Wine co-operatives, colloquially known as co-ops, have largely suffered from a negative image. And yet, not only has the purpose behind their creation as a safety net for farmers and regional wine industries been fulfilled, many persist today as models of well-run, ambitious wine producers. There is no better region to consider this phenomenon than in Spain’s Cariñena.
While there are nuanced variations to each model, generally a wine co-operative is an enterprise that is collectively owned by regionally-tied wine growers for mutual benefit. The co-op shares economies of scale to produce, bottle, store, market and sell wines made from members’ grapes. Most co-operatives formed in Europe after the great depression when small producers struggled to compete against overproduction and falling prices. Joining forces to pool resources and costs helped stabilize local grape industries. These principles spurred the creation of wine co-operatives in Cariñena. Yet, Cariñena’s co-ops advanced that purpose by raising quality, especially through the employment of contemporary technologies.
In Cariñena, the wine co-operative movement began in 1944. Since then, co-operatives have evolved into modern businesses which account for more than 85% of the total production in value of D.O.P. Cariñena. Today, three co-ops produce the majority of wines: Grandes Vinos, Bodegas San Valero, and Bodegas Paniza. All set high standards, though each has its own identity, contributing range to the region’s Grenache-focused wine offerings.
Consider Grandes Vinos. Established in 1997 through the integration of five co-operatives, it received support from the government of Aragón and key banks, providing it stability and financial strength. As a result, the winery can draw fruit from vineyards across all 14 growing areas in the D.O.P. and a range of soils and altitudes, lending diversity to its portfolio.
Through direct management of their fruit resources, Grandes Vinos has achieved vertical integration, retaining control of production, sales, and marketing, from vineyard to consumer. From the beginning, their goal was to allow winegrowers to devote themselves to the vineyard rather than wear multiple business hats or independently invest in costly equipment and technical expertise. High scores, international recognition, and strong global sales testifies to the success of their model.
Cariñena boasts the most plantings of Garnacha in Spain, the grape accounting for approximately a third of wine produced in the D.O.P. Contributing to that number are many old-vines between fifty and a hundred years in age. While it might seem counterintuitive for large co-operatives to micro-manage old vines, the effort has, in fact, proven a triumph.
For example, Bodegas San Valero works with over four hundred farmers, each one responsible for just several hectares. Bodegas San Valero believes land holdings of this size to be an ideal, manageable amount, resulting in vines, especially older ones, to be carefully looked after. Smaller holdings also allow actions to be taken simultaneously across all farms so that vine health risks like new diseases or burgeoning pest populations can be controlled quickly through a coordinated response. To efficiently organize an action or disseminate critical information to members, Bodegas San Valero has integrated a digital communications infrastructure that includes email, intranet, and even an app.
In return, the breadth of growers’ sites, including different varieties, heights, terrains, and yields, gives Bodegas San Valero a product portfolio that fills the needs of myriad customers and markets in a competitive manner.
Bodegas San Valero emphasizes another key function of cooperatives: the equitable sharing of gains among farmers, similar to “fair trade” frameworks found in other industries like coffee. This results in a competitive advantage in the arena of social responsibility, an asset in today’s world of shifting priorities.
Cariñena’s co-operatives also provide work in the countryside at a time when big cities are draining hinterland labor. Bodegas Paniza, named for the local town, sources Garnacha solely from the surrounding region. Because Paniza works with a cadre of younger farmers who are able to remain on the land gainfully employed, the 300-grower cooperative has become one of the most dynamic in Spain. At Bodegas Paniza, a team of people are always in the vineyards to support growers. Enologist Antonio Serrano regularly meets with them, checking vineyards himself. The result: an artisan-like venture with volume levels of high-quality wine.
In Cariñena, wine co-operatives serve as a sustainable and democratic business model that supports growers while bringing good value, quality wines to the global market. Through state-of-the-art technology, attention to detail, and pooling of resources, cooperatives in Cariñena have created opportunities for independent farmers to remain on their land, while enhancing the longstanding tradition of winemaking in the region.