The adage states Struggling Vines make the best wine. My husband, David Sampedro, viticultor from Rioja Alavesa, has had to struggle every step of the way to get where he is today. We hope this adage will prove itself with the realization of a dream, our very own winery located outside of his village, Elvillar.
In a country where heritage is fiercely protected and passed down for generations, David wasn’t so lucky. He came from a family of viticultors and spent most of his childhood and teenage years tending to his heritage, his vineyards. When his parents divorced in the late 80s, his mother sold a majority of her vineyards, leaving David with 1 hectare of vineyard. When his uncle passed at an early age, vineyards that traditionally would have been divided among the siblings were given to the only other male sibling, his uncle. Determined not to lose any more of his heritage, David signed an agreement with his Aunt to buy her portion of vineyards providing him with enough land to pursue his dream.
At the young age of 17, driven to obtain a higher education but unable to afford it, David independently applied for scholarships and received help for 80% of his university expenses. To cover the remaining expenses he worked in his best friend’s winery in Elvillar and tended to his vineyards on the weekends. Knowing he would soon be the full financial provider for his ailing mother, time was of the essence and he earned his Bachelor in Agricultural Engineering and went on to get his masters in Oenology (winemaking) in only 5 years. Despite the pressure of time, he finished his Engineering degree first in his class.
David started his career working as a member of winemaking teams for various well-known wineries in Rioja, but his vineyards kept calling him home and David knew that his “struggling” old, bush vines growing in poor limestone soils were worthy of their own bottle. In 2000, he changed the management of his vineyards to organic and a few years later discovered Biodynamic farming and started implementing techniques as he learned more about the philosophy.
His first attempt to bottle his vineyards was a joint-venture with a friend from Rugby. Making wine can be costly and in order to provide for himself and his mother and to keep the project going, he worked a second job consulting for a winery in Ribera del Duero. It was a budding winery just starting out and didn’t offer the financial support he had hoped for. Expenses for the 2-hour drive each way and menial income was starting to aggravate rather than help his finances. He recalls sleeping on the floor of the winery during harvest unable to afford gas money or a hotel while working 17+ hour days typical during harvest. During one of his many drives to and from Ribera, he was running low on fuel and had no cash. He stopped at a familiar station along the route hoping they would be sympathetic and fill his tank with the promise to pay them back once he got paid. He offered his government ID as collateral and they accepted. Expenses were quickly catching up with him and when he fell behind on his electric bill, services were cut , “I will never forget the sinking feeling arriving home and seeing my mother sitting in the dark. It felt like no matter how hard I worked, financially I was failing.”
His own personal venture bottling his wines with his friend soon deteriorated due to personal differences and winemaking philosophy. He took his vineyards and walked away from his investment leaving him further in debt. Fortunately, around the same time, he was brought in as a full-time winemaker by a winery in Rioja that allowed him to use their space to start again and bottle his first vintage of Phincas in 2007. This enabled him to start building his own personal brand and he started to get noticed on an international level. After a number of years, driven to focus on quality wine “with soul”, his personal views were clashing with the owners who were more focused on profit driven commercial wines. The bottom fell out around the same time that I decided to move to Spain from the United States. Timing wasn’t ideal, as he was without a winery and income, but I knew David needed to work independently in order for his artistic talents to thrive. We were determined to continue his dream of producing terroir driven wines that reflect the characteristics of his village, so we decided to bring his wines back to Elvillar, where they belonged. We rented a home and became Garagistes, making his small production wines out of our garage. With financial help from a few close friends who believed in his talents, the income from the sale of my home in the USA, and a few loans from the bank, we were able to pull through financially.
After a few years, things slowly started to turn around, not only in his Rioja Alavesa wines but all of his projects throughout Spain. The time and money he had invested were starting to pay off. He was able to pay back his debts and we were finally in the black, but we knew the time in our Garagiste location was limited. Logistics for the winery proved difficult having to make/age the wine below our house, and bottle and store the wines in separate locations on the other side of the village. As we grew and added a few wines sourced from local viticultors, we were running short on space.
We would frequently take long walks to check on the vineyards and talk about our dreams for the future, knowing that soon we would have to bite the bullet and apply for a new set of loans to make it happen. Dreaming of a château concept, in 2015, we started securing loans, purchasing a location just outside of the village and planning for construction. We run the operation together and while it hasn’t been easy, we believe our journey has a purpose … sometimes things with the most character and complexity come from a vine that has had to struggle.