Fernando Rodríguez de Rivera
Fernando Rodríguez de Rivera is the general director of Bodegas Pradorey, a winery located in Spain’s Royal Site of Ventosilla. Here he shares Pradorey’s “long and winding” 30-year path to success as one of the most renowned Ribera del Duero wineries.
Pradorey can’t be understood without mentioning the Royal Site of Ventosilla, where the winery is located. For a bit of historical context, Queen Isabella the Catholic bought this estate in 1503, hence its denomination as a royal site. The estate was owned by the Crown of Castile until 1521, when Charles I donated it to Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, the second Marquis of Denia.
My grandfather, Javier Cremades de Adaro, was born in 1924. The youngest of seven children, he was just a boy when his father died. To pay for his agricultural engineering degree, he would spend his summers in the La Mancha region, working on different estates and making wine.
It was during one of these summers that he promised himself that one day, he would make his own quality wine. But life had other plans for him, even though he was almost always connected to the countryside in one way or another. He was a die-hard entrepreneur who founded several companies, developed a novel agricultural system and built some beautiful buildings along the way.
The origins of our family business
In the late 1980s, my grandfather wondered if he could truly consider himself a real Spanish farmer – he certainly loved to feel like one – without producing that quality wine he had dreamed about all those summers ago in La Mancha. He had learned about La Ventosilla in college and considered it one of the jewels of Spanish agriculture. When he found out the owners wanted to sell the property – at the time, in a state of decline – he didn’t think twice and embarked on his new adventure.
Ribera del Duero is located in one of the highest elevations of the Burgos region, so it was clearly a risky choice. It was the wine-growing region with the harshest climate in Spain, but in his opinion, the harshest climates yielded the best wine. He began farming 520 hectares and created the largest vineyard in the entire Ribera del Duero region. His bold approach earned him the nickname “the madman of Ventosilla.”
Pioneers in sustainability
In 2015, we conducted an in-depth analysis of our resources and capacity. I was traveling a lot then, visiting some of the best wineries in the world. For me, it was a cathartic process to gain an up-close view of France’s Bordeaux region and learn about its 52 mini-designations of origin. This experience inspired us to create a quality-based hierarchy of our own vineyards, just as they do in France.
I knew the real potential of our business was the estate and its vineyards since we’re the only large winery in Ribera del Duero that solely uses our own grapes. And we always will, or at least this is our intention. This approach gives us an enormous differentiation potential both from a technical and emotional standpoint because, let’s not forget, our customers aren’t expert tasters so we must win them over emotionally.
In parallel, we gradually started to make the vineyards ecological and radically changed our wine-making process to make the wood less prominent and ensure the essence of the wine when it came from the vineyard. We decided to be radical and encourage spontaneous fermentation with the local grape yeasts. This is hard enough with eight hectares, let alone with 520!
This time marked one of the most dramatic changes ever at the winery: we decided to stop producing the Roble, our most famous and best-selling wine, one that put the Ribera del Duero region on the map. We were pioneers when we launched it in 1997. It was a young wine with touches of crianza, but priced below Rioja region crianzas. This wine had become a familiar sight in bars throughout the Castilla y León region and catapulted us onto the national stage.
We became an overnight success story. Our attempts to patent our wine were unsuccessful, so within a few years, every winery had its own Roble. After a while, we decided to leave Roble behind to gain some freedom since, in our view, the original concept had become distorted; the wine was no longer unique.
We continued to innovate. In 2016, our enologist came up with the idea of making wines in centuries-old clay barrels. To this end, we visited villages across Spain in search of old abandoned vats. That harvest, we produced wine in four vats, with such amazing results that we turned it into a major R&D project.
“I like it when people say that there’s a touch of my grandfather’s ‘madness’ in our current leadership team.”
Today we have a room that houses almost 30 barrels and most of our wines spend at least some time aging in those vats. And so we managed to square the circle: to produce wine solely with our own grapes and yeasts from our own vineyards, while at the same time creating a vintage that showcased all these unique features through the use of clay vats.
We’ve launched a number of other new ventures since then: the only dry red wine in the world made with the criaderas-soleras system, also used to produce Jerez sherry; the first pale rosé in the history of the Ribera del Duero (Lía de Pradorey); and to date, the only Blanc de Noirs (white wine crafted with red grapes) in the history of the Ribera del Duero (El Cuentista).
I like it when people tell me that there’s a touch of my grandfather’s “madness” in our current leadership team. We’re always exploring our own and the vineyard’s limits, trying to do things differently while respecting nature as much as possible. We often innovate by going back to the past.
