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Getting to know Agustín Santolaya, general manager of Bodegas Roda

06/09/2023 Interviews , Wineries

Agustín Santolaya is a total gentleman. He embodies elegance, the gift of conversation and a passion for wine. Agustin is a kind, respectful and charismatic person; a great communicator who generously shares his knowledge and feelings. Agustín Santolaya has devoted himself fully to his work at Roda, a winery renowned for its commitment to excellence and quality which, despite not having been around very long, ended up revolutionising the Rioja scene with its great wines. Thanks to his deep knowledge of the wine industry, dedication and experience, Agustin has contributed to Roda’s success and prestige around the world. Listening to Agustín is a delight. In a simple but effective way, he spreads joy and wisdom; he is a bon vivant of life’s small pleasures. 

Let’s find out a bit more about Agustín Santolaya, general manager of Bodegas Roda.

- What does wine mean to you?

Wine is one of the most beautiful and exciting ways to live. It allows you to be immersed in meteorology, in the landscape, in the most earthy crop that agriculture has to offer: the vineyard, in the exciting and lively industry of fermentation, in the patient world of cellar aging, in the creation of a wine, a brand, the best marketing, sales strategies, the management of a complex and much-loved company and as well as all that, you get to enjoy wine with fans from every corner of the world. Wine lives at the same pace as people, telling stories of its landscape, and a bottle from a particular vintage might stay in your mind for your whole life.  

- You come from a family that has been involved in viticulture for generations. Having been so close to a wine environment since you were a child, can you share with us any wine-related memory that you hold especially dear?

Many hours with my grandfather Chatillo in the family winery in Villamediana, learning that wine is for sharing and opens the doors to friendship. Every year we would make him a vat of 150 pitchers to enjoy with every person who came through the door. If someone didn’t stop for a drink and a chat, he got annoyed. Those were different times when we weren’t rushing through life.

- You studied Agricultural Engineering and went on to own your own brand of wine! Are there any of those bottles left? Why didn’t you continue making wine?

Because I found a project that I fell in love with and I understood that those two things were absolutely incompatible. Of course there are still bottles left from that time and we enjoy them occasionally, alongside wonderful memories. It was a groundbreaking, very modern wine that would still be modern today.

- You were also a teacher at the same time you had your own wine consultancy, but then Roda came along... was it love at first sight? What was it that made you leave everything behind and dedicate yourself completely to the Roda project?

During my master’s degree in viticulture and enology, between 1988 and 1990, I had the good fortune to sit at the same desk as Isidro Palacios. Since that moment we started working together as consultants for viticultural projects, we are about to celebrate 35 years of teamwork. This is how we arrived at RODA and Mario Rotllant’s vision impressed and captivated us. I wanted to make a great wine that would bring something different to the industry at the time, but I was in no hurry. He sought excellence in every step of the process, from the vineyard to marketing. The objective was to go step by step, without making mistakes. A really exciting project, which we still call a “project” more than 30 years later and even though it’s very well established.   

- At only 36 years old, Roda is the youngest winery in the legendary Barrio de la Estación, in Haro (La Rioja), where it has century-old wineries like La Rioja Alta or CVNE for neighbours. In such a short period of time, Roda has already gained significant international recognition. What do you think the secret to your success is?

The success lies in an incredible team, led by Mario Rotllant. A team that considers RODA its own, and we carry the brand in our blood. We have created a style of wines full of the landscape and the weather of each year, which delight the aficionados and are very much enjoyed by those who are still just consumers.

We have tried not to make commercial mistakes, always trying to ensure that each bottle sold adds to the brand, and not sell anything that could harm it.

- If you are not a legendary wine brand, in order to differentiate yourself and stand out in Rioja you must have more than just great quality. At Roda you have decided to make wines by separating them according to their organoleptic characteristics. A modern concept of a Rioja wine that has been very successful. Can you tell us what this involves and how this idea was born?

Rioja is a wine paradise with a thousand different landscapes bordering rivers and ravines, with hills planted with vines in all winds and three climates that overlap each year giving different wines. Sometimes the Tempranillo variety, in some vineyards, ripens with the sensation of red fruits, and is fine and delicate, other times, in other vineyards, it ripens with the depth of black fruits and is deep, voluminous and mineral. At Bodegas Roda we vinify each plot separately and age them separately. When they have been in the barrel for a year, we blend the vineyards that have ripened in the red fruit profile to form RODA and those that have ripened in the black fruit profile to form RODA I. From that moment on, they continue aging together. We could make 40 or 50 wines from a single plot, but we think we get a better sense of the landscape this way, with two great wines made from several single plots. 

