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D+ managed to talk with Ricardo F. Nunez, the owner of the Vinos de La Luz group of companies, which unites wineries in Spain, Italy, Argentina.
D+: Mr. Nunez, this is not the first interview that you have kindly given to our publications. But you see the wine world in all its diversity and you can evaluate it from different points of view. So every time, behind the scenes, there was still a long series of questions. Today, if I may, we will ask some of them.
Ricardo F. Nunez: I hope to have answers for all!
D+: You have always said that wine was the passion of your life. But how did it all begin? Was your family involved in winemaking? Today you are a man of the world, you travel a lot, live for a long time in different countries, and what traditions of wine consumption exist in your historical homeland?
R.F.N.: Please look at this photo. It is from 1926, that is, it is almost 100 years old, and I hope your dear readers do not see it as just a piece of antique. There are my grandparents, my father, my uncle, and my two aunts. In that year, my grandparents had 16 years of having arrived to Argentina as Spanish immigrants, more specifically, as Galician immigrants, because they were from the heart of Spanish Galicia. When they had barely known each other, they both worked as day laborers, and traveled around Spain, following the harvests of grains, fruits, vegetables and grapes for wine. They were economically poor, but they also lived in a country that, before the First World War, offered them a little future.
They knew how to work on the land and there was a place where there was plenty of land and it was already a legend among the Spaniards, Italians, and many nations of Europe: it was Argentina. They went there with nothing in their pockets in the third class of a ship that took them 33 days to arrive to the point of their destination. A few days after arrival, they were already working in La Pampa, a place 800 kilometers from the port of Buenos Aires. They worked for five years as peasants, dealing with the cereal and peanut crops. I remember this about the peanut harvest, because my grandmother told me that it was the hardest to do, since they had to collect the peanuts kneeling in dozens of hectares. But I never heard them complaining about it.
One day, my grandfather learned that the government of the Province of Mendoza offered to immigrants a land in the mountains for free, but on the condition that they would grow grape plants on the land. My grandparents didn’t hesitate for a second, and there they went. That’s wonderful. They were assigned more than 200 hectares at 1,100 meters above sea level at the base of the Andes Mountains, where everything was wild and could be reached by horse-drawn carts.
Twenty years ago I took over the family winery, and here we are: I am a retired banker and active wine producer.
However, there was a reason why grandparents chose that; in Spain, they had been vine growers in the region of Castilla y León, more precisely, in Peñafiel, which today is the heart of Ribera del Duero. So, that’s where it all started. My destination was not the vineyards, but the University. I had to be a «doctor» with a degree. I did what my parents wanted, maybe I did a little more than they wanted, and we kept the vineyards and the first winery until the moment I decided to develop the wine business again, that is, I returned to my first love. You see, it’s a short story, which is only a hundred years old.
D+: How did you study winemaking? Did you know right away that you would be a winemaker or got another profession?
R.F.N.: There is a big difference between being a winemaker and being a wine producer. I am lucky to have one of the best teams of winemakers that can be created, and although I live touring vineyards and wineries, getting into all the details; though, it is almost like an obsession, because I am annoying everyone with my shadow behind them, breathing so close that they can feel my healthy lungs, I am not literally a winemaker, I am a wine producer. I am sure about everything I have learned from this activity, I know more or less a lot about many things, but they have a privilege: they are winemakers with their feet muddy with vines, and with a great knowledge of the technology in cement and steel tanks, and they know that you have to caress the barrels with your voice every day. They have that talent with which they are born, and they deliver it to Vinos de La Luz in all the countries where we are present. Right now, I’m thinking that they are more obsessive than me.
La Luz Del Duero Winery
D+: We know that you were engaged in financial activities were they unrelated to wine? What was it?
