Opinion

In Defense of Regional Wine Cooperatives

The age of the grower-producer finds many buyers overlooking co-op wines—and missing out

Weißenkirchen in der Wachau
Weissenkirchen, Austria. Photo credit: iStock.

Before marquee wine regions became household names, sought out by sommeliers and beloved by wine drinkers, many producers knew hard economic times. “To focus only on Barbaresco was suicide,” says Aldo Vaca, the managing director for Produttori del Barbaresco, a wine cooperative in Piedmont, Italy. Today such a claim seems unthinkable. But when the enterprise was founded, in 1958, quite a different scenario prevailed. “The price of land was very low, and the price of grapes was very low,” Vaca says. The rate of attrition among grape farmers was staggering as they deserted their land and moved to cities, where new industries were booming. The only way to rise above the dire economic circumstances in rural areas was to form a cooperative.

When I worked as a sommelier at NoMad in New York City from 2011 to 2013, Produttori del Barbaresco wines were my go-to staples. Not only were they more financially approachable in the elevated Barbaresco category, but the quality of the cooperative’s wines also acted as a kind of sommelier insurance policy. Time and again, I found consistency; the old vintages were preserved impeccably, especially among single-vineyard bottlings. Heck, these wines practically taught me about Nebbiolo, as I regularly opened bottles dating back to the 1980s.

Roman and Manfred Jäger. Photo by Peter Weltman.

Cooperatives were on my mind recently as I was driving along the Danube River with Roman Jäger in Austria’s Wachau. Jäger knows this bucolic river valley as a prosperous region that houses his family estate, Weingut Jäger, which is nestled in the small village of Weissenkirchen. But it wasn’t always this way. Jäger explains that between 1920 and 1935, small growers and winemakers struggled during the depression that followed World War I. Wines from the Wachau were mostly sold in barrels to traders who were making the real profits. After those desolate years, it was his late grandfather, Franz Jäger, who helped form the region’s cooperative, Domaine Wachau. “My grandfather borrowed against his property and came together with seven other growers in 1938,” says Jäger. “Quintessentially, the winegrowers had to find a new way to sell their wine.” They began with direct sales within Austria, but in 1960, Roman’s late father, Manfred Jäger, expanded sales throughout Europe. What was then a fledgling partnership has today become the region’s largest producer, making wine from around 440 hectares of vines.

I was moved to hear how Domaine Wachau revitalized a region that is so important today. But I was also concerned. In the age of the grower-producer, with its myopic view that what’s smaller is better, what is the place of co-op wines? I know that some sommeliers and retailers avoid these wines, but what might they be missing out on? I decided to investigate the landscape by talking with buyers and co-op producers.  

Considering Austria’s Largest Co-op

“I think in the trade, we do tend to look down on co-ops and have a preconceived idea that they’re bad,” says Michelle Bouffard, a Montreal-based educator, author, and television host who has visited Domaine Wachau and uses its wines as benchmarks in teaching. She offers cautious praise of cooperatives, saying, “I think they can do a lot of great work if they are well managed.”

Kathleen Thomas, who is the training manager in Las Vegas for Hakkasan Restaurant Group’s U.S. restaurants and who also leads strategic corporate sourcing for niche wines, says she recognizes the virtues of cooperative wines in both her training and buying roles. “Domaine Wachau are favored wines for corporate buying programs,” she says, as well as for “sommeliers studying for blind-tasting exams.”

Hakkasan operates more than a dozen restaurant and nightlife concepts around the globe, and because of that, Thomas says Domaine Wachau is attractive to the group for its breadth of offerings. “We revel in the price, quality, and availability of their entry Wachau Terrassen wines for by-the-glass placements,” she says, “while securing the single-vineyard bottles for our more wine-focused restaurants.” It’s hard to argue when she says that “adding to the allure is Domaine Wachau’s unique ownership of nearly half of the famed Achleiten vineyard!”

