The Spanish Winemaker Born Beneath the Vines
The idea behind our new ‘Interview the Winemaker’ series is simple, we view all of the wines that we sell as stories from the bottle and we want to show our customers the real stories, families, and people behind some of the best.
When we decided to begin the series, there were a few people that we instantly thought of. One of them, was, of course, Francisco Barona. One of the youngest and most influential winemakers in Ribera del Duero, creating exceptional wines whilst never forgetting his roots…
First of all, Francisco, we just want to thank you so very much for agreeing to answer our (many) questions! It is a pleasure to get to know you a little better and to help share your passion, love, and knowledge for the grape and the vine. We have lots to get through, so let’s get going!
Q.) It seems you were born beneath the vines?! You are now the fourth generation caring for the vineyards in Ribero del Duero, is that true?
A.) Yes! My great-grandfather made wine in Roa in the old wine press, followed by my grandfather, who founded the cooperative of Roa in 1956. My father then left the cooperative to sell the grapes to Vega Sicilia. I, then, in turn, decided to stop selling to Vega Sicilia to elaborate my own wine.
Q.) So, you have all laid out your own path and dreams in the industry, but a love of wine was the common thread! Have you always wanted to follow in your family’s footsteps?
A.) The cultivation of the vine is an art and I believe it is carried in the blood.
Q.) Agreed! When was the first moment you realised that this was your passion? We love a good story!
A.) I was a bad student and very naughty, I liked riding the tractor more than studying. My parents admitted me to a Seminary school when I was 12 years old and I left when I was 18. I had a hard time being in a boarding school, stuck inside and studying. In the final year of high school, I failed 3 subjects and the priest said to me, “Francisco you have failed English, physics, and maths, you will have to come back in September…’ I said look, I cannot study in summer, in my house there is a lot of work and I do not have the time to study. So, he told me that I could stay in the college for 15 more days until the exam, in the mornings I could study hard and in the afternoons I would have to plow the vines with the tractor and he would approve the 3 subjects! It was a deal!… I got what I needed.
That summer though, I argued with my father, because I worked hard and earned little money. It was then that I went to work in Bordeaux to Pavi Macquin in Saint Emilion where I worked in the vineyard as an agricultural laborer.
Being in Bordeaux working I wanted to study viticulture and oenology (But, I didn’t know a word of French) and I applied for registration in BTS in Blanquefort, I was admitted and I started studying viticulture and oenology. I couldn’t understand French, so I copied and translated notes with a dictionary. The teachers would not even evaluate me during the first semester, but the second semester my grades were very good. Actually, they were so good, that I was the 2nd best of the 63 students and I was offered the option to go to the faculty of Enology of Bordeaux to complete the degree of Enology, and so I did. I finished in No.1, and it was right then, that I realized my life would be bathed in the vineyard and good wine!
Q.) What an incredible turn-around! Against all the odds, you achieved so very much at such a young age and in a foreign country. That wasn’t the end of your travel though, was it? You also spent a couple of years in Wineries in France, US & South Africa, did you enjoy your time there?
A.) I learned so much! Aside from English… that is still a pending subject. It was all just so beautiful, and so new. The country, the vineyards, the people, I was truly surprised by it all. It was there I learned to blend varieties, I loved it!
Q.) So, travel really does make you richer! When you came back you were still so young, just 24 years old. Was it then that you knew it was time to make your own wine? How did this journey begin and develop?
A.) Not quite yet, I started working as a winemaker at a winery in Ribera del Duero. I learned so much there, and I was busy saving to buy my first vineyards.
Q.) It’s obvious that you have worked tirelessly to create something very special. You began with just one neglected vineyard and arrived at where you are today, creating fabulous wines, it’s truly a wonderful story of perseverance and passion. What makes your vineyards so special do you think?
A.) Perhaps the way in which I found them. They were abandoned, neglected, so dry, almost ready to give up. And then, to give them life, bring them to recovery and make them productive once again is so exciting, and the vineyard is very grateful, I assure you that it makes it all worthwhile. The vineyard will compensate you for that care and work.
Q.) You make it sound so magical. It is no surprise that these same vineyards now produce such incredible grapes!… and of course the wine! Your wines are absolutely intriguing – the elegance, the pure attention to detail in the vineyard, the care and respect you show to both grape and vine. Where does your inspiration come from?
A.) It is the respect to take care of each vine plant as if they were my children, they talk to you every day of the year, you have to spend time with them and know what they are saying.
Q.) And well, just as a loving father would, you do indeed see and talk to them every day, don’t you! What does a typical day look like for you?
A.) I wake up early. I get up at 6.45, at 7.00 I am already at Roa! In summer a little earlier, 6.30am usually. I like to see the sunrise in the vineyard, it gives you a lot of information being there at that time.
Q.) You farm organically and use as little intervention as possible, why this method? Is this something that is very important for you? Do you believe this method improves the quality of the wines?
A.) In the vineyard it is necessary to understand and take care of the vines, to raise them organically is to want to keep them healthy!
Q.) And so what is your stance on the natural wine industry? Can we ask a cheeky question? How do you feel about the increase and attention natural wines are receiving – is it just a phase?
A.) I think it is great that every time there are more and more professionals making natural wines, and I hope that they truly are natural!!
Q.) You also blend numerous minority grape varieties for your Tempranillo-based wines, in particular, Bobal, Garnacha, and white varieties like the Albillo and Jaèn. What does each of these bring to the wine? What are their roles and why do you use them?
A.) Grenache and Bobal allow me to increase about 1% vol alcohol for the wine, while at the same time giving me more verticality and freshness in the wines. La Albillo and Jaén give me complexity in the nose, an addition of floral aromas and a lot of fat/grease in the mouth.
