Getting to know Richi Arambarri, CEO of Vintae
Although there can be lots of glitz and glamour in the wine industry, there are also people who like to make it accessible for everyone. Richi Arambarri is a champion of fun, celebration and authenticity. This Riojan, who was passed the baton from the previous generation at the age of just 24, has been telling stories that win people over for more than 10 years. As he would say himself, “you can’t just make a good wine, you also have to try and present it in a way it deserves.” With a catalogue of projects working in 14 of the best Spanish wine regions, including Matsu, López de Haro and Bardos, his company Vintae is, without doubt, a “rebel for the cause”; for opening up the world of wine to everyone, especially to those who have probably felt uncomfortable with some of the paraphernalia.
- Your profession has been in your family for generations. Did you always know that you would spend your life working with wine? When did you realise this would be the case?
My first memories of wine were in my grandfather’s winery when I was a child and I was asked to open bottles at family meals. When you are born and raised in a region like La Rioja, wine is part of your life. When you start to travel and discover the world, you soon see how lucky you were to grow up where you did. I remember being shocked to meet young people in California who had no connection to wine but decided to drop everything to try and make a career out of it. It was then, during my university days and my first trips to learn about other regions, that I discovered that wine brought together everything that fascinated me: the landscape, nature, history, gastronomy and people. Then I had no doubt that this was going to be the way my life went.
- Taking over the family winery at such a young age must have been tough, but it certainly must have given you a more current view of what today’s consumers are looking for. Do you think that being young has helped you in your work, or made it more difficult?
I think in the early days, being young definitely had certain advantages, but there were disadvantages as well. On the one hand, it helped me to better understand the generation that had distanced itself from wine. The complex and haughty language of wine at the time had lost a whole generation of consumers in Spain. I was fascinated that in other countries young people were really keen to learn about wine, and that inspired us to develop the style of communication that Vintae was born with. On the other hand, my age meant a lack of experience, which led to a lot of mistakes.
- You are known as a wine revolutionary. Considering that this is an industry that is quite reluctant to change, how did you manage to get the industry on board with what you were doing?
At the beginning, there were people who didn’t understand us because we broke with some of the industry standards. But the world of wine has evolved spectacularly in recent years and things that people didn’t understand before are now understood. On the other hand, as the years have passed, we have been able to make ourselves known to many more people who see beyond the brand to our passion and our work in the vineyard and in the winery to make wine. I guess those two things together have give a lot more people an appreciation of our work.
- Vintae now produces wines in 14 Spanish wine regions. How do you decide whether or not to work in a region? Do you have your eye on any others?
At Vintae we always say that “if we stopped dreaming, we wouldn't be Vintae.” Undoubtedly the main reason we start a new project is always the dream behind it. But if I had to give a common theme for all our new adventures, it would be the search for authenticity. Wine is history, landscape and traditions, and that’s why we always try to go to areas that have a story to tell, areas that excite us. Otherwise, what would be the point of working in so many new regions? Finally, the thing that connects all our wines is always the search for freshness, wherever we go. So I think all our projects are in the north, usually seeking altitude and cooler areas. At the moment, we are in a phase of consolidating our projects. We have realised that in order to get the best out of our wines it’s important to concentrate on the areas where we have the most knowledge. We are now focussing our efforts in and around our homeland: Rioja, Navarra and Castilla y León. That’s why we haven’t launched a project in a new region for years. But I know that, even if it’s not in our plans, we never know if we will start something new in the near future. What could be better than discovering a new region, its vineyards and its people to try to bring out the best in us?
- Working in so many different places, how do you manage to give every project the Vintae personality?
Raúl Acha, Vintae’s technical director, is the key to understanding the common theme of our wines. Raúl is fanatical about the natural, minimal intervention and the search for authenticity in the wines we make in each area. This method of winemaking involves making some risky decisions, when you work with native yeasts, minimal amounts of sulphites and no oenological products, but experience has shown us that the risk is worth it and I think this is one of the keys to our personality. The other factor is probably the fact that we were born in La Rioja and the style of the wines where we come from, the Alto Najerilla, has created our obsession for freshness and warmth.
- If Vintae is known for one thing, it’s for its great commitment to design, communication and social networks. Are you someone who thinks it’s easier to make a good wine than to sell it?
I think what’s really difficult is to make a great wine and to be able to explain its value to the market. We have decided to try and explain this in a dynamic, modern way using multimedia, but there are other wineries that also manage to do this in their own way. I think that when thinking about how to make a great wine you have to consider the whole process, from the vineyard to the consumer, and never leave thinking about the consumer until after the fact.
- What is certain is that, in a world where wineries pop up everywhere, it’s really important to be unique. From your point of view, what do you think sets Vintae apart from the competition?
Vintae, in my opinion, has a unique personality. We have let ourselves be carried away by the dream and the desire to dream, creating projects in different areas of Spain with very different personalities, reflecting the reality of the territory and always with a daring, casual and approachable image. We have not always had the approval of the whole industry, but we have always had the approval of consumers and thanks to that fact, some of our wineries have become classics in their regions in a few short years. The Vintae squad, as we like to call ourselves, is a flood of enthusiasm and this is clear to see in our wines and is conveyed to the customer. Vintae is neither better nor worse than other wineries, but it is undoubtedly unique.
