Spain has traditionally been a country of small wine growers but very few make and sell wine under their own brand. A couple of examples: in DO Jerez there were 1,571 registered growers in 2019 but only 55 exporting wineries while in DO Rioja, according to the latest official statistics, there are 14,800 growers and 574 wineries.
Although far from the figures in France —in the Champagne region alone there are 5,000 vignerons who sell their own wine— in Spain a new generation of producers with family businesses is gaining ground and visibility. Better trained and travelled than the previous generation, they are not only recovering varieties and traditions but also closing the circle, making terroir-driven wines and proudly selling them all over the world.
The Artisan Wine Attraction producers belong to that generation. Individually they represent a tiny part of Spanish wine, but united under this brand and with their trademark black aprons, they managed to be one of the success stories of Barcelona Wine Week, the first and only major wine fair held this year in Europe.
"We started out with about 15 members last year at Fenavin, but with a view to increase that number and at Barcelona Wine Week there were 69 of us. We were born as a meeting place for independent winemakers. It's a rather mixed group, but we are all small wineries that champion farming and are respectful of the environment and wines", explains Pilar Higuero of Lagar de Sabariz, one of the promoters of Artisan Wine Attraction. "In Spain, many people still believe that farmers wear a beret and are surrounded by flies. Not true; today's farmers are nothing of the sort."
Pepe Mendoza, one of the best known producers in southeastern Spain now in charge of his Casa Agrícola project, nuances the words of Pilar. "We don't wear a beret but we don't own cellars worth €10 million either and we don't go around the vineyard wearing soft leather loafers. If you look at our hands, you will see that we all have calluses. We know how to prune and bottle. We are looking for a balance living off what we like, which is agriculture and wine, in a respectable way."
In keeping with their open group philosophy - "in a spirit of freedom, camaraderie and mutual trust, so that we can reach the world together", as their motto goes - each member is responsible for what he or she can be most useful at, and they jointly make the decisions, but there is a main nucleus, made up of eight producers, who organise, brainstorm ideas and manage their social media. Any winery sharing their vision and principles can join Artisan and nobody is obliged to attend trade fairs. "We have drawn lessons, both good and bad, about the spontaneity of previous groups such as Roca Madre or Inkordia. We want Artisan to be a flexible organisation where people feel comfortable and the level of involvement is a la carte, although we are still learning the ropes," adds Rafa López from Sexto Elemento, a small estate at over 750m in inland Valencia.
The meeting at Jesús Hermida's house (winemaker at Finca Caraballas and with his own project in Bierzo) to outline the structure and presentation of Artisan in Madrid was their last before the pandemic but during the lockdown they managed to hold an auction with bottles donated by the wineries and raise over €2,000 towards research against the virus. They are so happy with the result that they do not actually rule out doing more. "The auction has mobilized a lot of people on social media, which gives an idea of the interest people have in wine. Furthermore, helping each other is one of Artisan's motivations and if we can help together, we will do so too," says Santi Ysart, the visible face of the five brothers behind Cantariña Vinos de Familia, in Bierzo.
A further concern of theirs is to reach end consumers more effectively as big events are put on hold and people drink more wine at home. "We all have beautiful vineyards so we are thinking of doing like they do in France: direct and small fetes in different wineries around the country where people can enjoy a day in the countryside, eating and tasting wine. We want consumers to lose their fear of wine and realise that behind every bottle there is a person, a landscape, a business and a happy day," explains Pilar Higuero, whose spectacular estate-farm in Sabariz (Ourense) would undoubtedly be a dream come true for post-lockdown city dwellers.
In these vineyard fetes they do not rule out involving other like-minded professionals such as cheesemakers, bakers or fruit producers. As Pilar says, "it's about championing agriculture and the sense of community". In fact, Montserrat 'Mery' Martínez, one of the founding members of Artisan, does not make wine —she produces Peccatum 7 olive oil in Les Garrigues, an inland region in Lleida (Catalonia).
The creation of a group website with an online store is also being studied, although "the logistics are complicated", confesses Charlotte Allen from Almaroja in Arribes del Duero. Interestingly, some Artisan members do not yet have a website of their own, but Mery Martínez believes that their presence in social media -the auction was conducted on their Facebook page- will ease their way into the online. "It is best to do a good job in social media and maintain direct contact with the client rather than having a website with a poor SEO strategy. From this point on, we will move forward in e-commerce. The change in habits we've seen during the coronavirus crisis is here to stay; plenty of people will continue to use the internet to buy."
