“Many of the vineyards we buy, look for or work have been tended by members of cooperatives who were payed just €0.12/kg for their grapes, even from old vines, with yields as low as 1kg per plant,” said Jorge Navascués, the producer behind Mancuso in Aragón and winemaker at Contino, in Rioja in one of the numerous live Instagram talks broadcast during the lockdown.
He knew what he was talking about. His grandfather was the manager of the Valdejalón Cooperative in Zaragoza and his father was born there. Cooperatives such as those, as renowned producer Álvaro Palacios said in another IG talk, were responsible for diluting the essence of grapes and terroirs in vast, anonymous blends.
While many of these cooperatives have been modernized in recent years, others have struggled to survive. Partnerships with private producers are helping some of them to have a presence in the world of wine. Hopefully, the following cases can serve as a model or provide inspiration for others to follow suit.
When Comando G emerged as a leading producer in Gredos, importers and distributors demanded relatively high amounts of young wines which partners Daniel Landi and Fernando García were unable to produce from their vineyards. The duo thought that Bodega Cristo del Humilladero, the cooperative in Cadalso de los Vidrios, was the perfect place to make that style of wines.
With 120 members working 120 hectares of vines at present, the cooperative was established in 1957 at a time when Garnacha plantings were flourishing in the area. Their facilities were successively expanded to handle seven million litres until the 1980s, when production suffered a steady decline. When pharmacist Ricardo Moreno became a president in 1995, the cooperative was going through its darkest hour. With 50 hectares of his own, Moreno is the largest shareholder and has been fighting ever since to keep the wine business afloat.
Making decisions can be complicated, he concedes. In fact, it took some time to reach an agreement with Comando G. The duo’s original idea of paying a generous price for grapes and producing the wine at the cooperative did not prosper; instead, they offer a consultancy service.
As part of the deal, Comando G passes on their experience and commercial contacts to the cooperative so it can sell its wines over a given period of time. "The idea is that the cooperative will end up working independently and dealing directly with distributors", explains Fernando García.
The main job for Comando G was to stratify the vineyards of the village in order to figure out which areas should be harvested earlier and later. This of course implies a change of attitude for members. In warm vintages for instance, the cooperative’s facilities must open for the harvest before the local festivities take place. Comando G has also established cleaning and winemaking protocols.
The support of importers and distributors working with Comando G has been crucial and the cooperative produces specific brands for them. Whereas Agrícola de Cadalso is exclusive to Vila Viniteca, Granito de Cadalso is the brand of US importer Eric Solomon. Other export needs like tenders for wine monopolies are covered with Laderas del Tiétar. Fernando insists that they work with good quality grapes, sourced mostly from old vines which are looked after in a similar way to organic farming. Growers have also seen a significative rise in the price they get for their grapes. “The major contribution is that we now have established a reputation,” says Ricardo Moreno.
“A single producer cannot build prestige for an entire region,” says Pablo Calatayud, the owner of Celler del Roure in Valencia. This mindset explains why he worked so hard to promote the wines of his region as the first president of the producers’ association Terres dels Alforins. Calatayud, a native of Moixent, was set on improving the quality of the wines produced in his village. Moreover, he had an emotional bond to the Cooperativa del Camp Sant Pere in Moixent -his grandfather was one of its founding members back in the 1950s.
As oil accounted for almost 70% of the business and wine was produced in bulk, many grape growers who received a pittance for their grapes left and joined other wine-focused cooperatives.
Following a similar model to Comando G and the Cadalso cooperative, Pablo found his opportunity to help when Sant Pere’s winemaker retired. “We agreed that we would consult on wine growing and winemaking for five years -that period has almost ended- and to step back gradually,” he explains. In fact, Celler del Roure no longer helps with the winemaking but it still bottles most of the wines and plays an active role in marketing and sales. “Celler del Roure is our main distributor,” points out Isidoro Cerdà, the cooperative’s president. Calatayud confirms that the Sant Pere wines will be sold in their new online store set to go live soon.
Part of the strategy included the creation of an attractive range of wines enhanced by the striking labels of designer Daniel Nebot, who is also behind the labels of Celler del Roure. Two young, white and red wines were produced under the brand Sant Pere, each one followed by a premium old-vine version. Investments were kept to a minimum since all the wines are fermented and aged in the existing concrete tanks.
According to president Isidoro Cerdà, this has meant a major leap both in quantitative and qualitative terms. “It has allowed us to modernise our wines, bring them onto the market and make ourselves known," he says. Cerdà, who comes from the furniture industry, believes that wine is far more challenging: "Price fluctuations make it difficult to design sales strategies," he points out. "Until the creation of Sant Pere, we basically produced bulk, but this partnership has helped us to relaunch and add value to a brand and a product that were virtually non-existent," he says. These days, the cooperative handles between 400,000 and 500,000 kg of grapes, half of which are destined for bottling.
