Photo by Juan Alcón
The wine harvest ended just in time. This week the Rioja region of Spain has been dense with fog and rain, which would have been a disaster for the harvest. But it finished last week, under brilliant clear skies, hauling in an extraordinarily abundant crop of very high quality grape. But that's not the whole story.
The wine business is a gamble. I know virtually nothing about it, but even an innocent passerby can perceive the tension and anticipation in the last weeks before the harvest. The old guys in the villages look up to the heavens and sniff the air. The grand doyens of the wine world make their prognostications, more oracular than scientific, setting in motion the wheels of international opinion and marketing. Skinny tractors (which fit between the rows of vines) are oiled and polished, beds are set up for the hired hands. Farmers anxiously wonder what the big bodegas will pay per ton of grape. Laboratories fill with white-coated technicians, gauging just the right moment to harvest. Everyone watches the weather and talks about levels of sugar and acidity, color and pH.
In the Rioja, that vast sea of grapevines, everything is staked on the harvest, for big businessmen and small farmers alike.
This year, the winter was rainy and cold and the summer exceptionally hot and dry. By late summer, the grapes in many fields were lagging, not growing full enough for lack of water. Then in mid-September it rained, a mixed blessing: on the one hand it helped the fruit swell, but on the other it created anxieties that, if the rains were to continue, the grapes would lose their concentration or molder on the vine. I do not doubt that many candles were lighted in many families' niches to the various saints of weather and mercy. The last week of September was perfect, bright days and cool nights, and in the first days of October the harvest season was ushered in under the most auspicious of conditions. But good weather and quality grapes are not enough to guarantee that farms flourish.
In the Rioja, that vast sea of grapevines, everything is staked on the harvest, for big businessmen and small farmers alike. While the clay banks of the Ebro River have created wealth for centuries, the economic downturn has the whole area feeling very nervous. People are not buying wine like they used to, or if they are it is cheap wine usually from other regions. If the wine isn't selling, the bodegas lower their price for grapes; if the price goes down, the farmers can't afford to harvest. This year, sales of Rioja wine is down by 10 percent and it is estimated that the bodegas, hedging their bets, will pay some 50 percent less per kilo of grape (although prices are not announced until several months after the harvest). Thus many farmers are cultivating their product at a loss. Already they've cut back expenses, and without some kind of guarantee that they will get a decent price for the grapes, many of them are doubting the sustainability of their farms.
Many farmers, as well as a few political parties, are demanding that a minimum price be set for grapes. Others claim that in a free market it is impossible to set minimum prices, that prices must depend upon demand and competition. The "Interprofessional Board," which mediates all the sectors of the wine industry, has been summoned for an emergency session to confront the matter, but so far it is locked in dispute.