The first thing you notice as you approach Cantina Frentana is the tower, which rises up over the flat landscape and trellised vines like a lighthouse. And in a way it is a beacon, shining a bright light on the future of Abruzzo, Italy’s underestimated wine region.
The tower, Torre Vinaria, was originally built in 1958-60 with the practicalities of winemaking in mind. A gravity-flow winery, as you probably know, is thought to be gentler on the wine because less pumping is involved (and economical of labor, too, I think). Such facilities are frequently built on hillsides, but there are few suitable hills so near the Adriatic coast, so the grapes were hoisted to the tower’s top floor and worked their way down until they were finished wine at the bottom.
The tower, 28 meters high and 18 meters in diameter, is thus a symbol of a thoughtful commitment to quality. It was also a statement of confidence and ambition because it was created along with company itself, which is a cooperative or cantina sociale as they say in Italy. Cooperatives are generally born in times of crisis for grape growers, who band together to make and sell wine from their grapes when other market opportunities are scarce. To have this tower rise up from tough vineyard times was indeed confidence and optimism.
Preserving Vineyards and Grape Varieties
Ninety-two growers signed a deed to organize the Cooperative Society “Cantina Sociale Frentana” on November 16, 1958. The first vintage was released (and the famous tower completed) two years later. Now, after more than 60 years, the cooperative has 500 members who collectively farm 1000 hectares (or about 2500 acres). The average vineyard size is small, only 4 hectares or about 10 acres, and so there are many members who farm very small plots indeed.
As the years have passed and the founding members grown older year by year, the cooperative has had to face the fact that interest in the hard work of grape growing is not always passed down to the next generation. To keep membership alive, therefore, it has instituted what it calls the vineyard bank. The cooperative contracts with the elderly grape grower and family to manage the vineyard for them, thus allowing the family to maintain membership, ownership, and income.
Cantina Frentana is committed to preserving native grape varieties, especially the distinctive local white grape Cococciola. Indeed, it is the largest producer of this wine in the region and, hence, in the world. Still, sparkling, or a bit frizzante, it is a delicious wine.
Stronger Brands, Higher Margins
A generation ago, when Burton Anderson surveyed Abruzzo for his classic Wine Atlas of Italy, the number of high-quality producers he found could be counted on your hand. The rest, including the cooperatives that dominated the landscape, bet on quantity over quality. And in a big way.
The statistics that Anderson cited in 1990, were stunning. Abruzzo’s wine production often exceeded the output of Tuscany or Piemonte, for example, with less than half their vineyard areas. This was made possible by pushing vineyard yields to the highest average in all of Italy — 133 hectoliters per hectare, according to Anderson. I calculate this to be about ten tons per acre on average, which is high given the viticultural practices then in use and the fact that red wine grapes dominate the market.
Get the Incentives Right
High yields, and the lower quality that often follows, creates a vicious cycle. High output and low quality push prices down. Swimming upstream against this current by raising quality is risky and expensive, so the incentives are to push for even higher yields to make up in volume what is lost in margins. This can be a race to the bottom.
Cooperatives are often part of this problem, which is why they have poor reputations in some regions, but it doesn’t have to be the case as Cantina Frentana shows. In my experience there are three steps that cooperatives must be willing to take to move ahead in quality. It is all about getting the incentives right.
First, grower members must commit to sell all of their grapes to the cooperative. Otherwise, they will sell the best grapes privately (or make their own wine from them) leaving the cooperative with the low-quality product. Second, the cooperative must be able to vary grape price by quality, so that growers will find the lower-yield/higher quality trade-off attractive. If all grapes are worth the same, we are back to the race to the bottom again.
Finally, the cooperative must be able to refuse to purchase sub-standard grapes. This is obviously necessary if quality is to be maintained, but difficult from a social standpoint because cooperative members are also neighbors and sometimes even family.
Necessary But Not Sufficient
Cantina Frentana satisfies my quality cooperative checklist, but it is important to remember that these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success. Excellent wine is the beginning not the end in today’s crowded and competitive marketplace.
Cantina Frentana impressed us with their wines, commitment to quality, ability to adapt to changing natural and economic climates, and their efforts to build brands for their wines and margins for their grower members. Cooperatives like Cantina Frentana are part of the promising future of wine in Abruzzo.
Back in Burton Anderson’s day, a cooperative winery was probably the last place someone would send us to learn about the promising potential for Abruzzo’s wine industry. Flash forward to 2022 and Cantina Frentana was our first stop. There is a message there.