Q.) What grape variety out of all that you have worked with has excited and challenged you the most?
A.) I like the balance that they offer together, I couldn’t take out any of them.
Q.) You have said that your family thinks you are crazy, working the vineyards by hand and the work that it entails. What other difficulties or obstacles do you face in the vineyards or winery?
A.) I have many every day! My vineyards are very narrow because they were worked with a mule, to use machinery is impossible. Everything and each process is done by hand. And of course, finding people who want to work by hand in the vineyards is complicated.
Q.) We can imagine how hard it must be! Constant challenges. You also don’t have a winery yourself, instead these incredible vineyards. Would you one day like to see a winery for your wines? We will be there to visit as soon as you do!
A.) I chose to spend the money that it would have cost to build a winery in the vineyards instead. The winery is something that can be made at any time, but good vines can only be purchased once in a lifetime.
Q.) Talking about these incredible vineyards, tell us a little bit about your newest wine, Finca Las Dueñas, a single parcel/plot wine yes? What was your reasoning to create this latest arrival from that particular plot?
A.) As soon as I bought this vineyard, I realized that this plot was different. The Tinto Fino were small loose clusters, and above the stem was reddish. Almost immediately I imagined developing a wine with the whole cluster. I did not hesitate to follow through with the idea. I selected 1,500 kilos of grapes and fermented them in a wooden ‘tina’. I did it as a test initially, but when I tasted the other barrels I had for Francisco Barona 2014, these 6 barrels from Las Dueñas were spectacular, they were a different harmony and complexity. I had created a wine that I was not looking to create, but I liked it a lot and for that reason, I bottled it separately and I gave it the name of the plot at Las Dueñas.
Q.) We are not convinced it was a mistake or just a gift for seeing something special and going with your instinct! You have had an incredible journey as a winemaker, even though you are so young! We are sure you have many incredible memories. Have you any funny story or memorable moment you can share with us from the vineyards?
A.) Perhaps a story about the vineyard where the Las Dueñas plot is located and how it came to be mine. One day I received a call from an Anguix winery. They were looking for a buyer because they needed to sell their 10 hectares of old vines that they had. His winery wasn’t working and his children didn’t want to work in the vineyards. The family was from Blanes, so I called them back and told them I had already found a buyer (the buyer was me) and to come down to Anguix. I knew I wanted to buy the vineyard straight away, but I didn’t have a penny!
They prepared the trip and arrived in November 2013. I told them the buyer is me. ‘You are very young, Francisco… you do not have money to pay for these vineyards…’ We came to no agreement for the entire weekend, they didn’t want to sell. The son of the family wanted to keep the vineyard and was angry. It was late and everyone was tired, the boss told me they would return the next day and we would try to close the deal.
For me, it was the opportunity of my life, my dream vineyards.
That night I couldn’t sleep with my nerves. I knew that if he sold them to me, my project and my wine was assured. The following morning, however, a woman from the vineyards called me to tell me that the family had to leave early as there was snow on the highways. I was pulling out my hair – I could see my opportunity slipping away. I knew once others heard that the vineyards were for sale and had the money to buy them that I would lose them.
I had just got married in July and my wife had €5000 in the house from the gifts of the wedding guests. She kept it to furnish the kitchen of the house that we had bought. I told the woman to ask the owners to turn around straight away. I gave them €6000 in advance for the vineyard. And he did. I had already prepared a sales contract I signed it and gave him the money. I already knew that the vineyards were mine, no matter what happened or the consequences. When my wife realised that I had spent the wedding money on bail to buy vineyards, she almost divorced me.
I needed to have vineyards but I did not have money to buy them. My family are winemakers, but with few vineyards, my family is a humble family, they could help me at work but not in money. And so my journey continued, counting and working to find the rest of the money I needed.
Q.) Thank you so much sharing that story. You really never gave up! It’s incredible. We imagine that was a difficult conversation telling your wife she may have to wait for that kitchen! You are married to Beatriz Rodero, who is also a winemaker at Bodegas Rodero, and have two beautiful children. Do you think your children will follow in their parent’s footsteps, or would you like them to?
A.) I am not going to force them, although I do tell them every day what I have done and where I have been. I like my children to see and hear that their parents work hard every day.
Q.) There is no doubt that they will be very proud of your achievements when they are older. Through your journey and hard moments, what kept you going? What is it that you are trying to achieve with your wines? What is your winemaking philosophy?
A.) Very simple, I want my wines to convey the specificity of the area, the varieties, and their soils. I want people to enjoy and feel good about my wine.
Q.) We think that you definitely have achieved that! What advice would you give to someone who is dreaming of becoming a winemaker?
A.) I tell everyone that it will fulfill all of your dreams, but they are not fulfilled from the bed you have to work 26 hours a day… every day!!
Q.) What is the craziest thing you have ever done in the name of wine?
A.) I’m going to plant free-standing vines. I know it’s crazy but it’s going to work!!
Q.) Finally, and most importantly, how did the 2018 vintage treat you?
A.) Spectacular. It was a gift of nature, kilos matched with quality and that happens just a few times.
Francisco, what can we say? Thank you so very much for taking the time to answer our questions, so humbly and honestly. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to know you. We had no idea that your story was so full of twists and turns, highs and lows and most importantly a passion for all that you do. We wish you all the very best for your next vintage and we can’t wait to come and visit you in the vineyards soon!
If you would like to purchase Francisco’s wines, contact us for more information. We also include some of these amazing Ribera del Duero wines in our wine flights and tastings. Come and join us, forget the rush! #bodegamaestrazgo