I, like many people, didn’t realise how important co-ops were to the wine industry.
I learnt about them when I took wine courses but to no further extent than knowing they were there and they were important to the smaller grower.
Co-ops used to have a reputation as producers of poor quality plonk sold en-mass, which is probably the reason wine buffs dislike them so much.
Co-ops were compelled to buy the grapes presented by their members who often kept the best grapes for themselves and gave the bad stuff to the co-op.
The result was wine of the lowest quality and very generic that was released for sale.
Bulk wines are one thing but bulk, poor quality wines didn’t (and still don’t) sit well with connoisseurs.
Today, modern co-ops are trying to undo the image problems of the past.
Cooperative winemaking is BIG business; they make a lot of wine.
Gone are generic bland wines as co-ops strive to produce “terroir” driven wines that are vibrant and speak of where they come from.
There has been investment in state-of-the-art machinery that, along with strict controls enhance the quality of the wines.
One of the biggest changes, especially for European co-ops, is increased and efficient marketing which has historically been poor.
Today’s European Winemaking Co-op has taken a leaf out of Australian and American books and has focused on marketing. As an Old World force in a New World marketplace co-ops have had to adapt they way they do things.
An example would be adding easy to read and colourful labels or mentioning the grape variety on the label rather than just the region or vineyard where it came from.
Here’s a few stats to give you an idea of the scale and power involved with cooperative winemaking:
More than ½ of wine production in France is produced by co-ops.
2 of 3 German growers belong to co-ops.
In Italy 60% production is co-op based.
Nicolas Feuillatte from Champagne is the 5th biggest champagne brand and part of a co-op.
Productors Plaimont – South West France’s largest producer with 40 million bottles per year.
Cavit – an Italian co-op with over 4500 growers has re-invented rough Italian Vino in the marketplace and made Pinot Grigio and Prosecco popular again.
Take a walk into any supermarket and most of the wines on the shelves will have been produced by a co-op. That’s not a bad thing, it just means that the supermarket is able to buy enough bulk to fill their shelves. They then sell it on at a good profit and at an affordable price point to the consumer.
Most co-ops today have a wide portfolio of wines from the “entry level” cheap and cheerful bottles of “country” wine to the more expensive “top shelf” wines.
Their scope, vision and buying power so strong that many of them are adding individual chateaux and vineyards to their portfolios and marketing them as their high end wines.
So why haven’t we heard of co-ops?
Well it’s a bit like large supermarket chains, we all use them and up until recently had little regard for where stock came from. We liked the produce and liked the price, which seems to be the same with co-op wine.
The kicker is that we are falling out of love with the large supermarket chains a bit. There will always be people who use them because it suits their budget but what about the corner store-owner who has been priced out of the market?
Co-op’s, especially the good ones, offer a solution and want small producers to join them which is a win-win situation especially in areas where the small grower has no chance at longevity.
However, the modern winemaking co-op is savvy to market needs and has to offer a wide variety of product in order to attract all budgets. We haven’t heard of them because they are just there, flying under the radar. They speak by their wines instead of their co-op name.
Who knew Nicolas Feuillatte champagne came from a co-op?
You do now and when you realise that it’s champagne you see a lot of then the penny will drop about the power of a co-op. There’s nothing wrong with the product it’s just they realised that to make money they needed to change the way they did things and the co-op was for them.
Co-ops are not bad things; they offer a fine solution to a product heavy industry. They have their market, as do the single vineyard owners who choose to go it alone. Sure they produce a LOT of wine, but not all of it is just plonk anymore.
At the end of the day, co-ops may have had a bad rap but by adapting and bringing about trends in the way wine is marketed they have made wine incredibly popular with the “every day consumer”. That is big business and you can’t argue with that.