Freixenet: It is All about Family

Pedro Ferrer and Dolors Sala

Used to be here in America, people went to work for a company after high school or college and stayed with that same company until they retired. It is still that way in pockets of the United States and in some industries, where one can rise up through the ranks to become head of a division or company from more humble beginnings. But more often than not, to get ahead one must switch jobs and corporations several times and even then one is not assured of longevity until retirement.

Cavas Freixenet Mural
This mural at Cavas Freixenet commemorates 100 years!

With wineries, especially those in California, being acquired by corporate entities who then slash and burn to focus on a bigger bottom line, fewer and fewer have been able to remain “family” focused, where third and even fourth and fifth generations are still involved in the company. That’s why my visit to Barcelona, Spain was such a pleasure. As a guest of the folks at Freixenet, I toured many properties including Cavas Freixenet in Sant Sarduni d’Anoia, and La Freixeneda, the winegrowing estate in the Penedès, currently under restoration. We visited Heredad Segura Viudas, a property dating back to the 12th Century, where we enjoyed a just-disgorged bottle of 1976 Cava (to understand disgorgement, see this spiffy diagram from our friends at enobytes, which talks about Champagne. Indeed Cava and Champagne are different — because only wines made from Champagne are called Champagne, and there are different grapes involved — but the process is the same).

Our facility tour was followed by the sharing of roasted calcots, a true Catalunya delicacy available only in season. We participated in assembage, or a blending session with Freixenet’s head of oenology, and toured the laboratory. We enjoyed an evening a tapas in the Gothic District, as well as at Bodega Granados in the Eixample district of Barcelona. We met with Mia wine maker Gloria Collell at tannic, Freixenet’s new retail boutique, and dined with her at Restaurant NOW (Not Only Wine) on Carrer Sant Jordi. We took a day trip to Priorat, as tasted barrel samples of Morlanda, as well as the finished wines of Garbo. The trip finished with a visit to Casa Sala, where we were treated to a lunch with third generation CEO Mr. Pedro Ferrer. It was a week of wine, food, education and friendship in one of my favorite cities in Europe: Barcelona.

The History of the Freixenet Family

Pedro Ferrer and Dolors SalaFreixenet begins with a family, two families to be exact. In the 16th Century, the Ferrer Family establishes La Freixeneda, a winegrowing estate in the Penedès region of northeast Spain. About three-and-a-half centuries later Francesc Sala marries Josepa Tubella and they settle in her hometown of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, also in the Penedès. Josepa converts his father-in-law’s barrel-making business into a wine distributor, eventually exporting wines all over the world under the name of Casa Sala.

The next generation creates a union that begins winemaking history. Pedro, the youngest son of the Ferrer Family marries Dolores, the only daughter of the Sala family. Pedro and Dolores release their first cava in 1914 under the Freixenet label, seizing a unique opportunity in sparkling wines, not common in Spain at the time. In the early 1930s, Pedro travels to the United States looking for land to build a winery and opens an office in New Jersey. But upon his return to Spain, sadly, Pedro dies in the Spanish Civil War, leaving his wife and children to run the winery.

In the 1950s Dolores’ youngest son José Ferrer, takes the reins of the company. His goal is to achieve his parents’ dreams of introducing Freixenet to the rest of the world. The company ships its first bottles of Freixenet to the United Sates, introducing Freixenet Cordon Negro in 1974. This new cava is bottled in a radically distinctive dark frosted bottle, which later becomes known as the “Black Bottle Bubbly.”

Under the leadership of José Ferrer, his sons and nephews, Freixenet becomes a world leader in sparkling wine produced in méthode traditionelle. A century since its first release, the company remains 100% family owned, with a fourth generation now entering the business. But it’s not just the Ferrer successors who seem like family, but the people who have worked there many years as well.

Thoughts on Freixenet from Oenology, PR and Administration

On our visit to the various Freixenet Group interests we were accompanied by the affable Toni Domenech, PR from Freixenet, and the delightful Eva Bertran, Vice President of Operations for Freixenet USA, who makes her home with Gloria Ferrer in California. We also met with Pilar Urpi, Director of the Oenology Laboratory of Freixenet, who took us through a blending session in Frexeinet’s new tasting experience room, as well as showed us around her lab.

Cava blending
Ms. Urpi conducted our blending session to show the different properties of Cava’s three grapes.

