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  • The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (and II)
  • The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (and II)
The vineyards (1) an the village (2) of Labastida. Photos: Yolanda Ortiz de Arri

Spanish terroirs

The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (and II)

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | March 22nd, 2023

With its imposing manor houses and palaces, much of the architectural wealth of Labastida's historic quarter was created in the 18th century largely thanks to wine. Manuel Quintano, the visionary clergyman who tried unsuccessfully to adopt the Bordeaux method of winemaking to improve its quality, lived in one of them, at a time when the Basque village had three winery districts and more than 300 cosecheros or traditional vignerons.

In the mid-1960s, the creation of the cooperative practically put an end to the figure of cosechero in Labastida, but in recent years, perhaps spurred on by the pride of a village rooted in the vineyards, but above all by the current situation, a handful of local growers and young people have decided to take the plunge and start making their own wines. As in the case of the winegrowers whose stories featured in the first part of this piece, the nine men we are writing about today are involved in two very different projects, but both have the support of two well-known bodegas in Labastida. 

So far, we have not found any women who are starting out and have the help of a mentor. Perhaps there might be more if, as the interviewees in these articles say, the red tape and official regulations imposed on young people who want to make wine were eased, and they were helped with start-up facilities or by making it easier for veteran wineries to support small projects.

Remelluri and the five growers from Labastida

A leading figure in Spanish wine with operations in more than half a dozen regions throughout Spain, the last thing Telmo Rodríguez needed was probably to get involved in a new project with winegrowers in Labastida, but he firmly believes that wineries have a responsibility to their community and an obligation to avoid damaging the traditional fabric of small winegrowers in a historic area such as Rioja.

A prominent advocate of quality viticulture, Telmo met after the 2019 harvest with Alain Quintana and Jorge Gil, both grape suppliers for Lindes de Remelluri, and invited them to find more good local growers willing to join him and make wine from their best vines. In the process, Telmo told them, they would earn much more money than by selling the grapes to the wineries. 

"His only request was that we let him help us with everything, from the vineyard to marketing and communication," say the growers. "He told us that if the grapes had the quality required for the project, they would stay. If they didn't, he would pay us at Lindes' price, that is to say, at a good price, and he would keep them. It was a win-win situation for us. From the very first moment, everything has been extremely easy and we haven't had to spend any money; all we’ve brought in are our grapes.” 

In addition to Alain, 25, and Jorge, 48, in the mentoring project that began in the midst of the pandemic with the 2020 harvest, are Iñigo Perea (31), Luis Salazar (41) and Alberto Martínez (46). They are all sons and grandsons of Labastida winegrowers, but although some of them did not know each other, they have managed to form a well-knit group where everyone feels at ease and lends each other a hand when needed.

From left to right: Iñigo Perea, Alain Quintana, Jorge Gil, Luis Salazar and Alberto Martínez 

"It is very exciting and important that the growers' children take a step forward. There is an exciting scene in Rioja now with young people; the good thing is that if they encourage others, a sort of a social fabric will emerge in the region,” says Telmo, who feels the responsibility of succeeding with this project and is therefore proceeding steadily but slowly and without any hype. "We've been involved in this for three years now, and I see that the five of them are very enthusiastic and are improving all the time. Each one is in a different area of the village and they themselves are seeing how they are creating a map of Labastida.”

The growers know their vineyards inside out and recognise which is cooler, poorer or more humid, but they admit that they have improved since the 2020 vintage. "When you sell the grapes you start harvesting in the lower areas and work your way up, but for this project we have learned to identify and pinpoint the harvest window much better," confides Alain.

Some in this group, like Alberto or Luis, had previously made wine, because they were cosecheros. In the case of Alain, in addition to studying oenology and having worked at Remelluri, he has done vintages in Burgundy and California and makes three wines from family vineyards (Los Quintana, Aletheia y Tazaplata) in a space offered to him at Bodegas Mitarte. Apart from their previous experiences, the five of them let Telmo and his team at Remelluri guide them in terms of winemaking. "We have been fine-tuning the process based on the needs of each wine. The personality of the wines is the same in the three vintages we have produced, but each of the five wines is different and we can clearly identify them", they say proudly.

There is still no launch date for the five Remelluri wines, but we do know that it will happen this year. The label will feature the name of each winegrower and the name of his plot, but with a shared design to strengthen the branding. 

