It's irrational," says Sancha, who is frustrated that quality is being diluted by volume. "If we want real economic representation, it should be based on actual turnover, not this fictitious figure that benefits those who have the most, namely the large bodega groups.”
Another demand of Bodegas Familiares de Rioja, which recently denounced the disappearance of 53 bodegas and almost 3,000 growers in the past decade, is that the model of small and medium-sized family farms, still predominant in Rioja and generating employment and population in rural areas, should be recognised. "We are denied a well-deserved voice. And it's not just us, but also other similar associations, in a system in which one of the groups has the right to veto any decision, even if it was unanimously submitted by the rest of the table.”
Sancha, whose winery is located in Baños de Río Tobía in La Rioja, explains that the number of workers is proportionally larger in small wineries. "I have five full-time workers and I sell 83,000 bottles. In contrast, one of the best-known large bodega groups in Rioja employs 34 people to make 32 million bottles. That represents one person per million bottles.”
Hernáiz and Sancha's chances of their demands being heard are slim, but they are adamant that the only way to exert pressure is this. "It's a tough stance, but let's see who bears the responsibility for half of the wineries in the DO walking away from the table," says Sancha.
At the DO Rioja, director general José Luis Lapuente says that it is not appropriate for the Board to intervene because "it is the associations in the Interprofesional that debate and reach decisions, and this is always done in a fully transparent way.”
On the part of Grupo Rioja, its general manager Íñigo Torres says that they have never refused to re-examine the representativeness of the Interprofesional. "Bodegas Familiares is talking about revising the number of wineries, and that can certainly be discussed. We would also like to discuss the number of workers in the companies, the number of grape suppliers, the recognition of the brands or the longevity of the bodegas, the ones that built the appellation and the prestige of the area. That would require at least 75% of the votes under the statutes and as was the case in the most recent revision, which was endorsed by Bodegas Familiares".
Regarding the proposal to adjust the economic formula based on declared turnover, Torres does not reject the idea, but says that it is very difficult to quantify. "How do you calculate the turnover of a group that has wineries in different places? How do you distinguish the Rioja earnings from the non-Rioja ones? Or in wineries belonging to Bodegas Familiares, how do you work out the bulk sales of some of them? The system we have works because it is based on factual data, it is operational and reliable," argues the spokesman for Grupo Rioja, founded in 1968. "Rioja is a good model and it is envied abroad.”
Beyond the outcome of this conflict, it is evident that there is a deepening rift in Rioja between two business models that are unable to live together —as has been the case in DO Cava— which is damaging the region's image.
Artadi left the DO at the end of 2015 frustrated at the inability of this body "to appreciate the quality of small-scale viticulture". A few months later, a group of Rioja Alavesa producers set the wheels in motion to create the new Viñedos de Álava appellation in the Basque Country, and now there are many producers —ranging from small growers who sell locally but find that to be profitable they need to have increasingly large holdings, to others whose wines are among the highest-rated Rioja wines internationally— feeling uncomfortable in an appellation in which they do not feel represented but which they refuse to leave because they consider that it also belongs to them.
There is also unrest among the winegrowers on the Board, although their demands are not as widely reported in the media. In fact, the Union of Small Farmers of La Rioja (UPA), one of the smaller associations with six votes, challenged the census of winegrowers in the renewal process of the Interprofesional because they found that they were already represented in the commercial sector —something that the statutes forbid— and now they are threatening to go to court, as Alberto Gil reported in La Rioja newspaper.
On 21 June, the Interprofesional will elect its members, including its president, who will also serve on the Regulatory Board.
All parties in this plenary session seem to agree that these conflicts are not in Rioja's interest. What remains to be defined is whether the goal of those at the table is to preserve power in order to defend specific interests or whether the aim is to strive for wealth, recognition and sustainable growth for everyone in the region.