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The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (I) From left to right, Carlos Sánchez, Josean Eraso and Alfonso García de Olano. The vineyard in the picture belongs to Eraso and is located in Moreda de Álava, the easternmost village in Rioja Alavesa. Photos courtesy of the producers

Spanish terroirs

The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (I)

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | March 14th, 2023

It was never intended as a start-up hub for new producers, but perhaps without actually meaning to, Iñigo Rubio and Javier Cereceda, director and winemaker respectively at Bodegas y Viñedos Labastida, planted the first seed in 2018 when they rented out space in the winery to a handful of young winemakers to make their own wines.

"We weren't really making much money renting space in the old winery, but we thought it was an opportunity to help people who were just starting out," Cereceda explains.

The first to arrive was Roberto Fernández, winemaker and co-owner of Gobel, who sadly passed away in 2019 after a sudden illness. He wanted to make wine and had vineyards in Villalba with his uncles, but he needed a winery, so his good friend Rubio offered him a space in the old Solagüen bodega. Shortly afterwards, he was joined by José María Álvarez, a member of the cooperative, who saves some of his grapes to make wine under the Zuzaran brand; Jade Gross, who later moved her barrels to the Vintae winery in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, and Carlos Sánchez, who came to Labastida from Bárbara Palacios's winery in Briones to make his wines and those of 3 Viñerones, a project with vineyards in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, of which Sánchez is a member.

Helping young people

However, the survival of this initiative hangs in the balance. The co-operative recently sold its new facilities to Muga to pay off a very large debt, the result of over-investment, and is preparing to return to the old winery, where the Solagüen brand was born and where the new producers are based. The fact that both parties have benefited from the lease, according to Cereceda (pictured below with Carlos Sánchez in the centre and Iñigo Rubio on the left), and that the cooperative even had to turn down new requests won't stop the move.

Sánchez, who advises a number of producers in different areas of Spain, is in the midst of change. He has just bought six hectares of vines spread over 15 plots in San Vicente and Labastida, and soon wants to have his own winery. He has a solid project to establish himself in the region, but newcomers face many obstacles.

“I see a lot of passion in young people like the Martes of Wine group, who are gradually developing their own projects, but starting a wine business from scratch and getting all the paperwork in order requires considerable enthusiasm and energy. It's very difficult, even if you have family vineyards. Nowadays it is impossible to set up on your own with three barrels, so the support we get from Iñigo and Javier at Solagüen is extremely helpful," says the Madrid-born producer. 

He believes that a business incubator for young producers, along the lines of the Celler de Viveristes in Conca de Barberà, could help preserve winegrowing and bring prosperity to the region. "Burgundy is not great because of Romanée Conti, but because of its vineyards and its many small vignerons.”

Generational handover and business flair

Helping young people to develop their small wine-making business is essential from a strategic point of view, says Juan Carlos Sancha, a teacher, producer and guardian angel to young producers in his village of Baños del Río Tobía, before they flew solo. Now he is helping Aitor Menchaca, a friend from Bilbao who has invested his savings in the recovery of old Garnacha vines in El Molar, an area that, despite its proximity to Madrid, has more abandoned vineyards than in production.

"We are facing a serious problem because there are no young people to replace the older ones in the vineyards," says Sancha. "Gone are the days when a vine grower became a producer with half a million bottles of wine. Young people today are highly motivated and qualified, but perhaps they lack the necessary entrepreneurial instinct which, as a university professor, I have to admit my share of the blame. We train good professionals, but perhaps not good entrepreneurs, and they probably just need a little push and support to overcome their fears and encourage them to do their own thing.”

Sancha is convinced that if there were more small producers, wines would be sold at a higher price and a more sustainable model would be created, both socially and economically, in a country where there are only 4,500 wineries, compared to 19,000 in France and 21,000 in Italy.

Given the current situation in Rioja, with dwindling sales and excess wine stocks, the producer is calling for a rethink to avoid further growth in volume and instead focus on value. "Rather than making Rioja great, we have built a large Rioja, and this is now taking its toll. Until recently, there were 17,000 registered producers here; now the number has dropped to 14,000. Many of those who have dropped out are weekend growers, but it's an interesting actor to keep. Maybe a small 4,000-bottle winery will come out of it, closing the circle. With five hectares you can make a living if you sell your wine, but if you grow the grapes and then sell them, it's just impossible.”

Less hurdles, please

In San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Abel Mendoza and Maite Fernández share many of Sancha's views and are delighted by the enthusiasm of young locals like José Gil and his wife Vicky and the rest of the Martes of Wine tasting group (some of its members are pictured below, with Ribera del Duero producer Bertrand Sourdais) who are gradually releasing their bottles out into the world. "If I had had the money, I would have loved to create a space for young people to make their own wine and encourage them to see that small projects work when they are built on honest principles," Mendoza confides.

