Let’s hear it for the co-operatives

ArticlesJust Williams

In recent decades, Europe’s wine co-operatives have been dismissed as backward as buyers fixate on individual growers. But, says David Williams, there is plenty to admire in the way these collectives emerged out of times of crisis, and the wines they produce are by no means as unfashionable as some people assume

 

A crisis is a moment of opportunity. This bit of boilerplate wisdom can come across as a little glib at times. It’s especially unwelcome if it’s coming from someone who is patently not experiencing a crisis in the same way that you are.

“An opportunity for what, and for whom?” you might well ask, as the visibly well-fed politician continues his lecture on how many great entrepreneurs emerged from a childhood of extreme poverty and hunger.

Still, if we look back at previous crises, we may find that there is something worth retrieving at the core of a cliché that is too often deployed in bad faith. Humanity’s capacity for adaptability is at its most remarkably tenacious in the wake of traumatic events, and this might make us wonder what will emerge when (please not if) we emerge from this current moment.

It’s a question that applies to the wine industry as much as it does to wider society. Most predictions about the post-Covid future of wine seem to focus on what, to me, seem rather dispiriting changes: as I wrote in these pages a couple of months back, 2020 has accelerated the switch to online in many various and, quite possibly, irrevocable ways.

However you look at it, on this reading, the wine industry from now on will be a whole lot less sociable and convivial than it was before the pandemic.

Looking back at how the wine world has responded to previous crises in history, however, I wonder if some rather more positive outcomes – outcomes that bring people together rather than sealing them ever tighter in atomised bubbles –might not be possible.

Specifically, I’m wondering if the 2020s might not herald the renaissance of a particular type of production that embodies collaboration – the European co-operative.

Certainly, most of the successful co-operatives operating today emerged in a time of crisis.

Think of the Cave de Ribeauvillé, formed in 1896 as the growers of Alsace looked to rebuild their vineyards in the wake of the twin catastrophes of phylloxera and military invasion. Or the Produttori del Barbaresco, which has a backstory straight from an Italian neo-realist film, with the local priest bringing the village’s growers together with a vision of high-quality Nebbiolo after years in which their livelihood was ravaged by economic depression and war.

La Chablisienne: among the best co-operatives in Europe

 

And the foundational crisis needn’t be world historical: Gascony’s Plaimont was formed as a wine-producing collective as a response to the collapse in Armagnac sales in the early 1970s.

It’s easy to see why co-operatives emerge at such moments. The advantages of co-operative membership are all heightened in times of need: the shared resources, from winemaking to promotion; the economies of scale; the sheer reach that an organisation of several hundred people, representing several thousand hectares and millions of hectolitres, has, in terms of both lobbying and marketing, versus working with your own couple of hectares, alone.

Still, for much of the past few decades, the tendency has been to talk up the individual grower and talk down the whole idea of the co-op.

How many times have you read a profile of an exciting European grower who used to sell to the local co-op but has now boldly struck out alone, after tiring of the politics and the infighting? And how often have you spoken to a French, Spanish, German or Italian wine entrepreneur who says how much would be possible if the truculent growers at the local co-operative weren’t holding the region back, the commitment to buying up their growers’ harvest come what may always meaning quality takes a back seat to quantity?

 

Purely in wine terms, Europe’s many well-run co-operatives are invariably a force for good

 

Of course, we’ve all had experiences of badly run co-operatives: the buying (or press) trip lowlight with its filthy, prison-like 1930s facilities, unironic 1980s labels and rancid wines. But if they are bad in what seems like a distinctively co-op-y way, are they really so common? Are there more bad co-ops as a proportion of the total than there are bad private wineries, big and small?

I’m not so sure there are. And, purely in wine terms, Europe’s many well-run co-operatives are invariably a force for good, at their best acting as regional ambassadors, helping to shape regional styles and best practice, and making excellent mass-market and, in some cases, seriously fine, wines.

Among the best you can most certainly count Produttori del Barberesco, Cave de Ribeauvillé and Plaimont. To that list you could add Le Cave de Tain in the Rhône, Cantina Terlano in the Alto-Adige, Cantine Settesoli in Sicily, Cavit in Trentino, Chablis’ La Chablisienne, the Wachau’s Domäne Wachau and (although its members officially became shareholders when it became a limited company in the early 2000s) Bodegas Borsao in Campo de Borja, while Champagne’s powerful co-operatives are responsible for brands such as Jacquart and Nicolas Feuillatte.

There’s a commercial savvy behind the success of each of the above. But it’s underpinned by something stronger: a combination of regional pride and a social solidarity that will be more in need than ever as Europe’s producers attempt to work their way back from – and find the opportunities created by – a disastrous 2020.

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