An Italian cooperative

Barbaresco’s cooperative got its members through hard times, says Michaela Morris. What will the future hold now that things are easier?

Aldo Vacca
Aldo Vacca

“Gaja made the world talk about Barbaresco, the Produttori del Barbaresco made the world drink it,” jokes Aldo Vacca, managing director of the Produttori.

In the mid-20th century, Gaja was one of very few producers of Barbaresco, at a time when only the wealthiest could afford it. Barbaresco was therefore a wine with a reputation but a limited market. The Produttori del Barbaresco, a social cooperative, bridged a vast gap. Its accessibly priced wines introduced Barbaresco to a broader consumer base, paving the way for other producers to succeed as well.

The beginnings

The cooperative’s roots date back to 1894 when Domizio Cavazza, director of Alba’s Royal Enological School, founded the Cantina Sociale di Barbaresco. Alas, it was shut down in 1925 under Italy’s fascist regime. More than three decades later, Barbaresco’s parish priest Don Fiorino Marengo re-established the enterprise in an effort to curb mass emigration from the area. In 1958, it reopened with 19 members as Produttori del Barbaresco. 

It now has 54 members, controls 105 ha out of the 751 ha under vines in Barbaresco and produces an average of 600,000 bottles per year, compared with the denomination’s 4.8m total.

Aldo Vacca’s family is intertwined with the Produttori’s history. His great-grandfather Giuseppe Vacca was one of Cavazza’s original cohorts and his uncles were among the founding members of the Produttori del Barbaresco. While his father Celestino didn’t own vineyards, he was one of a precious few at the time who had a high school diploma. This earned him a place running the cooperative from 1958 to 1984. Aldo assumed his role in 1991 after a four-year tenure with Gaja. As exports were booming, particularly in the USA, the Produttori needed someone who spoke English. 

Born the same year as the Produttori, Vacca has seen the evolution of the cooperative as well as the region of Barbaresco. The Produttori was created during a time of extreme financial hardship.

Barbaresco was an agricultural village and while vines were important, they were not the most widespread. Vineyards started increasing in the 1970s, transforming the hills from agriculture to viticulture and eventually from viticulture to Nebbiolo production specifically. “Now farmers are very wealthy,” says Vacca. “Since the 1990s in Barbaresco and Barolo, you make a better living being a farmer rather than a doctor or lawyer.” 

Throughout, the Produttori has always enjoyed a reputation for excellent quality wine. Vacca believes the crucial key to its success was the decision from the start to make Barbaresco exclusively. While Langhe DOC Nebbiolo was added in 1975, it too hails from 100% Barbaresco sites. This was a remarkable decision because at that time there was more Dolcetto grown in the village and little demand for Nebbiolo. “Also, cooperatives in those days were based on mass production because that was the market,” explains Vacca. “The Produttori was founded to make fine wine.”

Equally important is the farmers’ sense of ownership. They work as if they are making their own wine. Vacca calls it a democracy versus a dictatorship, saying, “sometimes that makes my job tough. I feel like I have 54 bosses.” One of these is Laura Giacone, an oenologist and third-generation grower with 2 ha of vineyards. Her grandfather was one of the original founders of the Produttori. “The cooperative includes members in all of the decisions, seeking to establish trust between the members and the employees,” she says.

Nevertheless, the Produttori operates under very strict rules. While members can produce Barbera and Dolcetto, they are never allowed to make their own Barbaresco. As Vacca points out: “If you allow your farmers to make their own wine, inevitably you end up with the lesser grapes.” The other issue is that growers will deliver a lot of grapes in a poor vintage and few in a good one.

Entrances and exits

Remarkably, since the Produttori’s inception, only five members have left to start their own estates. The properties of Marchesi di Grésy, Bruno Rocca, Varaldo, Cantina del Pino and Poderi Lorenzo Alutto are all owned by former associates of the cooperative. 

Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino separated from the Produttori in 1997. Besides the aspiration to run his own business and sell his own label, the greatest desire, he says, “was to see what my work in the vineyard brought to the glass of wine”. The first challenge was convincing his father, Aldo Vacca’s uncle and thus one of the Produttori’s founding members, to leave. The financial implications were even more daunting. In addition to essentially forgoing an income for three years, the economic investment to build and equip a winery was enormous. “I have to make small investments each year to arrive at the winery I envision,” says Vacca. 