- After consolidating your success in Roda, you decided to make the leap to the Ribera del Duero in search of the best land to cultivate the Tempranillo variety. How was the winery La Horra-Corimbo born? Does it follow the same model as Roda in Rioja?

Companies have to grow, but in the world of wine, more is usually not better. We wanted to keep RODA at its current size in order to ensure high quality. We decided to set up another winery with the Tempranillo variety, which we love and is the one we know best, but we didn’t want it to be in Rioja so as not to become our own competition. We chose the best area in Spain for the Tempranillo we like, outside Rioja. After travelling through several areas, we came to the conclusion that the environment in La Horra, in La Ribera Burgalesa was the most suitable.

Bodegas La Horra was founded in 2009 and is being built in phases, the first was that year, the second in 2015 and we have just started work on the final phase which will be a real beauty, completely integrated into the landscape and with the utmost attention to energy efficiency. It follows the same model as RODA in terms of capacity and the concept of elegance in wine. Logically, the wines are very different because the landscapes are completely different. In Rioja there is finesse and delicacy, in Ribera there is strength and strain, but in both there is the elegance that is the house’s signature. The Corimbo and Corimbo I wines are a different vision of the Burgos Ribera that is worth experiencing.

 - After launching these two great projects, Roda and La Horra, with so much success, for you, as a wine consultant, what do you think is more difficult, to make a good wine or to sell a good wine? 

Both are very difficult and are learned and perfected over time, but what is really difficult is to get a customer who has bought once to keep buying and to make them a brand ambassador. If this happens, it means that all areas of the winery have worked perfectly: viticulture, enology, marketing and brand image.  

- At Bodegas Roda you have always taken great care over the richness of the environment and its conservation. You have just opened a new winery, very close to the Barrio de la Estación (Rioja), which has a surface area of 1,400 square metres and has been designed to be energy efficient and sustainable. Can you tell us a little about it and what it means for Roda?

At Bodegas Roda, in the Barrio de La Estación, we were very tight on space and had several rented warehouses for additional material and the finished product. We decided to bring everything together and take the logistics out of the Barrio: additional material, some of the bottle racks, labelling, the finished product and shipping. A 100 kW solar farm is already operating in the new extension, which is perfectly insulated and generates enough energy for the entire operation.

- The opening of the new winery is also an opportunity to promote wine tourism. Is this what you’re doing? How does wine tourism help to bring wine closer to consumers? Do you think every winery should offer wine tourism?

Yes, one of the consequences of taking the logistics out of the Barrio is to generate space for wine tourism, which is becoming increasingly important for the winery. The Barrio de La Estación has become one of the Meccas of the pilgrimage from wine lovers from all over the world. It has been a huge success brought about by the collaboration between wineries, because even though we are in competition with each other, we have understood that we are much stronger together than separately. Each winery has been transformed, setting up wine bars and magnificent terraces to welcome visitors who are happy when they come to Haro.

I believe that in a 21st century winery, wine tourism should be one of the biggest focusses, with a budget and a dedicated team. Although not all wineries are fortunate enough to be in the Barrio de la Estación.   

- And speaking of wine communication, you stand out for being a great communicator, what do you think we still need to do to bring wine culture closer to people, whether they are consumers or not? Are social networks a good tool that allows us to reach young people? Or are we in danger of leading them towards superficiality, rather than towards enjoyment through knowledge and responsibility?

I believe that all media types are good for communicating, of course the social networks do an exceptional job and in one way or another all wineries use them, but wine is a product that is enjoyed in company, and physical presence in the market is essential if you want to build consumer loyalty. Wine tourism is also a magnificent form of communication. A visitor to a winery has all the time to devote to it and it is important to make the most of it. If it is done well, they will tell their friends about the experience and that is the best way to reach people, through another person, who is not linked to the company, and who generates trust in their environment. 

- We know that you are totally dedicated to your work at Roda. When you have free time, what do you like to spend it on?

I am easy to entertain. I live in the country, I tend to the garden, the orchard, I like to go out with friends, I am passionate about gastronomy, walking, playing golf with my wife and children, reading... I don’t get bored. 

- We love your concept of wine as a conveyer of emotions that allows us to travel through time. Is there a legendary bottle that you have not yet been able to try, and who would you like to share that trip back in time with and why?

There are so many and the more you know about the world of wine, the longer the list grows. I have some of them at home in my collection but because there is only one, I’m scared to open them, because from that moment on they will be gone, although I will have enjoyed them and will remember them. That is why I recommend buying at least two so you don’t have this problem.

If I had to choose a bottle... there is a 1925 Castillo de Ygay that has been staring at me for some time. My house is very close to this estate and it will be a joy to see how this landscape has evolved over the years. I will wait until 2025, because trying a century of the same soil you walk on, that is quite something.