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A Wine Co-op for U.S. Cooperatives

Argentine winery co-op comes to America

Riojana Winery Cooperative

José Bertorello of Riojana Winery visited People’s Food Co-op this month, stopping in Rochester and La Crosse to talk with co-op shoppers and sample Riojana Wines. Like Riojana, José is from Argentina. He’s been in the United States for six months visiting co-ops. He bought a car and has been making marathon driving trips all over the U.S. to visit as many co-ops as he can. José slowed down for a few minutes in La Crosse and we sat down for a chat.

Co-ops in Argentina
After visiting a number of U.S. co-ops, José's notes that there are some diferences between the U.S. and Argentine approach to cooperatives. “In Argentina,” he says, “we have many co-ops, but most of ours started in the 1930s–40s. Here in the U.S., most of your co-ops seem to have started in the 1970s and they’re consumer co-ops. We don’t have many of those. In Argentina, it’s mostly producer co-ops.”

Riojana was founded in 1940. It currently is comprised of 500 small grape growers who are all voting members of the Riojana co-op. Over 80% of the co-op’s farmers are small-scale producers; most of them own less than a few hectares of land. The co-op guarantees a higher than average market price for grapes to each member-farmer.

José believes the cooperative structure has allowed the business to weather the successive economic shocks that Argentina has suffered for the last generation or so. “It’s normal for us to have economic crisis. We’ve had 30% inflation for a number of years. Imagine trying to have a business, to start a building project, for example, that would take three years to complete – you couldn’t know what your costs are going to be. People had to organize to survive. We have farmer-cooperatives for corn, tobacco, yerba maté, and cheese. Riojana growers came together as a way to survive. We sustain all the members—it’s like a family.”
  José Bertorello of Riojana Winery

 

In the U.S., Riojana sells its wine to co-ops exclusively. Through a personal connection, the Riojana export manager met the buyer at North Carolina’s Weavers’ Market Co-op. Together they came up with the idea to sell directly to co-ops (or as directly as possible allowing for individual state liquor licensing laws). With the money the winery saves by selling direct, they are able to deliver a better quality wine to the consumer. “We designed the wine to be good, but also to sell for less than $10,” José reports. The program has been very successful. “Our first case of wine arrived in North Carolina 18 months ago. We thought we’d sell 5,000 cases our first year. We shipped 25,000 cases.”

Though the grapes are all organically grown, the winery is currently only 50% certified organic. José reports that they plan to be 100% organic certified by next year: “With 500 farmers we have a lot of people to get certified—it’s expensive too.”

Fair Trade Riojana
Riojana has been a certified Fair Trade cooperative since 2006. They are the largest Fair Trade wine producer in the world. Fair Trade practice means that a portion of the wine sales is invested into the community of Riojana. The winery is located in the northwest of Argentina, and many of the co-op’s workers and members live in tiny rural communities with few services. The co-op has dug wells to provide water for members and workers who had previously relied on inadequate water supply in an arid region. They’re currently building a health clinic.

Through their Fair Trade wines, the co-op was also able to build a high school for the town of Tilimuqui. It’s the only secondary school in the area and has been life-changing for the local farm kids. The school has had a couple of graduating classes now. “Twenty-eight kids from the school are going to university next year,” José reports. The school specializes in agronomy, so the co-op hopes to benefit from the graduates’ agricultural studies.

 

 

“We want to deliver the value through cooperatives to support our farmers and develop our communities,” José said. “My English is not very good, but that’s what we do. We have high quality wines at reasonable prices, and we can do it year after year.” José finished up his presentation at People’s Food Co-op and prepared to head off into the unknown world of Iowa. “I do wish that the United States had better television. There’s very little soccer.”

As musical accompaniment to your Riojana wines, José recommends the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, such as the Tango Apasionado found here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CifcnZGIoE

and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTPec8z5vdY