- When you hear the word “stew”, you can picture a tin of Campbell’s or cassoulet from scratch.
- When you think of “live music”, you can see your sports bar’s rockabilly garage band or Dave Matthews at the Gorge.
- And when you buy wine made at a “cooperative”, you can get mass-produced mediocrity or Produttori del Barbaresco.
A lot has been written about Produttori and their superb wines. More than that, they’ve done it in the cooperative model which is infamous for medium- to low-quality wine. But Produttori del Barbaresco shows co-ops don’t have to suck by default.
How? The short answer is “intention”. But it goes much deeper than that.
First, what is a wine co-op?
A cooperative is a wine-making enterprise that is either owned by many independent grape farmers or by the state. That winery can make its wine in any number of ways. It can blend grapes from the various farmers (which is typical). It can also bottle wine from single farms. Or, it can tier price and quality levels based on fruit quality. In most models today, shareholder farmers value volume over quality because the more wine they make, the more they can sell.
But that doesn’t mean co-ops’ existence is necessarily evil, though some have been necessary evils. For example, they have preserved winemaking in struggling economies. The South African government established KWV to solve boom and bust cycles. At its inception in 1918, massive overproduction (for many reasons) had caused a “wine lake”. Too much unsellable wine flooded the market and put winegrowing under threat of collapse. KWV stabilized the industry’s production and pricing through regulation. However, fine-wine quality was never the focus. (This has since changed and it’s now a privately held company.)
In other cases, the political structure disallowed individual land or business ownership. A number of Eastern European countries saw their proud winegrowing traditions go sour under Soviet communist rule. The state took away individual wineries and land, but winegrowing continued. The USSR established cooperatives to continue winemaking. Unfortunately, no impetus (or say in the matter) for quality was left under this regime. Happily, that’s turning around again.
Second, how does a cooperative differ from other winery models?
Many models exist for making wine. The “estate” or “domaine” model is what many think of first: a quaint building surrounded by a swath of vineyards. Here, you make wine, age it in cellars, and bottle it on site under that winery’s label. That winery owns the vineyards around it and may own or control others in the area. One example is Tiberio winery in Abruzzo.
There’s also the “negoçiant” model, in which you don’t actually own most or any of the fruit sources. Rather, you buy grapes or finished wine from any number of growers, then blend and bottle it under your company label. Think Joseph Drouhin of Burgundy.
You can also mix the estate and negoçiant model, where you make your own wine from your own vineyards, and also buy grapes from growers which you still bottle under your own label. The quality depends on your and your growers’ skill and relationship. Saint Cosme in the Rhône Valley is a very high-quality example.
How is Produttori different than other co-ops?
Most cooperatives aren’t set up to enable quality, but Produttori del Barbaresco shows that co-ops don’t have to suck by default. We put the question to Aldo Vacca, GM of Produttori. It’s worth noting that their website is a goldmine of info on their vineyard sources, winemaking, and history. What it doesn’t say explicitly is how they’ve stayed so good in the co-op model.
Produttori makes wine with the Nebbiolo grape in the Barbaresco growing zone of Piemonte. They produce:
- a Barbaresco DOCG and a Barbaresco Riserva
- nine single-vineyard or “cru” wines, and
- a Langhe Nebbiolo from young-vine Barbaresco (rather than from sites in the Langhe that don’t qualify for Barbaresco)
A 1958 decision
The foundational principle was the decision to make only Barbaresco. That means no lesser grapes or wines from lesser growing areas within the region. Since there is no low-end market for Barbaresco, their raison d’être was quality wine. However, it’s still possible to meet DOCG criteria and still make average wine. There must be more.
A field blend: great vineyards, common ownership, visionary management
These three elements we can’t separate. First, the grower-owners have outstanding vineyards. They lie in the best areas for soil, exposure, and climate up and down the zone. But having good vineyard sources doesn’t mean you’ll grow quality fruit. It’s easy to be a shitty farmer. So the growers have to care.
To care, they have to agree to the quality vision, which means farming to crop for lower yields. That’s where the relationship between the growers and the winery managers comes in. It must be built on trust and respect. As Aldo explains, “they trust us to make the best possible wines and sell it in the best way, but it is their winery and their profit.”
So, the head winemaker works with the growers every vintage to set yield targets. Their profit comes from the reputation they have built in a premium market over 60 years, not from making and selling more wine.
The two techs: -nique and -nology
Finally, the harvesting and handling methods must respect the growers’ careful work. All harvesting is by hand in small (maximum 25kg) baskets. The best grapes are selected in the vineyard before going to the winery. Then in the cellar, Aldo explains that:
our approach is to use state of the art, modern equipment to make super traditional wines. So we use stainless steel temperature controlled fermenting tanks and French oak large casks, but we also apply minimal manipulation, no fining and very light filtering. All is done to enhance the terroir quality in the wines.
The test of time
Astoundingly, Produttori’s wines are still outrageously great value given their quality. Maintaining this level of integrity among 50 growers and the winery managers over the several generations is an accomplishment unto itself. It also shows that the model is less the barrier than the people and principles behind it.
There’s no secret ingredient, but there is a special recipe:
- 50 proud families
- 9 outstanding vineyard sites
- 3 generations of vision
- Combine with a generous scoop of principles
- Bake for 60 years in a 700-degree leadership oven