R.F.N.: First, I went to the University and graduated as a lawyer, but I had a problem: I couldn’t charge a fee for my work because it didn’t cost me anything to do it for people; that means that I didn’t see this work as aimed at building wealth, rather solving legal conflicts. And one day, almost reluctantly, I was developing financing systems for people with scarce resources, those who did not qualify for a traditional loan, and when I could rest easy, in 1989, the world economy changed, the Berlin wall opened the doors to huge markets, and I started in Central Europe what I thought was going to be my “last stage”. Incidentally, it did not appear to be the last one. Twenty years ago I took over the family winery, and here we are: I am a retired banker and active wine producer.
Schloss Vollrads, Germany
D+: The chronicle says that one day you learned that there was one winery for sale in Argentina, and you bought it. Was it Finca La Luz? What exactly attracted you in it?
R.F.N.: I heard that story, but it is not exactly what happened. 22 years ago, the winery in Argentina, which had 70 hectares left of the initial 200, had no management; a few of us who were of my generation were scattered around the world. Yet a decision had to be made. Perhaps, the easiest thing would have been to continue drinking the best wines, but, to be honest, I would have lived in great fear of ever meeting my grandparents and my parents to whom I had to explain that I had let the family winery go to the “other hands”. It helped me a lot to have a global vision of the world, especially from the center of the geography of the Earth, that is to say, the Central Europe, and it took me only a month to make the decision to re-take the winery. But just as that global vision led me to that, it also led me to project a world development program which is not over yet. One day, in 2012, I was standing on the land with nothing planted on it (it was at the foot of Mount Helon, in Ningxia Province, China) and I was negotiating to plant the Argentinian Malbec vineyards and build a winery, very close to the one created by Chandon.
There I realized that I had not slept in 36 hours, and I had been flying for 24 hours out of those 36 hours; that I was not Chandon, and the team that had arrived with me was looking at me as if they were asking me: “Who of us will be relocated here?” Then, I said to myself: «We should have come 20 years ago», and decided to limit the development program to its origin, that is, wineries in the old wine world, in the middle age wine world and in the new world, under a single quality denominator, which we had called Vinos de La Luz. By the way, the name of Finca La Luz is still owned by a parcel in Mendoza, which is limited by La Luz Street, but it is a coincidence, because Vinos de La Luz – Wines of the Light – has always been the best way to name a set of wineries that applied transparent protocols.
D+: Doctor Nunez, the wines from your wineries are in great demand in the world, and numerous wines that come from your wineries are intended entirely for export. This experience, as well as your business and legal practices enable you to see the processes in 3D. Lately, we have been witnessing changes in the sales methods; this is particularly relevant to futures. Can you comment on the pros and cons of futures?
R.F.N.: This topic is very interesting, because it looks like it begins to change the sales methods of the most famous French wineries. When a large winery abandons the sales system called “en primeur”, it is because it realizes that a large part of the profit produced by the efforts of many years is taken away by the financiers advancing money at a price of the wine that is going to be delivered within a few years. It has been a tool to ensure the sale of the entire harvest and have fresh money in the bank, without major headaches. I never adopted that system because we build everything with our own capital and we are not wrong. Sooner or later, the one who does not have enough capital, depends on a bank or a distributor, who advances funds.
For example, nowadays, in Argentina we have four geographies where we produce grapes and two where we make wines. Those are unique places due to their «terroir», which can be hardly defined using words, but we all know what it means. Without capital, we would never have risked having wines at 1400 meters, such as the Gualtallary estate, or Altamira, or Pampa El Cepillo, or Vista Flores, which are denominations of origin limited in their extension, very strict in terms of their standards of production, but they have given us wines that do not fall below 93 points and some of them have reached 97 points. These «parcel wines» can only be made in own vineyards and by cutting the plant so that it gives us less, even tears are falling on our faces after each cut. Vinos de La Luz – Wines of the Light – has always been the best way to name a group of wineries that applied transparent protocols.
Photo: Andrey Cherlat
D+: How do you select such talented oenologists, at what moment do you understand – yes, this is my man?
