CVNE – It’s a Family Affair

CVNE – It’s a Family Affair

The company is one of Rioja's oldest, but it isn't a slave to tradition.

© CVNE | The company is one of Rioja’s oldest, but it isn’t a slave to tradition.

CVNE chief executive Victor Urrutia talks to Adam Lechmere about maintaining classic status in changing times.

Posted Tuesday, 28-Mar-2017

What was your first experience of wine?

Well, the old cliché for people like me is we had an epiphany with some amazing wine at age 10. With me it was more prosaic: my parents and grandparents drank wine every day. My grandmother always had a glass at lunch and a couple of glasses for dinner. She’d drink CVNE, and a lot of Bordeaux and Champagne; there are stacks of empty magnums of Dom Pérignon in the cellar. But generally in Spain it’s typical not to vary a lot in what you drink.

Not at all. I was working in management consultancy in London and I was perfectly happy. But my uncle, who was chairman, his health deteriorated rapidly. He’s fine now but, in 2003, he decided couldn’t continue in charge. I was 29 and I got drafted in to run the company.Did you always intend to work for the family company?

You weren’t happy with that?

I’d been on a consultancy job in São Paolo for six months when my father called to ask if I was interested in working for CVNE. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to live in Bilbao and spend all my time in Rioja. I’d been to school in England, then to Columbia University in New York – I’d been all over the place and I lived in London. I really didn’t want to come back to a family environment in a small town. But my father was very persistent and said it was a family obligation. So out of a sense of responsibility I agreed, but said I’d only do it for a year. One thing led to another, and now it’s been 14 years. I’m not complaining. It’s an amazing job and I’m very happy.

Did you have to change much when you took over?

Sure. We had some great vineyards, and a great stock of wines, but the management was thin. There was no sales team, for example. That needed strengthening so that was the first area to focus on. There was some resistance. We fired a lot of people and hired a lot of people. In the end this is not a one-man project – it’s a machine that’s been running a long time and it just needed fine tuning. There are a lot of people who know exactly what they are doing but none is of unique importance.

You’re a very old family company – how is ownership organized now?

We’re listed on the Spanish stock exchange because we had literally hundreds of relations who wanted to do something with their shares. There’s no primogeniture in Spain so everything gets split and, by the fifth generation, you end up with multiple owners. So, in the 1990s, my father and uncle decided the fairest thing to do was to list the company. Now ownership is concentrated between my father and uncle, and [sister] Maria and me. In terms of responsibilities we don’t have a big structure, or a business plan for the next five years. Maria looks after the marketing and the thousands of other things associated with that, and I do everything else.

Maria Urrutia (L) looks after the marketing; brother Victor does the rest.

© CVNE | Maria Urrutia (L) looks after the marketing; brother Victor does the rest.

How much do you get involved in the winemaking?

I’m not trained or educated in any way in enology. We have a team of winemakers with huge experience – in the past 100 years we’ve only had five head winemakers. So I get involved as much as I can but you can’t change some things. Things like Imperial you can’t change – it has to remain a certain style.

How much vineyard do you own, and are you looking to buy more?

We manage 500 hectares [1235 acres] of vineyard, of which we own 400ha and the rest are on long-term contracts. I’ve always wanted to have more land, because I think owning your vineyards is the base of quality wine. I’ve delivered on that in 2016: we’ve bought 60ha in Laguardia, Labastida and Fuenmayor, and we’re in the process of buying another 40ha. It’s a big investment.

What will you use the grapes for?

Ideally we would produce more Imperial. We make 200,000 bottles in all, 50,000 Gran Reserva and 150,000 Reserva and we haven’t got the fruit to produce more at the moment. Time will tell. If we don’t make more Imperial we can make more Viña Real and Cune Reserva.

What is your opinion of the campaign to allow village and vineyard designations in Rioja?

I’m totally in favor of people making the best wine that they can, whether it’s within the appellation, or in a different way. I think we should all have that freedom. We started making a single-vineyard wine – Contino – 40-odd years ago, and we put Laguardia-Laserna on the label. If we were allowed to put it in bigger letters, I don’t know if we would. It doesn’t bother me.

Do you think a Burgundy-style classification system would work in Rioja?

How could I not defend something that wants to protect the best vineyards in Spain? Of course people would love to have what Burgundy has – village, premier cru and grand cru – but it’s hard to repeat. Look what happens in Saint-Émilion every time they have a new classification. Imagine doing that in Spain, in a big region like Rioja. It’s impossible.

You recently revived the Monopole Blanco Seco. Do you have plans for any more cuvées?

A lot of our future is in our past – there is logic in reviving old wines. We aren’t detracting from anything, and it’s made in tiny amounts. When you look at the new cuvées that are invented, pretty much everything that was done in the past was better. Perhaps we should go back rather than try to invent new things.

Are you interested in working in other regions of Spain, or the world?

There are pockets of abandoned vineyards all over Spain. This is land that was farmed centuries ago – you can see them in Galicia, and in Gredos, beautiful steep hills with terraces. In some ways the abandoned ones are more beautiful than the ones that have been restored. It’s a massive job to revive them; the hard bit isn’t putting up the money, it’s finding who owns it and if they’re willing to part with it, and then finding the people to work on it. But if the wines are good then you have something amazing. It’s definitely something I’d like to do, no question.

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