Even though Renato Vacca has never regretted leaving the cooperative, he believes he was lucky to do so at the right time. The market for Barbaresco in 1997 was very strong, even for new labels. “I was able to sell wine immediately to pay back the investments,” he says, claiming that it was easier to sell Barbaresco then than it is now. While established brands are thriving, there are significantly more labels than there were 20 years ago. “Competition is much greater today,” agrees Aldo Vacca. 

From a financial point of view, Aldo Vacca believes there is no reason to leave the Produttori. Members are paid more for their grapes than the market price and the pay structure rewards them for delivering higher quality. Incoming grapes are measured by a spectrophotometer for sugar, colour intensity and phenolics. While this is not a definitive evaluation of quality, the same parameters are applied for every load of grapes, providing a consistent and measurable basis on which to compensate farmers. They receive four cheques throughout the year. Everyone earns €1.00 ($1.18) per kilo in November and the same in February. The last two cheques in May and August are based on the analysis. 

In 2016, the maximum payment was €5.60 per kilo and the minimum €2.40. By comparison, Confagricoltura Cuneo, the provincial agricultural union, reported the market value for Nebbiolo grapes destined to become Barbaresco was between €2.20 to €2.60 per kilo in 2016. While the difference between the low and high end is significant, the scale increases in increments of €0.10. “Some cooperatives have a greater spread between pay, as much as €1.00, making it difficult to achieve a higher bracket,” says Vacca.

Furthermore, if the Produttori reports a profit that isn’t going to be reinvested in the winery, the growers receive dividends. These are paid out based on an average quality for the past three years so that no one is penalised for having a bad vintage. For Giacone, who has trained in oenology, the advantages to remaining within the cooperative structure outweighs leaving to make her own wine. “The Produttori gives security to produce the highest quality of grapes as well as a guaranteed income every year,” she says.

Throughout its history, the Produttori has gained more members than it has lost. As a cooperative, it is obligated to admit new members. However, as a business it cannot accept an unlimited number. “There were times when we could have added 30 new members but we did not have the space or the market for the wine,” says Vacca. As a compromise, the Produttori reviews the waiting list once a decade and selects the growers with the best pieces of land. Nowadays, very few farmers are selling grapes on the open market so the waiting list is shorter. The last addition to the Produttori was four years ago, with four new growers. 

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Better times, bigger challenges

As the younger generation takes over, though, the desire to work the land may not necessarily be inherited. Over the years, the Produttori has lost members who have sold their vineyards. In some cases, this is simply to other members but in others it is to private producers outside the cooperative, which has greater implications. Recent investments in the neighbouring region of Barolo are difficult to ignore and the rising value of land in the Langhe has the potential of increasing the pressure or temptation to sell. Vacca estimates the land value in Barbaresco to be approximately one third of Barolo: “If a hectare in Barolo is €1m, then Barbaresco is €300,000.00 per hectare — but Barolo has already reached €2m per hectare.” 

Yet to date, there is actually little buying and selling of land in Barbaresco. “It’s still pretty much controlled by local people, the same families who have strong roots,” says Vacca. Money from outside the wine world is more focused on Barolo, while the interest in Barbaresco comes from wine families within the Langhe or Piedmont. The most recent significant purchase in Barbaresco was the acquisition of Cascina Bruciata, a 6.5 ha property in Rio Sordo, by the Abbona family of Marchesi di Barolo in April 2016. While Ernesto Abbona did not disclose the purchase price, he described it as necessary to ensure steady supply for the winery’s Barbaresco. 

Even if Vacca does not see an immediate threat from outside investors, he realises that Barbaresco is not immune to change. His greatest concern for the Produttori is to keep the best land. Many of the original members survive today and he has not heard rumours of anyone wanting to leave. However, he admits it is possible that the young generation may eventually want to start their own wineries and even have the impression that it is easy. “The young guys don’t have a clue how hard life was here even 30 years ago, while the farmers I have now are aware,” he laments. “There is a strong trust because we all come from hard times.”

While the hardships in Barbaresco are a thing of the past, the future of the Produttori certainly presents its own set of challenges.

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