R.F.N.: It is a group that has been formed over the years, which does not talk about “the wineries” but about “our wineries”, and that is made up of winemakers who were already famous such as Roberto Cipresso in Italy, who has just made a 98-point Brunello, or others who are wellknown today and have received awards, such as Noelia Mena (Spain) or Pablo Navarrete (Argentina). Another part of the group includes land engineers, sommeliers, marketing specialists, sales specialists and communication specialists. We are a small army under the flag of Vinos de La Luz. Each country has its style, but the wines have a similar quality.
Perhaps it is better to explain this with an example: in 2018, we sent several wines from our wineries in three countries to compete at the Berliner Wine Trophy in Germany, which is held pursuant to the standards of the OIV. They all won a gold medal, none won a double gold medal, but none won a silver medal, either. That is to say, that the gold medal awarded to six wines from three different countries marked the quality line that Vinos de La Luz should toe. We would have liked to win a double gold medal, but perhaps we would have opted for the style of one wine and not another. In this way that year we confirmed the quality because the six gold medal wines were chosen among 9000 wines from around the world. The other example is Iluminado Single Vineyard that we have made in Argentina, Spain and Italy.
In different international competitions, they received 97, 95 and 95 points. That is uniform quality in high quality. It is clear that there is a reason and it is the application of the same production protocols in different regions and grapes. It’s that part of talent that I talked about earlier, and it makes the people in our team dedicate part of their time to teaching at school of winemakers and universities.
They are talents that must be respected, because they are also a little bit crazy. For example, in Mendoza, we had 16 hectares without plantations and we preferred to dedicate our efforts to developing another geography. Then, Pablo Navarrete said: “Here, we are going to plant “garlic”; for two harvests he has achieved a record output per hectare with a garlic that we call “Garlic La Luz”. So, in this group, it seems that there is more than one crazy person, but so far they are successful crazy people.
Vinos de La Luz Winery, Uco Valley, Argentina
D+: In Argentina, Spain and Italy, the wines of the umbrella brand Iluminado are created with the same DNA Vinos de La Luz. Of course, we are talking about a single, highest level of quality. But, perhaps, you are trying to achieve a certain general style: if so, can you tell us with what technological methods?
R.F.N.: Vinos de La Luz is the umbrella, and the wines that want to be under that umbrella have to meet a series of very demanding quality requirements. Believe me, on many occasions, – it has been incomprehensible to me that the team did not accept a wine that seemed very good to me, and they believed – sometimes there was no unanimity among them – that we should not incorporate it as a bottled wine from La Luz, and it should be sold in bulk to another producer. However, when they explained the reasons to me, it was logical to understand. Then, the 97 Decanter London points appeared for Iluminado Single Vineyard Paraje Altamira Malbec 2015; there upon, things began to settle on their own, because when you approach 100 points, that is, a perfect wine, you cannot afford going for less. For this very reason, I defend the group’s criteria as if they were mine, even though they weren’t born from me, but from their talent. They are of a special breed, born for the quality wine.
With Pablo Navarette and Noelia Mena in vineyards of Mendoza
D+: Your wines collect a whole constellation of awards. How you make a decision, in which competition to participate?
R.F.N.: Everyone knows this phrase: «The best wine is the one you like the most», but this is true only for your own taste. However, when wines are a product of a certain style, of a particular philosophy pursued by a winery and they are novelties that want to surprise, one wants to know, what third parties – those in the know – say. That is why quality testing has to go through independent professionals and specialized consumers, whether they are winemakers, sommeliers, wine journalists, or producers. You can bring them together in a focus group but you will never have the opinion of a large international group – from different countries – and highly specialized. That guarantee is granted by serious international competitions and offered by independent international specialists. Vinos de La Luz has 90% of its wines awarded or scored in competitions with blind tastings and under international standards. We have many gold medals, many wines above 93 points, and up to 97 points, but we have not yet reached 100. We have a wine classified as one of the best 50 wines in the world in 2019, but we have not yet reached the wine that would be considered perfect (100 points) Vino de La Luz.
D+: Your company has been present on the Ukrainian market for many years. You opened a representative office, and then a chain of Wine Gallery boutiques. How are things going?