                 La Granja de Nuestra Señora de Remelluri, en Labastida

They don't know how much the bottle will sell for ("we haven't even asked or talked about money", they say), but everyone, especially Iñigo and Jorge, whose families have always sold their grapes, are very excited about making their own wine. "When we go to the winery to taste and I take home what's left over from the bottle, I am thrilled", confesses Iñigo, who went through some hard times when the cooperative was struggling and stopped paying for his grapes. "None of us have got involved believing that we are going to become millionaires". Alberto, who sold his own cosechero wine until 2005, adds: "We may have the best wine in the world, but where would we sell the bottles?”

They all echo the words of Iñigo and Alberto and add that being under Telmo's and Remelluri's protection, in whom they have complete trust, is crucial. "Telmo is different from many people here; he has a different outlook on life. And Remelluri is a winery that is true to its word. Las Beatas is exactly as they say it is: the terraces, the peach trees, the surroundings. And it's the same with us; everything is turning out just as they told us it would.” And they add: "In a business where there are many lies and a fair share of charlatans, we can say loud and clear that what we do in this project is real and true.”

Luis believes that this initiative with Remelluri may empower them to defend their own vineyards against other more resource-rich bodegas. "We are no longer offered adjacent vineyards as it has always been done. It is true that you can claim your preemptive rights, but nobody wants to get in trouble with powerful producers to whom you might as well sell your grapes,” the grower points out.

For Telmo, this is one of the greatest threats to the survival of the traditional villages and growers in Rioja. "In the past, the industrial wineries were not interested in owning vineyards and bought grapes cheaply. But now these bodegas are buying up a lot of vines and are slowly choking the villages, changing the distribution of the land. In France there are regulations to avoid monopolies. Of course, we don't even hear about it here, but that is how traditional viticulture is being lost.”

Telmo Rodríguez, in Remelluri

Disregarding the hours they spend in the vineyard and the terms and price at which they are paid for their grapes are recurring complaints in the growers' conversations, but this project has opened a window of hope for all of them, enabling them to farm better and with less stress in the future. "We know how to produce the finest grapes and we would like to do so. If we manage to set this wheel in motion and sell 3,000 or 4,000 bottles, maybe we can live with fewer hectares and farm them better, being organic.”

Although, as Jorge says, he farms twice as many vineyards as his father, but he does not live twice as well, everyone of them says that they would be winegrowers if they were to be born again. That said, although they have all carried on learning, they would have liked to further their studies in viticulture and languages or to gain experience in other wine-growing areas. "The School of Viticulture in Laguardia was the breeding ground for most of the Rioja Alavesa growers who are now in their 50s and 60s," explains Alberto. "That school ceased to exist and there is a gap between 2000 and 2020 for those who did not have the attitude or the skills to go to university but who could have done vocational training that would have allowed them to continue with the family vineyards and develop an interest in viticulture.”

Like the rest of those interviewed for these two articles, all five agree that without initiatives such as these mentoring arrangements, it is difficult for a young person to start making wine. "If the Basque Government were to create a nursery with facilities in Leza, Laguardia or Labastida, with some basic facilities for novel producers to make wine, it would cost Basque taxpayers half as much money as Viñedos de Álava and would provide an outlet for many new projects," says Jorge.

While they are aware that being under the protection of Remelluri is not going to last forever, they are taking it one day at a time. "The five of us are united and working together to start something positive. If we manage to build this project firmly, it will be thanks to Remelluri and Telmo, who have instigated it and given us the means to do so. At some point in the future, we'll talk about carrying on on our own, but for the time being, we're going to focus on getting it right.”

Tronado Wines and Área Pequeña

They are the first wines to be released and have been created at Bodegas Tierra thanks to the support of Carlos Fernández. Behind Tronado Wines are Guillermo Fernández and Catalin Grad, both workers at the winery, while Área Pequeña is the brand of the footballer brothers Joseba and Koldo García Quintana (Náxara CD and Palencia CF respectively).

With the support of his brother Fidel, winemaker at Bodegas Luis Cañas and Guillermo's father, the Labastida producer decided to mentor both projects altruistically but also out of "pure selfishness,” he says. "We spend all day complaining about the sharks, but if we get young people involved so that in the future they can set up serious, sustainable businesses, they will guarantee my retirement and the future of my children and the region,” says Carlos, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the cooperative. "I have nothing against outsiders who get involved, start up a winery and interact with the local people. We need to have a greater number of small wineries and be more like Burgundy in that sense.”