Aldo Sohm, chef sommelier at Le Bernardin and partner at the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York City, praises the institution’s longevity. “Domaine Wachau has, for many years, made a very consistent wine with a very high quality.” He credits the domaine’s director, Master of Wine Roman Horvath, and winemaker Heinz Frischengruber for driving this course, noting that they are “incredibly respected in Austria and show enormous commitment.”

Getting to the Roots of Co-ops in Greece

I decided to keep digging and look more deeply at the model itself. Are co-ops still relevant businesses in today’s market, or are they warhorses of a bygone era? I consulted Constantine Iliopoulos, the director of the Agricultural Economics Research Institute at the Agricultural University of Athens.

Immediately, he dispelled any notion that co-ops are irrelevant, saying, “There is no country in the world with an advanced agri-food system where agricultural cooperatives do not play a major role in the main food supply chains.” Co-ops continue to be relevant because they’re constantly reinventing themselves. Says Iliopoulos, “There are more than 15 new cooperative models that have been adopted for the agricultural sector [in Greece] in the last 25 to 30 years.”.

Based in Athens, Iliopoulos uses his proximity to the island of Santorini to study the Union of Wine Cooperatives of Santorini, known as Santo Wines. The island’s de facto agricultural cooperative, it supplies the country not only with grapes but also with volcanic soil–grown tomatoes, fava beans, and capers. Santo was established after World War II, in 1947, when the desolate island was a far cry from the tourist hot spot it’s known as today.

Before the cooperative was founded, “private wineries were buying the grapes and selling [the wines],” says Theo Dimopoluos, Santo Wines’s general manager. “They were taking advantage of the farmers.” Santorini was poor, and its vineyards were shrinking, especially after the mass exodus of the island’s population to the mainland following a 1956 earthquake. Farmers need to do something to stabilize their livelihoods. “From the 1950s through the 1980s, our main concern was to sell products,” Dimopoulos notes. “We didn’t care where, or how, or [about] the quality.”

Photo courtesy of Santo Wines.

The turning point came in the early 1990s. Santo Wines built its current winery with an impressive tasting room to appeal to tourists, and the cooperative started to concentrate on making better wine. “We had to focus on elevating the wines’ quality to keep vineyards from shrinking,” Dimopoulos says. “Our goal now is to keep high standards and keep prices higher, which is the only way to keep vineyards in Santorini.” In addition to producing a million bottles a year, 80 percent of which is Santorini Assyrtiko PDO, the winery is on track to welcome 500,000 visitors in 2018, up from 400,000 visitors in 2017. Those guests will make up an impressive 20 percent of Santo Wines’s revenue.

The sommelier Brent Kroll, owner and cofounder of Maxwell Park in Washington, D.C., has supported and highlighted Santo wines for more than a decade. “Santo offers some of the most valued Assyrtiko wines from Santorini,” Kroll says, noting that the entry-level Santorini Assyrtiko PDO is a strong choice for a by-the-glass list. Santo Wines’s vineyards “are some of the most unique and special in the world,” he says. “If people don’t prioritize them, Santorini will become an island of hotels and Heineken.”

And even though Santo Wines is Santorini’s largest producer, its efforts and quality standards uphold the fragile fabric of Santorini viticulture. “Since Santo Wines is supporting small farmers,” Kroll asserts, “you’re still helping their livelihood by buying the wine.”

The concerted work of Santo Wines at home has not gone unnoticed in the global wine competition space, such as the TEXSOM competition, which the cooperative first entered in 2016. “Santo Wines started winning a lot of awards at our competition,” says Master Sommelier James Tidwell, referring to the TEXSOM International Wine Awards that he co-created and runs. While some Assyrtiko can be too salty and smoky for first-time drinkers, the cooperative’s entry-level Santorini Assyrtiko offers a more delicate lemon and saline character. The Santorini Aspa, a dry wine made with later-harvest Assyrtiko, is aged three months in French oak and then bottle-aged before release. It has the pronounced brine and texture that sommeliers crave, as indicated by its TEXSOM awards.

Produttori del Barbaresco
Photo courtesy of Produttori del Barbaresco.