R.F.N.: A year ago, we partnered at Wine Gallery with Georgia’s Shilda Winery and a major local partner; it should be pointed out that the three of us knew each other and were related for many years. We decided to establish ourselves with our own importing and distributing company, which already has a business model in place despite the pandemic. Wine Gallery has already opened three of its own stores in Kyiv – well located and well designed – where it sells our Italian, Spanish, Argentinean and Georgian wines from Shilda, but also has a wide range of good brands that we are importing or buying from other importers. We have a very good sales team, but also Vinos de La Luz has its own Brand Ambassador in Ukraine, who is working to support the brand development in the region. I should say that she is a good ambassador indeed: very active and intelligent; in addition, she – Nataliia Burlachenko – is writing for Drinks+.
D+: While we’re on the subject of the wine trade, let me quote Robert Joseph talking about the changes associated with the pandemic: “The only thing I’m still confident about is the growth of digital communication as well as distribution. I sincerely believe that in the near future the huge wine walls in supermarkets will be a thing of the past». What is your forecast?
R.F.N.: I believe that the pandemic is just one more round of a fight that has been taking place silently at first, and then continued, with many explosions, for several years. The appearance of large sales platforms has, perhaps, been the moment of greatest friction between traditional distribution and the one supported by artificial intelligence technology. However, nowadays, producers are almost 90% linked with the online marketing. We have divided our sales into direct sales, sales to distributors (which imply sales via national places where wineries are installed), general online stores, specialized online stores, our own online stores, sales to importers (implying meetings during which one can see the other participants’ faces through various online meeting systems). We have had 6 or 7 international «exhibitions and fairs», from country to country, via Zoom in 2020; it should be emphasized that these events were organized due to the technology companies that create the so-called «augmented reality» platform, and put our brand ambassadors and commercials standing with their products and serving registered buyers for one or two days.
Vinos de La Luz is the umbrella, and the wines that want to be under that umbrella have to meet a series of very demanding quality requirements.
With Roberto Cipresso in Peñafiel, on La Luz del Duero winery
The importer, who already knows, whether a winery behind that wine is serious or not – because today everything is known – will ask you for a sample, and the latter can be in the hands of your potential customer within 48 hours. There is another aspect that is going to change and it is the resistance of countries to accepting a free exchange of wines and spirits. The world is going to be transformed into a great free shop existing in numerous clouds, where the locals will be the countries, and which we may enter and leave without traveling. Tariff barriers will be lifted due to the pressure of online systems and physical distribution will be made from warehouses installed by self-managed vehicles. How much time is left? It depends on the vaccine, and how long the world will consider this stage to have been completed, but the foundations are laid.
D+: Do you think single varieties wines or a trend behind blends will develop? What varieties do you think are the most promising today?
R.F.N.: I believe that the world of wine is opening its doors to the recovery of indigenous varieties, which will take their place alongside the grapes that everyone knows and are planted at the same time in several countries. I also believe that when countries have a successful indigenous variety, they will have credentials so that the other varieties that they cultivate and are cultivated in other countries, may be called by them, using the name of their specific country. What about the varieties which are similar to Malbec and are coming from France, Argentina, Spain, and Chile? Is it because of the genetics? I have doubts that the genetic origin dominates over the terroir. The truth is that the bottles should distinguish the French Malbec from the Argentinean Malbec, the Spanish Malbec, etc. As to the varieties, which are unique for several countries, they will be defeated by the local terroir. And each terroir is different. We are irreversibly going to value wines identifiable by their origin. Thus, let us put that on the label because this is how we educate the consumer. In our case, the seal and logo of Vinos de La Luz serve as our quality credentials.
D+: Traditional question: what plans does the head of Vinos de La Luz have?
R.F.N.: Right now we are involved in ten programs. Wine, liquids and technologies. Terroirs developments. I will definitely tell you next year, if your readers agree.
Photos provided by Vinos de La Luz