At the level of fine wine, its ways of working don’t seem to fit in with the prevailing cult of the individual. To be a thoroughbred, or so the received wisdom goes, you need a single vineyard or, at least, single estate, worked by a single “passionate” man, woman or family. As the product of grapes grown with more or less conviction and talent by hundreds of member-growers, a co-operative wine, by contrast, is always going to be a camel – aka, a horse designed by a committee.
But if co-operatives struggle to compete at the top end, they find it even harder at the cheap and cheerful level that, in Europe at least, used to be theirs alone. The massive drop in wine consumption across southern Europe has hit the co-ops hard, with their sclerotic management structures meaning many were far too late to recognise that their captive local market had stopped turning up faithfully each week to refill their plastic demijohns no matter the quality in those grim-looking concrete tanks.
The co-ops have struggled, too, to adapt to changes in the way EU funds are allocated, with Brussels’ largesse switching from propping up production to financing export campaigns – often at the generic level.
No wonder then, that private companies are deemed by many analysts to be better suited to serve the needs of buyers around the world. The thinking being that, while co-ops must always consult those hundreds of members before making commercial decisions, private firms, with their more streamlined chains of command, are able to react much more speedily to market demands. But if many co-ops still have a whiff of the social security safety net about them – with a business model that’s more concerned with protecting member interests than pleasing customers – then many more are proving it is possible to survive and thrive.
In France, 12 of these forward-thinking co-operatives – from the Rhône’s Cellier des Princes to Bordeaux’s Les Vignerons de Tutiac – have clubbed together to form a new group, Marques & Coop, to promote their joint interests, hosting tastings and taking stands at fairs around the world. What the 12 have in common is a distinctly modern approach, with the members understanding their interests are best served by putting trust in their winemaking and marketing teams as shareholders would in the executives of a limited company, and empowering them to take decisions such as paying for grapes by quality rather than quantity, that enable them to compete in the market.
The same could be said of many other co-operatives all over Europe. Some – Chablis’ La Chablisienne, Piedmont’s Produttori del Barbaresco, Alto-Adige’s Cantina Terlano, or the Rhône’s Cave de Tain – are able to make wines that are every bit as fine and terroir-specific as any small producer. Others –Plaimont Producteurs, Bodegas Borsao, Cantina Settesoli – have perfected the art of the high quality-to-value ratio. Not every co-op can make such claims. But nor can every corporate or independent producer.
And, given that more than 60% of French and Spanish growers, and 40% of Italians, are still members of a co-op, an approach that seems “so 20th century, darling” to many, is in fact very much a part of the 21st century scene.