This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, covering everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term.
Co-operative (n.) Winemaking Term
It occurred to me last week that I use the word co-operative or co-op with some frequency, and in the recent interview with Spanish wine importer André Tamers, the subject of co-op versus grower was a central aspect of the conversation. But that doesn't exactly define what a co-operative is or why they might be shunned, or at least footnoted, when it comes to Drinking Better.
A wine co-operative is like any other co-op; it's a joint venture owned by multiple members. In the case with wine, the co-op allows the members to produce under a single label with the glorious words "bottled by the producer" (in France it reads, mis en bouteille à la propriété ). The co-op buys grapes from a number of growers each vintage to make the wine. The growers are not necessarily the members, though in places like Alto-Adige, where most wine is produced through cantina sociales, co-ops are likely to be owned by growers with small plots who presumably raise vines part-time, like with the Colterenzio pinot grigio 2014 I wrote about last December.
Co-operatives are not inherently bad. Most European ventures were formed in the early 1930s post-depression era, according to Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine. As a collective operation, small producer/growers are able to increase financial resources for overall costs, like winemaking and marketing. But as with all committees and collaborations, group decisions are dependent on compromise and, to some degree, tolerance. Absolutes are likely to be money-driven, not underscored by lifestyle philosophies. Further more, we can not, or at least not easily, trace the wine back to its original source: the vineyard.
With co-oped wines, we can't know if the grapes were grown organically or if the yields were kept respectably low by employing vigilant pruning and green harvesting (the dropping of unripe bunches so the plant can focus all its energy on producing fewer, better quality grape bunches). We can't know what the grower's philosophy or motivations are behind growing grapes. It's okay NOT to know - and there are good quality, inexpensive co-op producers out there - but it's hard to pit the loose integrity of a co-oped wine against the transparent personal connection possible with an individual grower-producer without feeling a pang of apathy.
When we drink grower-producer wines, like the majority of the wines found on this blog, the opportunity to discover an individual behind the wine and connect with his or her philosophies, skills, motivations and evolution as winemaker and human, is hugely rewarding. Even though we will likely never meet them, their humanness will find its way into our glass. The connection is not unlike the one between a reader and the author.