“My grandfather was a great man, a visionary and an extraordinary entrepreneur whose unusual intuition and capacity to create things and innovate always fascinated me.”
The Ventosilla estate has also been a model of sustainability since the 19th century, when Fermín Lasala, one of its former owners, built a hydroelectric plant. In the 1990s, my grandfather added a photovoltaic farm, and in the 21st century, we added solar panels. These innovations have allowed us to become a company that relies 100% on renewable energy. In addition, the dung slurry produced from the estate’s cows is used for the crops via a reservoir and sedimentation system and the water left over from irrigation is reverted back to the river. In short, we’ve been advocating a circular-economy system long before the environment appeared on most corporate agendas.
A focus on online sales
Our online sales launch was a huge step towards putting our end consumers at the heart of our strategy. We entered this space in 2013 via third-party websites, and three years later, we developed a roadmap to align this channel with modern marketplaces and our own e-commerce site.
We began selling on Amazon in 2016. We considered it a trial year and although we lost money, we also learned a lot. In 2018, we showed earnings on Amazon and our e-commerce began to take off. The decisive year was 2019: in Spain only 1% of wine sales were online, yet in Pradorey, they accounted for more than 4%. The growth was in the three-digit figures and we were confident we could reach €1 million in sales through this channel by 2025.
“We began selling on Amazon when no one was there and made a series of apparently minor decisions that collectively led us to where we are today.”
The pandemic could be described as a tsunami but fortunately, we were equipped with a surfboard, ready to catch the wave. What happened from March 14, 2020 onwards can’t be described in words. Following the collapse of the logistics chain of the leading supermarkets, people turned to Amazon to buy wine and Pradorey was among the site’s best-positioned vendors. Amazon became one of our five top distributors, followed by our own e-commerce site.
Without question, we owe the success of our online sales to an unwavering focus on the end consumer and the direct involvement of our top management team.
Succession in the family business
Pradorey today could be considered a success story, but it has been a long a winding road. My grandfather was a great man, a visionary and an extraordinary entrepreneur whose unusual intuition and capacity to create things and innovate always fascinated me. That said, as a business leader – as in the person who manages the company’s resources and keeps the momentum going after the initial push – he had his limitations.
In 2007, the general manager wanted to retire and my grandfather had promised the job to his son, who was also the finance director. The situation was so complicated that hiring me was the perfect compromise. The outgoing general manager was supposed to mentor me during my onboarding process, but he ended up staying only a few more months.
I landed in a company that needed to develop its corporate governance and culture. The following years were tough. There were financing issues and layoffs. It was a really challenging time.
Fortunately, I had the support of outside advisors, who helped me grow personally and professionally. Our decision to hire José González (IESE EMBA ‘90) as the CEO allowed me to focus and put the company into order. The fact that I could rely on him allowed me to concentrate on earning my IESE EMBA, which was a turning point for me. The experience gave me clarity to see where I had gone wrong in the early days and to learn from those mistakes, while also preparing me to lead the organizational changes we aimed to carry out.
We also bolstered our leadership team by hiring my brother Jorge, who shared his broad experience as the director of sales. We created an online sales department and began selling on Amazon when nobody was there. We made a series of seemingly minor decisions that, taken as a whole, helped us get to where we are today. In 2015, we barely covered costs, 2017 was the first year with real profits and 2019 was the best year in the history of the winery, nearing the standards of larger companies in the sector.
“Today we’re a solid company that will emerge even stronger from the current economic climate, with clear ideas and professionalism.”
But the financial year I feel the proudest of is 2020. Our sales fell by 23% after the collapse of the HORECA channel (hotels, restaurants and cafés), but we were able to improve our margin by almost five points thanks to the decisive takeoff of our online sales and solid results in exports and the modern food chain. During the early months of the pandemic, we had to roll out a temporary layoff plan with shorter workdays, a change that was also extended to the management team. Despite the numerous challenges we faced, we managed to close 2020 with positive results.
The future of Pradorey
Today we’re a solid company that will emerge even stronger from the current economic climate. We have clear ideas, a professionalized structure, and a corporate culture that are vastly different to those in 2007. We’ve managed to turn the winery into a nice place to work. We have a clear vision that we make wines for our end consumers, not for the restaurant industry or distributors, whom we consider collaborators.
Right now we’re in the middle of a proactive change process to reach higher levels of excellence and position ourselves on par with the top wineries. Achieving this vision is always challenging and might even be impossible, yet it serves as a beacon that points us in the right direction and guides the future of Pradorey.