All three have been working for Freixenet since they were practically teenagers, but they share a passion and exuberance for the company as if they just started, with knowledge of the company that comes from working there many years. I wanted to find out how things changed since they began with the company.

Ms. Pilar Urpi
Director of the Oenology Laboratory, Freixenet

YeastMs. Pilar Urpi started working for Freixenet in 1987 as an intern during harvest time. She says at the time, she was working on a master’s degree in Oenology and Viticulture at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, which she pursued after earning a degree in Biology from the Universitat de Barcelona. Part of her master’s was the mandatory requirement that she work in a laboratory of oenology. Nearly 30 years later, she is still in the Freixenet Laboratory but has taken many roles throughout her tenure which also took her to the United States.

“I worked as an oenology assistant for a year and later I was responsible of the laboratory of microbiology,” says Ms. Urpi. She worked within that group 10 years. It was during that time that she visited the US and was able to study at The University of California at Davis.

“I had the opportunity to go to the USA and work in the Gloria Ferrer Winery for one year,” says Ms. Urpi. “While at Gloria Ferrer I embraced the opportunity to attend Davis University to do a specific course about oenological microbiology, most concretely about yeast identification methods.”

Ms. Urpi says when she returned to Barcelona, her new knowledge was really helpful in being able to introduce different technologies in the laboratory in order to identify and keep Freixenet’s own yeast collection. Pictured is Ms. Urpi with her lab’s own yeast collection.

Freixenet is what it is and has got to where it is thanks to our maxim: the “3Ts”; Talent, Trabajo and Tenacity.”

Since 1997, Ms. Urpi has been the Director of Oenology Laboratory, which covers three different areas; microbiological, chemical and sensorial. Considered the head laboratory for the Group, it is equipped with all of the latest technology — not only to control specific analytic parameters needed to follow specific production rules and regulations, but the laboratory also allows Freixenet to do its own research.

I asked her what changes she had seen during the company since she first began in 1987. She said there have been many, during the growth and evolution of the winery. As Cava production increased, so did the need for fermentation tanks.

“At the beginning there were only 10 fermentation tanks of 600.000 liters to do the first fermentation of the must,” she says. “Currently we have 38 tanks of 600.000 L and 6 of 1200000 L.

“Consequently, we also had to increase the yeast production, so we built a new plant of yeast reproduction and introduced genetic methods to better control our exclusive and selected yeast, which is a significant characteristic from our winery. The lab has also been equipped accordingly, to ensure not only the quality but also the food safety of all our products,” says Ms. Urpi.

Ms. Urpi tells us that Freixenet believes in doing all the analyses themselves, rather than contracting external laboratories, so it has been necessary to equip the lab with all the newest technology, including auto-analysers, chromatographers (HPLC Liquid Chromatography) GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry). She showed us each machine during our tour. Most recently added was the addition of an Inductively coupled plasma machine (ICP).

“Nothing to do with that was there when I started working in the Freixenet Laboratory,” says Ms. Urpi, “at that time all the analyses were done manually.”

I wondered, if Ms. Urpi looked back on her experience and career so far at Freixenet, what advice might she have for her young self, and those starting out at the company.

“When I look back on my beginnings I saw myself as a hardworking enthusiastic person, eager to learn things, willing to contribute with my bit and able to work with a team,” she says. “That is the same that I keep doing right now,” she says. “That is the rule. This is how you achieve great things, step by step.”

For others she advises: “Go for it!” and recalls the maxim of company President Mr José Luis Bonet, in his speeches “Freixenet is what it is and has got to where it is thanks to our maxim: the “3Ts”; Talent, Trabajo, (work) and Tenacity.”

Mr. Toni Domenech
Department of Public Relations and Events

ToniPourMr. Toni Domenech was our go-to guy during our visit to Freixenet Group properties. Knowledgeable and energetic, he was our tour guide, our van driver, and our instructor on the proper way to eat calcots. Here he pours Cava for us from a 1976 bottle of just disgorged Cava in the cellar of Segura Viudas, after taking us on a tour of the grounds to shows us its nature preserve areas of bird blinds and own boxes.

Toni started working at Freixenet 10 years after Ms. Urpi. He tells us it was the summer of 1996 when he first started. Like many working within Grupo Freixenet, he speaks English, French, Spanish and his native Catalán. Toni has held many roles in the company during his tenure.