Quality Focus in Barbaresco

While Santo Wines was founded with a survive-at-any-quality mentality, the Produttori del Barbaresco in Piedmont began with different ambitions. Facing dire circumstances in the 1950s, the Produttori’s founders—including both of Vaca’s grandfathers—focused on making distinguished wine from the onset. “Right upon our foundation we were known for high-end production,” says Vaca. Today the cooperative has an annual production of 600,000 bottles, and quality and tradition still guide every organizational decision.

Even though the region was floundering in the ’50s, the cooperative concept was not an easy sell to growers. A local parish priest persuaded the founding 19 families to work together. “Don Fiorino convinced the farmers of Barbaresco to give up privacy and rivalry to achieve together something that was more important than doing it on their own,” Vaca says. Although the first years were rocky, Vaca credits four main tenets for the cooperative’s success: First, the cooperative decided to focus entirely on traditional Barbaresco. Second, it required growers to deliver 100 percent of their Nebbiolo grapes, and only grapes from vineyards they farmed. Third, it paid growers according to the quality of grapes rather than their ripeness levels. And last, it agreed to bottle the best nine single-vineyard crus individually.

Left: Heidi Jäger, right: Weissenkirchen. Photo by Peter Weltman.

With these stipulations, cooperative members were unable to make their own, private-label Barbarescos. Yet over a 60-year history, only six grower-members have left the organization, which today numbers 54 members. Vaca says that the cooperative’s most important decision was made in 1967, when its growers became the first producers in the region to bottle individual crus. Within the first six years, the Produttori’s member farms had large stakes in Ovello, Moccagatta, Montestefano, and Pajé; later, members were added with majority holdings in Rabajà, Asili, Montefico, Pora, and Martinenga. “The area was behind Barolo, who were already making cru wines,” says Vaca. “Now we are one of the few co-ops in Europe that can claim control of the crus, which of course puts us in the top position.” With the best vineyards under its jurisdiction, yields per hectare set below the regional regulations, and traditional Nebbiolo winemaking techniques in play, the cooperative was set up for success.

But were these quality controls enough to make sommeliers pay attention, or had they passed these wines over? I called Jeff Porter, the beverage director for the New York City–based Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, to ask his opinion. “Produttori is one of the main reasons I became so infatuated with Italian wine, and Nebbiolo in particular,” he says. “The fact that it continues to support the small families of the region and has enabled the region to grow to what it is today is [a testament] to the greatness of Produttori.”

Kim Cavoores, the wine director of Marta and Vini e Fritti in New York City, is another fan who gives cellar real estate to the wines. She first experienced Produttori wines in 2013, while working for Paul Grieco, the owner of the seminal wine bar Terroir in New York City, and says they have been a consistent presence on her lists. Cavoores recently opened a 1982 Produttori del Barbaresco Montestefano, which she described as “breathtaking, classy, and elegant—just as the vintage would have suggested.”

If sommeliers have any hesitation left about considering the wines of this cooperative, Porter leaves no doubt as to why wine programs should feature them. “Produttori wines exemplify and typify what Barbaresco is,” he says. “They 100 percent deliver on the quality and the price at all levels; from Langhe Nebbiolo to aged examples, I use them to introduce what classic Barbaresco from Barbaresco is. And the Riservas prove that terroir does matter, and that’s one of the reasons wine is so much fun.”

After speaking with these somms and producers, I was relieved to find that there’s still a market fit for the co-op concept, especially when quality is a top consideration. While cooperatives were once startups for survival, the organizations today provide ongoing support for small family farms in grape-growing regions around the world. For buyers, the wines are valuable for their typicity and breadth. Not only do they offer entry-level benchmark expressions of grapes and regions, but the higher-end bottlings also captivate buyers with their quality. Voicing a sentiment that might pertain to all great cooperatives, Porter says of Produttori that “the wines are must-haves not just for Italian wine programs but for anyone who wants to show great terroir-driven wines.”

Peter Weltman is a sommelier and entrepreneur based in San Francisco who explores native grapes from ancient sources. He writes for global food publications, gives speeches on wine activism, and creates immersive experiences about his movement, Borderless Wine. Find out where he’s reporting from next on Instagram.

Most Recent