- Be that as it may, the truth is that you have done pretty well. You currently export to five continents and have a presence in more than 70 countries. It’s no surprise that you are ranked 44th in the CHOISEUL 100 Spain, Economic Leaders of Tomorrow ranking of young executives. Is one of the secrets to your success being everywhere?
I don't really know why I'm on that list, but I guess being the visible face of the great team I represent makes it easier to be seen. And being constantly on the move and spending nearly 200 days a year away from home also puts my face out there.
- Online sales have not always been well regarded by the industry. However, with the pandemic, things have changed and customers have realised the benefits of this option. Is it a short-term trend or is it something that is likely to keep growing?
At this point I think there is little doubt that the online industry is here to stay, growing into one of the main sources of business. With our philosophy of winning over new generations of consumers with our wines, we have been committed to this model from day one. Over recent years, we have experienced an explosion of sales and the evolution from a niche to a significant segment of the market. The future will tell us how this market will continue to develop, but there is no doubt that there is still plenty of room for it to grow and evolve.
- Do you think there is a lot of nonsense in the world of wine? Do you think that by being a bit snobby, all we achieve is distancing ourselves from the current consumer?
I think there are many worlds within wine. On the one hand, there is a huge segment of consumers that you have to try not to overwhelm with technical details. You have to convey to them the soul of the wines, which is the history, the landscape and the people behind them. On the other hand, there is a niche of wine-loving consumers, myself included, who can spend ten minutes deciphering the magic of a wine that comes from a specific plot with its orientation, soil composition and particular characteristics of that vintage. You can’t talk to the former the same way you talk to the latter. And to make things even more complicated, in a restaurant you can spend half an hour analysing and describing the technical characteristics of a wine in depth with their sommelier, but you have to describe the same wine in a completely different and more simple way the restaurant’s customers. This dichotomy is one of the magic and complex aspects of this wonderful world.
- Among the many projects you run, you started Democratic Wines in 2016. Could you explain to us what it is about, how the idea came about and what the aim is?
Democratic Wines was born at a moment of maturity when we at Vintae decided we wanted to focus on making great wines. But we also didn’t want to completely abandon that rogue and unconventional side, which has always been part of our identity. That is why we set up this joint-venture with the Virgili brothers, from Penedés, and Democratic Wines was born. For this project, we ventured slightly outside the pure wine territory and produced products like Vermut El Bandarra, Sangría la Sueca and wines sold mainly in large formats, like Organic & Orgasmic.
- As if that wasn’t enough, you have also taken your first foray into hospitality with Wine Fandango, an exquisite location that is presented as much more than a gastronomic experience. And there’s also been the recent opening of Fandango Formentera, a paradise-like beach bar restaurant that is revolutionising the island of Formentera. What inspired you to open these establishments and how do you go about creating their wine lists?
Wine Fandango was a bid to create a unique space in the centre of Logroño with our partners in this project Bea Martínez and Aitor Esnal. Our idea was to create a corner where the gastronomy of Aitor as chef, could be combined with a paradise of wines and the “Fandango” as a pillar of fun. This October it is 7 years old already! Fandango Formentera is the result of the hiatus that the past year has involved. Being used to travelling constantly, 2020 gave me the opportunity to reflect on the future and I decided that Formentera had to be part of those plans. It is the result of many years of the island giving a lot to the founding partners and we wanted to give back at least a little bit of all that energy and adventure. Fandango was born with the idea of being part the change that is taking the island towards a more considered gastronomy, with the fun atmosphere that Formentera has always had. The menus of the two restaurants are very different. At Wine Fandango, Rioja wines have a very strong presence, and we try to showcase small projects that reflect the revolution that this historic wine region is going through. Fandango Formentera has a much more international and summery character, so sparkling wines, rosés and whites from all over the world take centre stage, accompanied by a few fresh reds of all kinds.
- With so many projects on the go, surely your professional life and pleasure are one and the same. But if you do have time left over, what do you do with it?
I find it difficult to separate my professional and personal life. Without doubt, my work is my way of life and at the same time it is my passion. I think that happens to most people who are dedicated to the world of wine and gastronomy. But aside from that I love nature so I'm fascinated by mountaineering, sailing and skiing. And I have just taken up a new hobby: flying. If all goes to plan, I’ll get my pilot’s licence this October, so I will be able to enjoy the landscapes from a new perspective.
- Finally, could you tell us about a wine you have discovered that has been a real treat?
Right now I am devoting a lot of time to Spain because it is seeing an explosion of new and very interesting projects in many of the wine regions. I try to keep up to date with everything that’s going on, tasting everything I can. There is one region in particular that I am enjoying at the moment, Soria in the Ribera del Duero. There is so much potential in these old vines growing on reddish soils in the villages at the foothills of the Sierra de la Demanda.