Discovering Benjamín Romeo, founder and winemaker at Bodega Contador
Not just anyone can boast 100 Parker points (the highest score from the American Robert Parker). Much less in two consecutive vintages. However, Benjamin Romeo doesn’t brag about it. Although his Contador 2004 and Contador 2005 wines have made him an iconic producer of his hometown San Vicente de la Sonsierra in La Rioja Alta, the truth is that, if such recognition has served him well, both nationally and internationally, it’s to vindicate his origins. Powerful, creative, singular wines that reflect a deep love for his land and that place him as a winemaker with a traditional style, but at the same time full of originality. We’re lucky that he was able to dedicate this space to us...
- You belong to a long line of winemakers, who’s been your main mentor when making your wines? What memories do you have of them?
My love for the vineyard comes from both my mother's and father's side, but if there’s someone who has marked me, it’s been my father. A good, intelligent and brave man who in the post-war period, when there was no money to be made in vineyards, decided to continue doing what he liked and to buy the adjoining lands of neighbors who were moving to the city. A man of humble origins who taught me to love the vine and who always told me that, if I knew how to take advantage of knowledge and resources, it was in my hands to go far.
- You studied at the Escuela de la Vid in Madrid. Since then, do you think the world of wine has changed a lot? For better or worse?
Overall it’s changed for the better. The truth is that when I started studying I was lucky because I coincided with the change from school to university. The center and, above all, the teachers were masterful. We had at our disposition all the Spanish grape varieties and some French grapes in the Casa de Campo; we had a winery, a laboratory, a distillery and even a vinegar factory. All the resources you needed to learn well from start to finish. It’s from this moment on that the first promotions of trained winemakers begin to emerge. Knowledgeable professionals who, with the help of good technique, consolidated the foundations of what is quality wine in Spain nowadays.
- After finishing your studies, you returned to your native Rioja and were hired by a winery in Laguardia, which was destined to become one of the great Rioja wineries: Artadi. What was it like for you to work there for 15 years?
Actually, when I finished my studies, my plan was to go to Bordeaux to continue learning. However, I had military service pending and in order not to have to leave the stage halfway, I decided to finish my military service first. Just when I was about to hang up my uniform, the option of joining Artadi came up and that's how I embarked on the project. I took a lot of experience from that time, above all to know how to be faithful to my ideas. In reality we were transgressors who dared to break with the established rules. In those years (late 1980s and early 1990s), much value had been placed on "white coat" work. However, we advocated for working in the vineyard. In addition, we began to make wines without using so many white varieties, with more tannins, more structure... We had a way of working that wasn’t at all in line with what had been done so far and, at first, people didn’t understand it and treated us like fools. But the widespread acceptance of our first wines finally proved us right.
- In 1999 you decided to dedicate yourself fully to your personal project in a century-old cave under the castle of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. Looking back now, what’s the most satisfying and the most complicated thing about embarking on such a feat?
I started my personal project when I felt the need to make my wines with total freedom. My objective is to achieve the maximum expression of the land and, to this end, it’s impossible for decisions in the vineyard or in the winery to be dependent on a group of shareholders, whose priority is the bottom line. I started from scratch while still working at Artadi. I didn’t hide it. Juan Carlos from Artadi knew about it and even encouraged me to try. Although nothing was certain, because becoming an entrepreneur is an adventure, I had the technique, the knowledge and my father's vineyard. And that gave me a solid foundation. Although at first my way of doing things was not well regarded, my wines quickly gained acceptance. I can say that the luck component helps. But luck doesn’t come alone. Behind it there are hours and hours of work and dedication.
- You baptized your personal project with the name of Bodega Contador. Where does this name come from?
When I made my first wine, in 1995, I bought one of the caves in the castle of my village. These are caves where wines have been stored for good preservation since the 18th century. They maintain the same temperature throughout the year. To get there in the past, wine was transported in goat skins. As each skin was different and so was the strength of each person carrying it, at the entrance to the cave there was a person in charge of calculating the weight of each skin and deciding which vat to put the wine in. It was a family economy that could predict annual profits through these calculations. Likewise, after selling the wine, it was weighed again for possible losses before being taken to the buyer. The room where the person in charge of counting the wine at the entrance of the cave was found is called the counter. The name of the winery is a tribute to this way of doing things, so real, traditional and typical of our land.
- With your first Contador creation, for the first time a Spanish wine received 100 Parker points two years in a row. What did this recognition mean for you and your winery?
