DATELINE: SPAIN

Sober days for sherry barons

David Baird January 4 1982
DATELINE: SPAIN

Sober days for sherry barons

David Baird January 4 1982

Sober days for sherry barons

DATELINE: SPAIN

David Baird

Each year, Spain's sherry barons throw a wingding to celebrate the grape, harvest. This year was no different. With 500 million L of wine in the cellars, the growers of the Jerez region were up to their ears in the heady beverage. Last fall, the town of Jerez de la Frontera in southwest Spain resounded with festive celebration as rich and poor indulged in a barrage of drinking, dancing and singing. At dawn, thousands still thronged the fairgrounds, where

flamenco music and the sound of popping corks came from the scores of winery booths. Jean-clad teenagers, goldjewelled matrons and six-year-olds in swirling gypsy-style dresses pirouetted to the music. Talk and wine flowed, and flowed. “Everybody comes to the fair,” explained a Jerez native, pouring another dry sherry. “They may have only three pesetas but they spend it so they can live for a moment like a señorito.” Jerez has plenty of true señoritos (little gentlemen), the stylish sons of the 15 or so families who have long dominated the sherry trade in Spain. Impeccably mannered, elegantly dressed and equally at home in Spanish or Oxford English (many attended British schools), they inhabit a world of

spacious estates, thoroughbred horses and fast cars. “The aristocracy of the bottle” is a tightly exclusive society—or was until recently when outsiders began casting covetous eyes on the vineyards of Jerez and an export trade worth $230 million annually.

Despite the lavishness of the fiesta, a tremor of alarm has been running through Jerez for the past few months. It is rumored that several multinationals are about to snap up bodegas (wine firms) that have run into financial trouble. In the

early ’70s, soaring exports induced the barons to borrow heavily so they could plant more vines and expand their facilities. Since it takes at least seven years for a vine to mature, production is now swelling just as the market is in a slump. Exports dropped from a record 152 million L in 1979 to 127 million L in 1980, and only an abnormally small grape harvest, due to drought, brought a brief respite last year to bodegas brimming with wine.

Not that it is easy to find a sherry company that admits to a crisis. “We do have larger stocks than usual, but lower production will take care of that,” murmured one member of the large Domecq family, doing his own little bit to reduce the sherry in hand. One of the giants of

the business, the Pedro Domecq empire, is 85 per cent owned by five branches of the family. Around Jerez, the Domecqs symbolize the baronial lifestyle. At the sprawling ranch of Alvaro Domecq it was hard to believe that anything so mundane as cash problems could cloud the family’s horizon. After entertaining guests at an outdoor lunch, Alvaro Jr., one of Spain’s top rejoneadors (bullfighters on horseback), entered his private ring to demonstrate his skills. “He doesn’t have to do it, you know,” commented one observer. “He has enough money to live well without travelling around the bullrings of Spain. And he has dozens of magnificent horses, each worth maybe $20,000. One slip in the ring and he could lose one.”

In Jerez these days, proud members of most old families are uneasy, for more than one family firm has fallen prey to take-over. The Garvey bodega and the illustrious old firm of Williams and Humbert have fallen into the domain of José Maria Ruiz Mateos, a wheeling-dealing, hard-driving son of Jerez who has parlayed a minor bodega into a commercial octopus known as Rumasa, a company whose very name sends chills up and down the spines of the old, established families.

Reinvesting the profits from its banking, hotel and real estate interests, Rumasa has so far swallowed 16 bodegas and stirred resentful suggestions that maximizing profits does not necessarily go along with producing quality wine. This could, however, be a case of sour grapes, for Rumasa companies now account for almost one-third of the region’s exports. Another venerable company, Terry, has just been bought by a financial group from Barcelona, heralding more aggressive tactics in a business that was once a gentlemen’s club. Worse still, barbarians from the New World have won a foothold. Although Mr. Tim and Mr. David—as the staff affectionately calls them—still head the old port and

sherry firm of Sandeman Brothers and Company, it is now owned by The Seagram Company Ltd. of Montreal, which picked up the firm for an estimated $40 million in 1980. In a bid to improve the balance sheet, Seagram’s is now taking over distribution in many countries. “Seagram’s want things done their way,” says John Lockwood, a Sandeman’s plant manager. “But they are at great pains to say that they do not want to interfere with the traditional manner of making sherry.”

Paternalism in sherry country is fast fading and the newcomers are inheriting a disgruntled group of laborers. Even though militant unions have won wage increases of 300 per cent since 1974, for the 5,000 seasonal workers in the region drawing pay for six months a year or less, life is still hard, a sentiment confirmed by the scrawl on a wall near Jerez: NO TO THE FIESTA. IT PROVOKES HUNGER AND POVERTY. Out in the rolling acres of vineyards, where the sun beats down mercilessly and the heat bounces up from the white, chalky earth, there was not much to celebrate this year. “The pay is $25 for an eight-

hour day, but this year the harvest only lasted 11 days,” shrugged 17-year-old José Garcia Basoss. “And there’s not much other work around here.” Pedro Pacheco, the Socialist mayor of Jerez who threatens municipal intervention in the industry, claims many of the bodegas’ problems are simply due to sheer incompetence in an increasingly competitive market. Pacheco alleges that bodegas, virtually the only source of employment in the area, have sacrificed quality for quantity. Bodega employee Perez Escobar echoes his words: “Some firms continue to make quality sherry, but others are trying to speed up the process and sell wine that is not properly aged. Every year the quality of the wine goes down.”

This criticism hurts, for the sherry barons pride themselves on their product and the strict measures enforced by a control board. A whole mystique has built up around the creation of finos, olorosos, amontillados, about the delicate blending and the aging in colossal bodegas with wall-to-wall oak casks (1.2 million at last count). The humblest Jerezano is as proud of the sherry name as the wealthiest señorito. “Being a Jerezano is a second career,” boasts one.

Jerez, a city of 150,000, takes a proprietary interest in its wine and its folk heroes. When flamenco singer El Terremoto (the Earthquake) died last September, the whole town stood in silence. When leather-lunged entertainer Lola Flores flounces onstage, the Jerezanos beat their palms to pieces. And when local matador Rafael De Paula faces a bull, according to legend, “the sun stops and the wines stop breathing.” To less easily moved northern Spaniards, Jerez is a caricature, a feudal throwback, and maybe a source of envy. For, whatever its faults, Jerez has style. A style that even the most threadbare resident is prepared to defend. “Señor, we already have the best horses, the best women and the best wine,” said one. “We don’t need Coca-Cola.” &t;£>