He started in the vineyards picking grapes, then moved to production, driving a forklift. Now in his role in PR, Toni is responsible for event planning, hosting media trips, wine tastings and other public relations activities. He shows an incredible patience with our group, with the myriad of “Hello Kitty” selfies from one of our media group, and me, who couldn’t seem to be able to get my burricleta to work on the rocky grounds of La Freixeneda. I asked what changes he had seen in the company during his time with Friexenet.

“Many and not that many,” he said. Toni says in terms of technology, quality and knowledge he has seen many changes as the company has grown and adopted the latest technology available. But the people are still the same — they still are passionate about Freixenet! He says a positive attitude has helped him throughout his career and he advises young people to “Think positive and everything will go on” from there.

Eva Bertran
Executive Vice President at Freixenet USA

Ms. Eva Bertran is affable, full of energy and enthusiastic about her work with Freixenet, and her adopted city of Sonoma where lives and offices at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards. Incredibly proud of her home city of Barcelona, she is our tour guide to all the late night hot spots. Before I knew when it was she started with Freixenet, I thought she was in her early 30s, because of her energy, exuberance and youthful appearance. She is one of those people you find instantly likeable, and her positive attitude is infectious. She too came to Freixenet as an intern. Although she is an executive, she treated us all as equals, and it makes it difficult to think of her as “Ms. Bertran” just as much as it did to think of Toni as “Mr. Dominech.”

Eva Bertran manages Freixenet USA from her office at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma.
Eva Bertran manages Freixenet USA from her office at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma.

“I first came to Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma, CA in 1986 as an intern for 3 months,” says Eva. “At the time I was getting my MBA at ESADE (Barcelona). Upon my graduation I moved to Sonoma in 1987.”

Like Toni, Eva worked in many different aspects of the company’s operations. She says it is hard to count them all. “I have worked in all the departments, except in winemaking,” she says, “I am a wine drinker, not a winemaker!” Eva tells us that Finance was her least favorite — not because she doesn’t like numbers — she loves them; but because she does not do well sitting inside an office all the time. I can understand that, because Eva is constantly in motion it seems. And I’m happy she opts for walking all over Barcelona with us, rather than taking a taxi!

Eva was involved with hospitality, wine education, exports, public relations as well as marketing for the Freixenet Group. “Although I was hired to work only on Gloria Ferrer, within 6 months I was involved with all the brands and in all different aspects of the business,” she tells us.

I asked her what changes she has seen since she began at the company nearly 30 years ago.

“Quite a few!” she says. “When I came to Gloria Ferrer, the winery was under construction, the label was just being designed and there was only one sparkling wine to sell: Sonoma Brut. Now Gloria Ferrer is almost 30 years old. The winery has grown and the numbers of wines, both sparkling and still, have grown significantly.”

Eva tells us that in 1987, Freixenet was the only brand that was imported into the United States and the Ferrer family had just acquired a handful of wineries.

“Fast forward almost 30 years: The Ferrers own 18 wineries around the world and not only produce quality sparkling wines, but also a fine collection of prestigious still wines. It has become a global company, but with a family heart.”

We felt that heart wherever we visited during our week in and around Barcelona — from visits with wine makers to our lunch hosted by Mr. Pedro Ferrer Noguer, Freixenet CEO, named for the youngest son of the Ferrer Family who married the only daughter of the Sala family.

I asked Eva what she would tell her younger self, if she knew then about her career what she knows today. Eva echoes the company maxim:

“Go for it!” she says. “This is a very entrepreneurial company and if you see something that interests you, just go for it. You are in for a ride!”

Visiting Freixenet was a truly special experience. It is amazing how a winery so large, that produces so many bottles, of not just Cava, but has holdings throughout the world could feel so friendly. I think the answer is the focus on the family throughout. From the properties to the wines to employees who have worked for Freixenet most of their lives, and nearly all of their careers. Enjoy their wines with your own family, and celebrate every moment as if it is special — because being with family helps make every event a celebration.

Please enjoy these photos from the hundreds I took during my week-long tour. Special thanks go to Janet Kafka and Associates for including me in the trip, and especially Sarah Boynton who led her first media group visit to Spain, answering numerous questions before, during and after, and was a consummate professional throughout!

For problems viewing the pictures you can go directly here.


The WineWonkette

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