The Rioja producer, a model vigneron with strong values and deep ties to his community, is convinced that more young vignerons would choose to make wine if the authorities were less restrictive about new projects. "It would be interesting to have vineyard banks, a business incubator or simply to allow newcomers to set up a small winery with a few vats or barrels in their garage, as they do in France, a country that is more tolerant of this type of small business," Mendoza points out. "And with a dedicated person to organise it.

Abel and Maite encourage any young persons who knock on their door to decide for themselves the kind of wine they want to make without paying attention to fashions and above all to have patience, learning along the way. "This profession is the business of happiness and it greatly enlightens you as a person, but it requires effort, dedication and passion. Forget about rushing things. Your name may be mentioned in the media, but that doesn't mean you've made it," they warn. "The hard thing in life is to be a marathon runner. It is also important not to be a victim of your own success -and above all, enjoy the ride.”

Eraso, from the vineyard to the winery

Josean Eraso didn't knock on Abel Mendoza's door, but he shares many of the same values as the San Vicente producer. With 6.7 hectares of family vineyards between 40 and 100 years old in Labraza and Moreda de Álava, Eraso, 41, has always loved the countryside and horses, so much so that he enrolled in a course on animal traction for agriculture taught by Alfred Ferris in Albacete. When Ferris told him that he was coming to Rioja Alavesa with his horses to work in the vineyards of Bodegas Bhilar, Eraso went to see him and ended up working for David Sampedro, whom he met thanks to Ferris.

Encouraged by the Elvillar-based producer, who lent him space in his winery, Eraso began making his own wines in the 2020 vintage, following Bhilar's approach of minimal intervention in the winemaking process. There are 3,000 bottles in total, a skin-contact white and a red, both called Eraso. They come from some of his oldest vines, which include Tempranillo, but also Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha - Moreda is the easternmost village in Rioja Alavesa - and whites such as Viura, Turruntés or Calagraño. The rest of the grape production, which is organic but not certified, is sold almost entirely to Fernández de Piérola, a winery in Moreda, and a small part to Bodegas Bhilar.

Eraso greatly values Sampedro’s support, a man of few words but very generous in his actions. "David said to me, 'Make wine here, but I won't advise you. What would you learn from me? But of course I learn. Both he and Melanie [Hickman, Sampedro's wife and with her own project, Struggling Vines] and Javi in the office help me a lot: with the harvest, with the racking and even on the sales side, showing my wines with theirs at fairs and sharing their importers. And they do it selflessly," explains Eraso, who now exports some of his production to Germany and Malaysia.

He will continue to be involved with Bodegas Bhilar, but from the coming vintage Eraso will be making his wine at El Collado in Laguardia, where he has bought a small garage winery. His neighbours will include small producers such as Basilio Izquierdo and Diego Magaña, who also started his Rioja project at the Sampedro winery.

García de Olano, guardian of the kingdom

Born into a local cosechero family, Alfonso García de Olano works at Bodegas Ayesa, the family business, where he lends a hand wherever needed, be it bottling, pruning or harvesting the 28 hectares of vineyards that the García de Olano family owns in Laguardia.

During the pandemic, he decided to continue his professional training and enrolled in a viticulture course. His intention was to start making his own wine, using some of the vines planted by his grandparents and uncles. Although many outside investors are keen to buy these prized vines, García de Olano saw his family still uses them to make the simple, traditional carbonic maceration wines of Rioja Alavesa

One day, while having coffee in his favourite bar, he struck up a conversation with Roberto Oliván, whom he followed on Instagram but did not know personally. They hit it off and soon after, the owner of Tentenublo selflessly offered to help, suggesting some guidelines but leaving the final decisions to García de Olano. "The only chance of reversing this situation of social abandonment is to value one's work, and these young people are beginning to see this. We must help those who are enthusiastic, motivated and passionate," says Oliván, who has consolidated his brand vineyard by vineyard, buying up small plots in Viñaspre that others do not want to farm.

At 26, García de Olano deeply appreciates his friendship with Oliván. "He has clear and focused opinions. I think it's incredible the way he looks after his vineyards and I learn a lot from his wines and his working style. It is a real blessing for me to have Roberto's help,” admits the young grower from Laguardia. 

Another thing he has learnt from the Viñaspre winemaker is patience. "We stopped using herbicides in our vineyards three years ago and we are gradually moving towards organic viticulture, although it is not easy for the elders," says García de Olano, who has made his first 3,000 bottles from four family plots aged between 65 and 80 years. The 2022 red will be released under the brand name Guardianes del Reyno, and only when it's ready. "It is a reference to the area we are in [Laguardia was once part of the Reyno (kingdom) de Navarra] and the fact that we are guardians and defenders of our land."

(The second part of this report will be published next week, focusing on new projects in Rioja.)


What lies in store for traditional vignerons in Rioja?
Destemming grapes with Abel Mendoza in Rioja
Conca de Barberà: Monasteries, modernist bodegas and Trepat
A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (I)
A new generation of brave producers in Rioja (and II)
Rioja in the 21st century: styles and categories of wine
Volume or quality in Rioja? 200 small wineries voice their discontent
The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (and II)
Vignerons de la Sonsierra: crafting fine wines from a medieval cellar
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