Article By: Fred Bouchard
ORDONEZ • 46 • IMPORTER • FINE WINES of SPAIN
• DEDHAM, MA
The human dynamo who imports Spain's biggest, deepest wine
portfolio to America is not your everyday importer. Jorge
Ordonez goes way beyond buy and sell; he advises, cajoles,
teaches, pleads, strong-arms, consults with wineries all
over Spain to update techniques, explore old grapes and new
properties, and - bottom line - make better wine. He
candidly offers fresh ideas and constructive criticism on
quality control, vineyard management, dreaming up new
blends, marketing, and packaging. His astonishing track
record - 13O wines from 4O wineries - speaks volumes, but it
was an uphill struggle from 1987 poverty to 2OO5 plenty.
"When nobody cared about Spanish wines," he claims proudly,
"I was there."
HISTORY SPEAKS Spain's a very ancient wine land - made wine long before the Romans. Spain has the largest vineyard plantings on earth, but is third in production because we do not irrigate. Under Franco, we had only one winemaking school, centralized in Madrid. Today there are several, but they're basic instruction - more like Winemaking for Dummies than U.C. Davis. We're still desperately short of savvy winemakers. We think we have the best vineyards on earth - low-yielding, old vines - to make Californian winemakers go berserko. Spain is no new third-world country - we have a long, long track record. Those are some reasons why my involvement is total.
GROUND LEVEL GOURMET My family is in the high-end food and wine business in Malaga, supplying restaurants along the Costa del Sol with top wines and truffles, caviar, foie gras, Iberico ham. I learned the trade from the bottom up; as the delivery guy, I loaded and unloaded entire trucks on my back in the hot summer sun. I cleaned the warehouse, wrote up orders, made orders to the wineries, ran tastings - everything. From 1983 to 1987 my brother and I managed the company and tripled the business.
START from ZERO My wife and I moved to Boston, her hometown, in 1987, and I started all over again. My English was non-existent, so I studied like crazy the first year, spent most of my money on English classes. I sold nothing - people hung up on me, couldn't pronounce my name or understand me. When you have no experience, people are hard - they give you the boot. I got books in French on America's wine business. I learned who the big guys were. The second year I sold my first container to MRR Traders. The next year I sold three, then four. When my first big company (Berceo) went Chapter 11, I replaced them with Sierra Cantabria in Rioja Alta - who control not only vineyards but land - and Borsao in Campo de Borja, near Rioja's southern tip and near Navarra, from where I've sold oceans of Garnacha. The world associates Tempranillo with Spain, but Garnacha is Spain's true heart, both historically and production-wise.
THINK SMALL I wanted to work with small companies in niche situations, because you can't compete with monsters like Berberana, Campo Viejo, or Valdemar. With just me on the road and my wife in the office, we were trying to cover America! I was selling 25O,OOO cases of wine a year! It's only five or six years since I hired my first employee. Today I have importers in most major markets. I try to concentrate on opening one market well at a time, not twenty markets badly. I tried for two a year. I started with New England, then New York, Florida, Chicago. California took five years, but we succeeded - my importer is the largest distributor of Spanish wines to Californians, a very discerning bunch!
FIRSTS I like to start slow and work on each product. I was the guy who brought the first Txakoli, the first Godello to America. When I first tasted Albarino I said, 'Wow! This is so much better than most of the Viura!' I knew I had a niche for it. My New York distributor said, 'You'll be lucky to sell 1OO cases.' I knew better. I've concentrated on Galicia rather than Penedes: the wines are less known but more elegant and more attuned to what I saw Americans like. Today I have Nora, a fine Albarino; I'm a partner in the winery. I sold the first vintage of Clos de l'Obac, 1989, the first vinatage of a super premium wine from Priorato. I brought wines from Catalayud, Cava, Montsant, La Mancha, Montilla. I was the first to bring in Jumilla wines (most do best without American grafts) and create a quality Toro wine (with Sierra Cantabria, Numanthia). It's not easy, like trying to convince a Bordelais to start a winery in Burgundy.
EL GRANDE CHILL The last six years I've slowed expansion to polish the portfolio. One thing is to improve the shipping conditions. What's the point of having great wines if they're cooked when they arrive? Spanish white wine in particular has had a bad image because of primitive production techniques and no refrigerated transport. Today I'm still the only importer who insists on refrigerated transport for containers (and trucks) between March 15 and November 15. But even that was not enough: we had to upgrade to refrigerated trucks to transport wines from every winery to our - the only! - refrigerated warehouse in Bilbao. Listen, you can have frost in October in Ribera del Duero, but by lunch you're sweating and the wine's cooked.
QC NOT ON QT An Achilles heel of Spain's wine business has been lack of consistency. I've tackled every aspect of quality control. When I was a kid I knew how to sell wine and enjoy it, but nothing about chemical details: corks, brettanomyces, TCA, mercaptans, dimethyl-sulfides. I'm no doctor on the subject, but I made it a point to learn and we've spent lots of money, running seminars with enologists, analyzing and fixing the problems of our producers. With reductive varietals like Tempranillo, you have to avoid the rubber, canned-corn, truffley aromas. Other problems require us to stick to old traditional clones, get rid of old barrels, reduce crop yields. I've brought gentler presses and open-top fermenters from Australia to Spain.
MARKETING IDEAS Sometimes I envision niche bottlings for clients. Chapparal for Bodegas Nekeas was my idea. They had this beautiful old-vine Garnacha going into a blend - why not make a wine of that? Tres Picos of Borsao was my idea. We taste 1OO tanks in one day - from it comes a master blend for Borsao in America. It's no cookie-cutter product made in a factory. Its complexity comes not from adding small amounts of other grapes, but from various vineyards of Garnacha.
INTERNATIONALIZING By now the craze has passed; the Spanish are more inclined towards rediscovering and researching their own varietals - even if it's just a few experimental rows - that jumping onto the French thing. I don't oppose the idea: whatever it takes to make a good wine, with some style. Bodegas Nekeas makes nice blends with Cabernets and Tempranillo. I'd rather see that than, say, straight Chardonnay or Merlot. I started Naia with a few friends and the winemaker to make Verdejo; we have only 3O hectares, there's a waiting list in Spain! When I arrived here, people were saying Garnacha was too weak for anything but blending - 'forget about it!'
BEING COOPERATIVE Most coops are too unstable, but some have the same people running it for years. Those that are stable and modern - Vina Alarba, and, in effect, Borsao - I can do business with. As long as we all realize there's a cap on what we can produce and sell, determined by the quality of the product.
MEET MONASTRELL Among new varietals in the market is Monastrell; Wrongo Dongo is 1OO% Jumilla Monastrell, true to the area where it's produced. This grape does not behave like it does in France as Mourvedre; it's better in Jumilla because it gets lots of hot sun, where it can ripen at 14% with little irrigation and yields low (1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre). If you move it away from Jumilla it underperforms. These ungrafted old vines are infinitely better than grafted ones - like day and night. (We taste a 2OO1 Juan Gil Monastrell from the same winery - ripe, full-fruited, savory.) Yo, Retailers! Please be more open-minded about Spain. It's not the same country as in 1987. We are quality, consistent, and different. Food & Wine and Robert Parker predict that Spain will be the next wine explosion country. We have old vineyards to die for, and winemakers are coming to play here. You've tried all the 2-for-$1O bottles; now try some $15 to $2O bottles and see the value. Or compare a $4O Spanish wine with a $75 Californian. Bring consumers to new ventures! Trust our high-end wines! Try Albarino with that grilled lobster! Try Priorato with that venison!