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What does it Take to Become an Expat Winemaker in Iberia?

Editor’s Note: This article was posted prior to David Booth’s passing. However, we are retaining the tone of the original article as his views are still relevant and very respected. 

Over the years, Ryan and I have shared several stories with you regarding our lives as expats in Spain. We’ve lamented days when our heat, gas or electricity have been shut off with no previous warning. We’ve told you of heralding feats to jump through bureaucratic hoops as foreign business owners; our delight and awe over vinous treasures we never thought to have existed; and our prolonged addiction to the European way of life. Our time here has been both magical and a menace, a decision we would proudly make again if the opportunity arose.

That said, what is it like for an expat winemaker? Our motivation to live in Spain was based on passion, and an insatiable curiosity for the world. It was driven by an internal desire to leave what we knew to explore that which we didn’t, but does same theory apply to expat wine professionals?

From our interviews with wine winemakers, viticulturalists and winery owners across Iberia, the answer is wholeheartedly…mixed. For some wine professionals, their move to Spain and Portugal was a calculated and planned lifelong dream to craft their perfect wine from soils that have been heralded as exceptional, but for most, it was more of hobby turned professional.

“When we arrived here in 1995 [from Holland], we converted an abandoned plot of land into a place to live”, says Clara Verheij & André Both of Bodegas Bentomiz. “Our neighbours told us that this land had always been a vineyard, so we decided to revitalize the land and replant vines right away. We then bought neighboring, very old (80-100 years) vineyards. First, we made wine in the local, very traditional way, treading the grapes with our feet; but then in 2003, we decided to professionalize and get more control over the production process. We realized the unique grapes of this region deserved more attention and dedication.”

Take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. You’ve set sail to a new country, motivated by love, work or maybe curiosity, and you find yourself owning or working in a winery. Maybe you’ve had a long textured history with wine, or maybe it’s a completely foreign concept that you’ve had learn from scratch. But no matter what your previous relationship with wine was, it takes time and patience to effectively communicate your desires in another language. Your background as an accountant, clothing designer or developer must now transfer to viticulture, oenology, chemistry and biology – not to mention marketing, exports and sales. These topics are technical, and require very specific language skills for you to be successful.

David Booth of Fitapreta has been fortunate as his language skills are by far more advanced than the average expat, but it surely didn’t save him from impending linguistic pitfalls. “The Portuguese are very welcoming to foreigners and go out of their way to help and facilitate. My Portuguese is fluent, however, which is certainly vital in rural areas. But I have had my struggles. I was once translating for Vineyard Consultant, Dr Richard Smart, and he was explaining water relationships in vines and stomatal closure. When I translated stoma, it sounded like tomatoes, which is slang for “balls” in Portuguese. It didn’t dawn on me that something was wrong until the audience broke out in hysterics and couldn’t stop laughing.”

Language is by far the most ubiquitous challenge expats of all vocations struggle with when moving to a new land. Learning technical vocabulary as it relates to purchasing a new tank, differentiating between dialects when negotiating price on bulk wine, or simply producing a full sentence when inquiring of about your finances to your tax accountant can be life altering, but communication goes beyond words. In order to run a successful winery, or produce quality wine, you need to be savvy of business culture as it can change dramatically from country to country and from region to region.

According to John Lipscomb of Lipscomb & Tobella Vinos, “every aspect of the business is a challenge here [Priorat, Spain]. Language difficulties aside, the business ‘ethic’ is totally different…dare I say, there is NO ethic. In my eight years in this project, I have yet to meet a provider I can trust. I have been lied to and/or cheated more times than I can count… Catalunya in particular has been incredibly cruel to us in terms of the anti-business environment.”

Andrew McCarthy of Bodegas Castro Martin has also experienced the trials and tribulations associated with adapting to cultural norms, and more specifically with the ubiquitous “mañana” principle. “Being an Anglo Saxon working in a Latin environment and trying to make things happen (on time) can be very frustrating with our Spanish suppliers. Trying to co-ordinate materials for bottlings can be a nightmare. We have to work that much harder to maintain our quality and standards. Simple things, such as getting a quote, can be unbelievably difficult – almost as though they don’t want your business!”

It’s never easy to change one’s mindset in order to adapt to a new culture. If we had our way, food stores would be open on Sunday, waiters would smile at me when I sat down at a table and I’d be able to conduct all banking issues over the phone, as opposed to having to physically take myself into the bank. But as Fabio Bartolomei from Vinos Ambiz so accurately points out, adaption is simply a change in mindset.

“Personally I haven’t found it hard at all, being an expat wine-maker, but I think that’s because of my Italian origin – though I was born and brought up in Scotland. Italian and Spanish culture and business styles are pretty similar really. But I can imagine the difficulties a pure ‘anglo’ expat could have. The main issue (IMHO) is the formality thing: anglos like things to be cut and dried, organized in advance, limited and defined in scope, etc. An anglo meeting for example, would have a well-defined agenda broken down into points, held in a ‘suitable’ setting, everyone would arrive punctually, the points would be dealt with, meeting ends, everyone says goodbye! In Spain (in my experience) it’s not like that: they’re impromptu, not well-defined agenda, one thing leads to another and you could end up discussing things that had never occurred to you before, it could be held in a bar or over dinner, the person might bring along other people, or might not turn up at all. In fact, that happened to me yesterday!”

Clearly, the challenges for an expat winemaker/owner can be diverse and various, but let’s not deter from immense amount of satisfaction one receives from taking such a leap. “To build your own bodega up from nothing is, perhaps, not the easiest of undertakings, but I am hard pressed to think of anything more stimulating,” very poignant words from Rickard Enkvist – Swedish winemaker of Enkvist Wines in Ronda, Spain.

So if you’re considering the big leap to Iberia to make your dream wines, may I suggest you follow a few key points highlighted by each of our expat wine aficionados:

  • If this is a long term endeavor, do your homework. Live in the desired country, talk to the people and crunch the numbers. Don’t jump in blind and expect to be successful.
  • Learn to speak the local language and speak it well. Friend the locals, learn the system and be part of the community, otherwise you’ll never be truly “fluent”.
  • Remind yourself daily that it takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in the wine industry – location will not change this tenant
  • Start your winery young. It takes time, patience and fortitude. This dream is not for the old, tired and cynical.
  • If your family is not behind you 100%, willing to go through the successes and failures, it’s not worth the risk.
  • Believe in your dream and don’t give up. Dive in with both feet and risk the choppy waters, because dreams are only accomplished by the courageous and the creative.
  • Be open to the idea that you may never go back to your native home. Your love and passion for your new home may surpass any “plan” to move back.
  • There is no such thing as failure, only lessons learned. Even if you eventually go back to your native country, at least you gave it your best shot, which more than what most have done in their lives.

These sage pieces of advice come from some people who are making some extraordinary wines. They’ve lived through the ups and downs and have lived to tell the tale. Please take a moment to go to each of their sites to learn more about their wines, winery and story!

For our part, over the coming days, we’ll dive deeper into some of these stories to give you the skinny on their wines.

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey! And we kindly request that if you’re an expat winemaker, please share with us your experiences below.

Read Part 2 here…


Gabriella Opaz

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