Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 36: Wine co-operatives: socialist ethos or dynastic leadership?

The socialist ethos of co-operatives is often noticed, their dynastic leadership pattern less so. I spoke recently with John Leech, Commercial Director of Araldica Castelvero, a major co-operative producing Piemontese wines. The company processes the grapes from 900 hectares of vines, of which they own just under 100 ha. John is particularly a fan of their Barbera, especially Rive, Il Cascinone, Barbera d’Asti Superiore. I tasted the 2017, a hot, dry vintage. Here is my tasting note. ‘Intense red and very ripe black fruit, full in the mouth, well-integrated vanilla and clove oak, warming alcohol, very full-on, just needs more refreshment and/or more fruit concentration to balance the 15% abv to be truly outstanding’. It won a silver medal at IWSC. And it stood up well when tasted side by side with many top Barberas I sampled on a recent visit to the region. It is undoubtedly a very good wine and great value for £14–£16 in the UK.

Socialist ethos or dynastic leadership: Ageing cellar at Il Cascinone
Ageing cellar at Il Cascinone
Socialist ethos

In the course of the conversation, we touched on our mutual (see what I did there) love for wine co-operatives. These institutions were born in part out of a socialist ethos. The workers share the spoils of their labours and are directly involved in the management of their company. This is the case even if they only own a hectare or two of land. In the classic co-operative model, the board of management is made up of a number of members, elected by the wider membership, as well as the chief officers of the company. Under Italian law, there are tax breaks to be had for co-operatives. However, they are not allowed to make a profit. Excess income over expenditure can either be re-invested in the company or given back as a dividend to the growers. Araldica has used both of these options. It has funded significant investments in water recycling in its wineries, investing in air source heat pumps and expanding its warehouses. Parts of these investments have enabled it to improve significantly in terms of the environmental sustainability of the business. But alongside this socialist and positive ethos, interestingly, there is also a dynastic dimension.

Dynastic leadership

The current general manager of Araldica is Claudio Manera. He started as a winemaker there, alongside his wife, also a winemaker, Lella Burdese, now head of quality control. Claudio is the son of Livio Manera. He was one of the founding members and the winemaker of the original co-operative which became Araldica, Antica Contea di Castelvetro. Araldica, massively expanded, is today based in the same village of Castel Boglione. It is south of Nizza Monferrato and thus in the heart of Barbera and Moscato country. And I learnt that a third-generation, Carlo Manera, is the winemaker responsible for all three of Araldica’s own estates. They are La Battistina (where he was previously head winemaker) and Santa Seraffa in Gavi, and Il Cascinone. It would not be a great surprise if he becomes general manager one day. And I gather he has a son too, so watch this space! Let’s turn now to a better-known example of a combination of socialist ethos and dynastic leadership.

The Vacca dynasty at Produttori

This reminded me that the current managing director of the world-famous Produttori del Barbaresco, Aldo Vacca, is also part of a winemaking and leadership dynasty. Aldo is an absolute goldmine of information about the history of Barbaresco, about the co-operative and about its next-door neighbour, Gaja, for whom he worked in the past. Michaela Morris tells the story. Aldo’s great-grandfather, Giuseppe Vacca was among the growers in the first Barbaresco co-operative in 1894. His uncles were also members in the early days of the refounding of the co-operative in 1958. His father, Celestino Vacca, had a high school diploma. This was something of a rarity in those days. It enabled him to become the managing director of the co-operative from 1958 to 1984. Aldo succeeded him in 1991, taking the dynasty and the wines to new heights. (It is not an exact parallel, but the father of Cuvage’s Stefano Ricagno, is the managing director of another big co-operative, Alice Bel Colle.) Of course, if we were talking about private companies, it would not be surprising to find that there is a strong dynastic tradition of sons, and these days, daughters, leading companies in successive generations. But it turns out that this is an important dynamic in Piedmonte’s co-operatives as well. It turns out that a socialist ethos and dynastic leadership go hand in hand.

The heart of Barbaresco, the view from Produttori
The heart of Barbaresco, the view from Produttori

There is another interesting common factor between Araldica and Produttori. Both were founded, or in the case of Produttori, re-founded through the initiative of the local parish priest. Don Carlo Montrucchi was the guiding light in Castel Boglione in 1954, Don Fiorino Marengo the guiding spirit in Barbaresco in 1958. These men of God clearly understood that finding a way for their communities to sustain themselves and to provide meaningful work and income was as vital as caring for souls. Socialist ethos or dynastic leadership? it turns out that they belong together, with a little bit of help from the local clergy.

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