Perhaps they had somewhat forgotten about the end consumer until now, relying only on distribution? "We all make our wines thinking about our vineyards but also about who is going to drink them. When you are a one-man band, and you have to do the pruning, racking and selling, you have to distribute your time as efficiently as you can. As much of the distribution business stopped, we were able to spend more time on marketing", explains Santi Ysart, who points out that this rapprochement with the end consumer will in no way compete with distributors. "In my case, most of my wines go to the on-trade; a small part is sold to shops where there is some competition but all the shops have their own website and compete with each other. I think we are discovering new avenues of contact with the person who is going to drink the bottle”.
The Artisans also see a new opportunity to improve and personalise wine consumption in a world that has become more environmentally and health conscious and dines out in places with limited capacity and restrictions. "Many restaurants used to be comfortable with a wine list they cared little about; if we go hand in hand with them now, I think our wines can be a good sales argument," adds Santi, who also predicts a rise in BYOB, a common practice in the US and some European countries but rare in Spain.
In any case, they are aware that their wines have no place in what Pilar Higuero describes as “bring-me-a-beer restaurants: places where the wine list is lousy and I drink beer," but they do have a place in others that understand cuisine "with the same language that we understand wine," adds Rafa. "I'm not talking about Michelin restaurants, but for example, a bistro where offal is elevated to gourmet form. If you work on a dish, you want what's in the glass to go with it".
Pepe Mendoza nods and knows they have a long way to go. "When I make a wine that I find really exciting, an ordinary consumer is unable to appreciate it. In wines like ours, the sommelier needs to have some knowledge as does the end consumer. The great challenge lies in what we are trying to do, which is to explain to ordinary people that our wines are pure and feel good, that they have no residual sugar or chips because we don't want to put make-up on them. We are still learning the ropes and our niche is small but I think a change is coming," says Mendoza, who has spent 25 years working with international varieties and selling wine around the world. "I feel that we now have an opportunity to show what's truly local; the world is eager to discover new things and a Cabernet won't surprise them, but ours will. We Artisans have a wide range of wines; being artisans doesn't mean we only make expensive wines".
Pepe's optimism is shared by the rest of the association, which sees great possibilities for artisan wines, despite the global impact of Covid-19 in all areas. "In six months' time many people will have forgotten about the lockdown but I believe there will be a before and an after for others whose values will have changed for good. It might only be 5% or 10% of the population, but I believe that these people will appreciate the simplest things and will look for local food and local wines, be they organic or biodynamic", says Charlotte Allen, who also stresses the need for Spaniards to be more proactive in defending their own interests. "I've been in Spain for 13 years and the inferiority complex continues. There is a lot of boasting, the kind who cries out 'I am Spanish', but when it comes to defending what is theirs, they are nowhere to be found. I see too many people praising mediocre French wines, but we have wines here that are just as good or even better. It's time to say that what we have here is truly awesome".
They are concerned about the looming financial crisis and the suffering of many growers, especially those who sell their grapes to large wineries, so they understand that aid is given for distillation at this exceptional time but are against generalised subsidies. "They have been a scourge for the sector," says Jesús Hermida. "Businesses are healthier when they run on their own steam because they are more firmly established. Right now, it's not just the farmers who need help; everyone needs it.”
Pepe echoes this view and points out the resilience of farmers. "Few people have suffered quite as much. We know what it is like to have a bad year and lose a very significant part of the harvest; we farmers are tossed to the ground and bounce back," he jokes. "Out of the whole sector, we Artisans are lucky because we're better equipped to get through this crisis: we don't have any big luxuries or big expenses in our cellars; we're small teams and families living off what we produce.”
And if a member of the group is going through a hard time, the rest of the Artisans are always ready to lend a hand, notes Pilar. "I've been in poor health and a lot of people have offered themselves up to help me, like Borja Pérez from Tenerife, who volunteered to fly over and prune my vineyards, Jesús helped me with the harvest, Mery helps me with other things. Artisan is not just a way of reducing the cost of going to the fairs; we also help each other, cutting grapes, in the winery or sharing distributors and importers. That's lovely, because it speaks of generosity and cooperation, not competition. José Crusat could be my competitor, but I don't see him that way. The importer from Canada didn't buy from me because my prices were high but he bought from Crusat and I was just as happy. Charlotte has sent me people, I started to work in China through Rafa... We help each other.”
As they discuss the details and layout of their shared website, their vineyard parties and their launch in Madrid, possibly in November, the Artisans understand that all of this is work but also about having fun. "Give us some time because I' m in talks with the Rolling Stones," jokes Rafa Lopez. "Our fairs are going to be so much fun!"