From left to right, Joseba García Quintana, Guillermo Fernández, Carlos Fernández and Cata Grad

Catalin, or Cata, as everyone calls him, arrived from Romania without knowing a word of Spanish or anything about wine, but has already completed 12 harvests at Tierra. For him, the winery is like home and he is very grateful to Carlos for having given him the opportunity to work at Tierra and to support him in the creation of Tronado Wines in partnership with Guillermo. For the time being, they have released a wine, Capitán Trueno (1600 bottles, €30), from the 2020 vintage with grapes they buy from the winery and make in amphora and seasoned barrels for 12 months with stems. 

"It is very difficult to start from scratch without the backing of a structure like Tierra, especially in our case, as we don't have our own vineyard. By the time the wine is released, it's almost three years worth of grapes, dry goods, bottles, corks, etc. The winery helped us with all this, and now that our wine is finally on the market, we can start paying for things", explains Cata, 31 years old, in perfect Spanish. 

Joseba García Quintana (26 years old), who worked for two years at Bodegas Tierra, and his brother Koldo (22 years old), an oenology student, did have 10 hectares of family vineyards in Labastida. As with their cousin Alain in Remelluri, when Tierra offered the brothers the opportunity to let them have a space to make their own wine, they didn't think twice about it. 

"We really appreciate Carlos' and Fidel's advice because it gives us confidence and helps us not to make beginner's mistakes. When we told them about the style of wine we wanted, they gave us some guidelines about the vineyard area, varieties, type of barrels, etc., but we have total freedom to do whatever we want," says Joseba, who is in charge of the vineyard. "The one thing they really do is to ensure that we don't make any mistakes.”

For 29-year-old Guillermo, the attraction to wine came late in life. "It was hard for me to get into it, perhaps because it was always around me. During the grape harvest, my father always arrived late and with black hands, so it didn't really appeal to me. At that time, I probably saw the hardest part of this business, but once you get into it, you start to meet people, to travel and you realise that you get caught up in it,” says Guillermo. "Now we are very excited when friends call us and say that they have tasted our wine in a restaurant. That really inspires us and makes us proud.”

For the next vintage, both Guillermo and Cata as well as the García Quintana brothers are planning to make a new wine each, possibly a white, although for the moment they all insist that they want to remain small and move forward slowly. "When you get out there to sell, people seem to take you more seriously and open more doors for you if you bring two bottles instead of one,” Cata points out. "A few merchants suggested it to us.”

The sales part is probably the hardest part for the four of them. Guillermo and Cata work with Juanjo Valgañón, from Doowine, whom they met through Tierra, and with some importers that Carlos has introduced them to, but Joseba and Koldo are still looking for distribution and for the time being they sell their 1,200 bottles (34.5 €) door to door in restaurants and wine shops. "It's hard to break through because they are medium to high priced wines, but once we're in inside, clients usually repeat orders". People seem to like the wine, a red from a plot planted in 1920, and that's what's important," says Joseba.

De izq. a dcha. Cata y Guillermo y Joseba y Koldo, en un evento organizado por La Bodega del Tesoro en Cuzcurrita (La Rioja)

The four of them are very comfortable under the tutelage of Tierra and they know they are fortunate, but they believe that if the regional authorities were to provide young people with premises equipped to start making their own wine on a small scale, there would be a great deal of interest. "The young are the future and we have to motivate them,” they all point out. "For a young winegrower to qualify for grants, the Basque Government requires you to have six hectares of rented or owned land. Who rents you so much land if you have no experience and they don't know who you are? And buying vineyards is difficult. In this area of Rioja, a hectare costs between 80,000 and 100,000 euros. At that price, only the big wineries have a chance.”

Carlos reminds them that the wine business is very nice, but "it is not a party. They need to focus on their projects so that they become established and make sure that they are financially sound". When the time to fly out of the nest comes, others will perhaps take their place. 

"During this year's harvest, two young lads came, one from Salinillas and the other from Labastida, asking if I would let them join in to produce a couple of barrels," says the owner of Tierra, who also runs a joint project (Dominio del Challao) with the young Argentinian producer Manu Michelini. "There is a buzz around Labastida and I really like that. The more people who become involved, the better. If more growers rise up the ladder rather than just selling grapes to the big wineries, the whole region will benefit.”


What lies in store for traditional vignerons in Rioja?
Spanish wine growers: first steps towards excellence
The challenges of starting up as a wine producer (I)
Rioja in the 21st century: styles and categories of wine
Yjar sets the path to excellence in Remelluri’s new era
Vignerons de la Sonsierra: crafting fine wines from a medieval cellar
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