Jose Manuel Ortega and his sister Natalia do things a bit differently at their O. Fournier winery. With vineyards in Ribera del Duero and across the world, wine is both a passion project and a family affair. But the way that the Ortega family started their now-bicontinental O. Fournier winery is not your typical family winery tale.
Investing in Wine
Jose Manuel, sharply dressed and well-bespectacled, has the look of a suave businessman. And for good reason. Before O. Fournier, he spent years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and other big time financial institutions around the world. But ultimately, that line of work wasn’t his end-game. “To me, finance was a means to an end,” Jose Manuel tells us, saying banking “was simply a way to obtain enough capital quickly so I could start my own business.”
With a degree from Wharton, a successful career under his belt, and a dream of operating a business of some sort, Jose Manuel found himself craving a new type of investment.
“My first experience with wine wasn’t a drinking hobby, it was investment,” he says through a smile. “I was investing in wines for auctions, and then I started reading wine magazines in Spain, trying to find the latest hot thing, visiting wineries to learn about purchasing and economics and learning the business. I thought we could have a different concept from what had been done, there was a niche for us, and I started the wine business. It wasn’t like God told me to make wine one night, but it was more sort of a process.”
And start a winery he did … several of them, in fact.
Fournier Around the World…
Fournier operates not just in Ribera del Duero, but also in Argentina and Chile. What’s the reason for playing both the Spain and South American game, you might ask? That’s when the businessman in Jose Manuel comes out.
“To be a perfectionist in every aspect of the business, to hedge currencies, to hedge risk. We have weather risk in the wine business, so by being in different countries, you hedge against that. If you’re in just one region and you get frost or too much rain or something goes wrong, everything is ruined. So that diversifies it.”
And O. Fournier wineries are also changing the way these vineyards are managed.
With Jose Manuel’s rolodex filled with well-heeled bankers and leaders of industry, the winery has begun selling small plots of their Argentina and Chile vineyards as private labels that serve like a co-op of sorts. The investor will pay for the vines in that area of the vineyard, and then O. Fournier handles all of the winemaking for them, puts a name and label of the owner’s choosing on it, and that’s that: A private label wine without any overhead for the investor, and a way to generate income for O. Fournier … and Jose Manuel plans on bringing this approach to Ribera del Duero soon.
…And at home in Ribera del Duero
As for their Ribera del Duero wines, O. Fournier continues their do-things-differently mentality. Rather than stick to the conventional classification structure of Crianza, Reserva and other styles that have required aging and bottling timelines, they simply age and bottle the wines according to when they think they’re at their best.
“We wanted to make special wines and give our winemakers full flexibility. In that case, having a non-established label helped a lot. For example, with the Spiga, we say around 12 months in oak, but some vintages it only needs eleven and wouldn’t hit the minimum requirement for Crianza. So we took a risk and ten years ago, we were pioneers and didn’t do the classification for any of our wines. We are proudly RIbera del Duero, but didn’t use the labels.”
Beyond Ribera, their global operation has benefits both near and far. Since the seasons are reversed in South America, O. Fournier’s winemakers in that region will travel to Ribera del Duero during harvest to help, learn and experiment, and during the South American harvest, their Ribera winemaker will do the same.
“Both wineries in Spain and Argentina we have a microvinification area, which is where we do small-batch experimentation. We benefit greatly from that joined effort. Then you have learning of varieties — we are very curious about the potential of Malbec in Ribera del Duero, but no one has it, and it has exploded in South America.”
Out of 22,000 hectares of vineyards throughout Ribera, only 25 hectares of malbec are currently planted, so an O. Fournier Ribera del Duero boosted with malbec will surely take some time. One thing, though, is for sure: During that time, O. Fournier will continue pushing the boundaries of the wine business.
It All Comes Back to Family
After fifteen years in the O. Fournier winery, and with much of the core team members of his own family, Jose Manuel admits that it’s “been a challenging experience, and there are things that are difficult to separate” when it comes to working with relatives.
“In fifteen years, we’ve gone through some stressful times, but we’re still together. It’s a difficult situation, I wouldn’t recommend it unless it’s necessary.” However, coming full circle, he admits “I wouldn’t have gotten into the business without the support of my family — there wouldn’t have been a business to start with, but if you can do it from the outside.”
But then there’s also that intangible goodness that comes from working with family, where all of the fights, squabbles and disagreements get evened out in a big way thanks to one main source of stress being eliminated: Trust.
“When you’re dealing with our family, we can hit each other in the head, but we have absolute trust with everyone. That’s terribly important in that respect.”