Although Parker had already tasted my first vintage in 1999, at that time I only had 95 bottles left in the US and so, although he liked the wine very much, it didn’t make sense to rate it. The following year he invited me to present myself, but a mildew attack in the vineyard prevented me from attending the tasting. Although the organizers could not understand how I could turn down the invitation, Parker himself years later confessed to me that when he heard what had happened he felt admiration for putting work before recognition. Then in 2004 and 2005 we achieved 100 Parker points. However, I have to say that there was no before and after. Now, with hindsight, I see that I didn't get as much out of it as I would have now. I was very young and what I felt I had to do was to share the success with the distributors who had supported me until then, instead of trying to open new markets. It’s clear that today I would do it differently, I guess I would have taken more advantage of it, but at that moment it’s what I felt like doing.
- Qué bonito cacareaba, a white wine made from old vines of Garnacha Blanca, Malvasía and Viura, aged for 8 months in oak barrels, came into existence from the need to continually face new challenges. Do you think this is a good time for Rioja white wines to gain prominence?
I think it’s a good time to vindicate quality work for both red and white wines. When I launched the first white wine made in Rioja with this philosophy, the Control Board gave subsidies to start up white vines. For a long time, many vines had been planted and the grapes which grew were bland and of low quality. However, I had some old vines of beautiful white varieties which were crying out for quality production. That’s how I launched my first white wine "El contador de gallocanta". We had to change the name of this wine in 2004 when the Californian winery Gallo threatened to take us to court over the trademark patent. That’s why we had to rename it. So even though the rooster was no longer crowing, "que bonito cacareaba [how beautifully he crowed]".
- Your Predicador wine has a very powerful name and image. Where did the idea come from?
All my wine labels are designed by me. I take it very seriously because I’m of the opinion that when creating a wine you have to conceive it in its entirety. After making important wines, I realized that the winery needed a more democratic wine that would be easier to enter the markets. That’s why, inspired by the movie "The Pale Horseman", where Clint Eastwood plays the role of a vigilante preacher, I launched Preacher wine with the image of the hat the actor wears in the film. To do so, we had to ask permission from the actor himself who, very kindly, gave up the rights in exchange for being able to taste a bottle of each vintage. This is how I send him a magnum for Christmas every year. An amusing anecdote that even appears in his biography.
- It’s been written that San Vicente is the municipality with the most 'Parker' points per inhabitant in Spain. What does San Vicente have that no other place has?
I don't know if that’s true, but what’s certain is that Bodega Contador is the Spanish winery with the highest number of Parker points. Getting 100 Parker points is very rewarding, but getting them isn’t only up to you. There are many subjective variants that will lead to you getting 100, 98 or 94 even if you have a wine of 100. But what’s important is to stay on top, vintage after vintage.
What happens in San Vicente is that it has the longest and most complex jurisdiction in the whole of La Rioja, with very varied altitudes, soils and orientations. That gives a wonderful richness and everyone wants to participate in the good stuff.
- Rioja is one and large, but at the same time it has a multitude of areas, municipalities and plots of land that are very different from one another. Do you think this differentiation is important?
Not everything is the same. I’m sure of that. Even within San Vicente itself. Although there’s a level, not everyone works in the same way. I know it’s not an easy task, but I believe that the existing model needs to be renewed and that if this is done well it will benefit the entire denomination. Nowadays, when you travel abroad, you realize that 80% of the wines on wine lists are French. Bordeaux's demanding classification has achieved a seal of quality that has benefited the entire region. The classification into sub-designations in Rioja would allow us to position ourselves among the best at the international level.
- Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva... The debate about the advantages and disadvantages for Rioja wines is undoubtedly a very topical issue for the wineries of the D.O.Ca. Rioja. What’s your position?
Nowhere else in the world, except in Rioja and Ribera de Duero (which copied the Rioja model) does this classification exist. And with good reason. At the time it worked because the wineries set aside their best grapes for producing the Grandes Reservas and the simpler grapes for the younger ones. But since then, the world of wine has changed greatly and we can’t compare aging time with quality. It doesn’t make sense.
- Rioja is your home, but do you have another project in progress or another region in mind? Where would you like to try your luck?
I’ve done some work away from home and I’ve been invited to participate in many projects all over the world. However, after 36 harvests, I’ve realized that if you want to do something great you need to be on site all the time. I can't manage the project from a distance, I need to feel the vineyard to develop it to the maximum. Now, for example, I’m starting a new project with vineyards located at an altitude of 700 meters but on my land, in San Vicente.
- We know your passion is wine. However, is there another hobby you can combine with the winery and your free time?
I like to enjoy my son, my daughter and my wife.... My family. I also like cars a lot. But the truth is that in my free time I don't have many pretensions, what makes me happy is enjoying the simple things in life.
- Finally, could you tell us about the wine which has surprised you most pleasantly in recent times?
The wines I like the most are those that are very good. Those which are special. The good news is that great wines are made in many parts of the world. I like to shop and discover.