It has not all been plain sailing, Pablo Calatayud admits, and he agrees with Fernando García of Comando G when he says that cooperatives “move at their own pace”. “The main challenge with cooperatives is that everyone must be heard and everything has to be explained to everyone, but I patiently insisted because it was my village. The brand is now known, grape prices have doubled to €0.40 and even Luis Gutiérrez tasted the wines for The Wine Advocate,” he points out proudly.
With just 40 hectares and six members, two of which are minority partners, working together with the cooperative La Figuera in DO Montsant (Catalonia) was less complicated. The deal is that they sell grapes to Clos Mogador and Venus La Universal in exchange for winemaking consulting.
Established in 1932 by 30 growers at a time when the cooperative movement was in full swing in Catalonia, Sindicat de la Figuera has its own history of highs and lows. According to its president Joan Viejobueno, in its heyday, when the village had 500 inhabitants, most of the families were members, but in the 1950s it suffered a total collapse after a fatal hailstorm followed by a devastating cold spell destroyed most of the crops. Despite the subsequent depopulation, the Sindicat managed to be one of the first cooperatives in Falset (back then, a subarea of DO Tarragona) to bottle their wines in the 1980s under the brand Aubacs i Soláns. Olive oil played a major role in this area, but grape production reached one million kilos.
Located high up on a mountain, La Figuera comands breathtaking views of Priorat. A paradise for Garnacha, this variety thrives in its distinctive, fresh soils with clay on a limestone substrate. It is easy to understand why René Barbier fell in love with this place when he discovered the Espectacle vineyard and decided to create a separate project with it. Now his son, René Jr., buys grapes here to make Com Tú, a new Montsant red in the Clos Mogador range, and the vibrant Garnacha Venus de La Figuera for Venus La Universal, in tandem with his partner Sara Pérez in Montsant.
The wines made at the cooperative are 100% Garnacha. The 45,000 bottles that are filled include a rosé and a red. The labels are the same ones used in the 1980s so they have an attractive vintage look.
Right now, the main worry for Joan is Covid-19, the pandemic that has touched the lives of everyone be it in big cities or the countryside. The most important thing now, he says, is “to look ahead and be active in the world" (exports range between 8% and 10%). At La Figuera, they certainly know a great deal about reinventions.
Founded in 1954, Bodegas Santiago Apóstol, the cooperative of Cebreros, is said to have processed 15m kg of grapes. Tomás Muñoz, who has worked there for 42 years, remembers the extension of the original building in the 1980s, the huge amounts of wine destined to powerful bottling companies like Savin or the great demand of bulk wine sold in carafes in their own premises. The most expensive wine ever produced at the cooperative, says Muñoz, and the only one aged in barrels was a high in alcohol Garnacha rosé that was released as a vintage wine or as 5º Año, that is, on the fifth year after the harvest.
The winery is way too big for the 220 hectares they work with, mostly planted to Garnacha and Albillo. The cooperative limit their activities to farming after Soto Manrique, a private company led by Jesús Soto, took control of production, winemaking and sales. Thus, Soto Manrique (250,000 bottles) coexists with the cooperative’s traditional brands called Los Galayos, Señorío de Cebreros and La Transición (150,000 bottles).
Jesús Soto arrived to Cebreros in 2016, followed one year later by the young and efficient technical director, Bárbara Requejo, 27, who trained in Chile, California and at Haut-Brion in France. Their first job was to classify both the vineyards and the growers. "We switched from a horizontal way of making wine (filling tanks and making blends) to a pyramidal approach that has allowed us to explore the entire range of wines that can be made here," says Jesús Soto. He acknowledges that some wines are not profitable, but they offset this with higher value-added wines.
The cooperative’s facilities are full of contrasts. Big cooling cameras are found next to two enormous hoppers (one of which is out of use), only a tiny part of the many dozens of concrete vats are used; corridors have been turned into storage rooms and into an air-conditioned space where Soto Manrique ages its premium range of wines in wooden vats, foudres and amphorae. The liveliest place in the building is the shop, its walls covered with vintage tiles.
As Soto Manrique is in charge of the management and can therefore make all the decisions, results are evident in just three years. The main one affects the growers’ income, which used to be €0.20-0.25/kg and took up to three years to be paid. Now a basic price has been established at €0.52 with additional increases in line with average prices established by a group of five leading cooperatives from Castilla y León and Madrid. More importantly, the value of the land has risen and the uprooting of vines has stopped.