Built to last

Vinka Woldarsky looks at 150 eventful years in the Italian cooperative winemaking movement


In a narrow alley in the centre of Bologna, there’s a bustling osteria. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. A simple beige door, shuttered windows on each side, the signboard with the word VINO can barely be seen, while handwritten notices taped outside the door read: “Chi non beve è pregato di stare fuori” (anyone who doesn’t drink is asked to stay outside), with ‘fuori’ written in capital letters and underlined twice in red. 

In contrast to modern wine bars, there is nothing chic or glamorous about this place. Long wooden tables, worn out benches and a mismatch of old chairs give it a rustic feel, as do the black-and-white photographs that line the walls. And where normally forbidden, outside food is welcome–encouraged even–as drinking is compulsory. This is one of the oldest and last remaining traditional taverns in the city, and while it could be viewed as just an old watering hole, it’s much more than that. As culture writer Alicia Kennedy argues in her newsletter, watering holes serve and sustain communities; they’ve also had multiple functions in the past, including being spaces for political engagement. 

It’s no coincidence then that this osteria remains alive and well in a city which at one point was known by the moniker la Rossa, the red one, as much a reference to the terracotta colour of the rooftops as to the city’s history of leftist politics. Perhaps, then, at some point in time, this osteria would have been the place where blue-collar workers met to find ways to self-organise, and intellectuals and politicians drafted up the policies that would support them. This is no stretch of the imagination as today, the region of Emilia Romagna (of which Bologna is the capital) has the highest number of cooperatives in the country, accounting for 30% of the region’s GDP. 

Beyond Emilia Romagna, though, the cooperative economy in Italy is strong and significant, including wine cooperatives. According to Massimiliano Ferrari, editor of Intravino.com, a collective wine blog, 58% of all wine produced in Italy comes from cooperative wineries, representing 40% of total revenue, and in some regions, like South Tyrol (Alto Adige), 70% of the wine produced comes from cooperatives. 

Cooperatives are organisations owned and operated by a group of individuals, known as members or stakeholders, who come together to meet common needs. By pooling resources, dividing costs and sharing profits, they can collectively achieve goals that would otherwise be difficult to attain individually. In the wine industry, where the cost of machinery, equipment, technical expertise and other services such as packaging, marketing and sales are so high, being part of a co-op allows small-scale growers to make ends meet. While management structures vary, the fundamental principle behind cooperatives is democratic control, with members having a voice in the decision-making processes. In the highly-fragmented Italian wine sector, where the average vineyard property is a mere 1.8 hectares, cooperatives are key to survival. 

“Italian cooperatives today are structured companies. Their goal is to generate a profit for the members who give the grapes, and to maintain efficient production,” says Ferrari. “Ideologies have now disappeared.” But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, cooperative organisation is rooted in socialist ideology and goes back to the 1850s. Since then its evolution has been interwoven with Italian political and economic history, and survived even the most brutal hijacking: Fascism. 

European cooperatives began popping up in the latter half of the 19th century and were a direct response to the negative effects of industrial capitalism. The transition from rural and craft-based societies to industrial ones resulted in the emergence of new social classes and a reshaping of the power system. The transformation of the workforce into a proletarian working class left large sections of the population vulnerable to exploitation. With no form of protection or representation, co-ops emerged as a way to challenge the power imbalance of capitalist society. This new structure not only demonstrated the possibility of operating a business for profit but also for social needs and solidarity. 

In Italy, the cooperative movement began in Torino, Piedmont, in the 1850s but quickly spread to the rest of the country. Supported and promoted by two factions, the workers’ movement, which fought for the proletarian class, and the Catholic Church, which advocated for the protection of a vulnerable middle class, cooperatives flourished in the first part of the 20th century. Co-op wineries emerged during this period, as many small-scale grape growers faced incredible challenges producing and selling their wines independently. Particularly after phylloxera, the louse that destroyed European vineyards at the end of the 19th century, the wine sector had to radically adapt to a totally different context. With wine production increasing in the international market faster than its consumption, triggering overproduction, wine prices fell dramatically, especially in the 1920s. Cooperatives, then, provided a solution by allowing growers to combine their efforts, share costs, and benefit from economies of scale.

When World War I broke out, Italy was ahead of both France and Spain, the two largest wine producers, in the number of co-op wineries. However, things took a turn for the worse when the economy went into crisis and Mussolini came to power in 1922. Because the Italian cooperative movement was closely linked to socialism and liberalism, co-ops were the subject of smear campaigns and even violent attacks by Mussolini’s armed thugs, the ‘Blackshirts’, who destroyed, looted or appropriated assets of cooperatives that were linked to the socialist party. 

The 1930s essentially saw an end to the democratic ideology of co-ops, as the fascists forcibly incorporated them into the structure of the regime. Any new organisations would have to identify with fascist ideas. Co-op wineries were used by the regime not only to industrialise the wine sector in so-called ‘backward’ regions and to regulate wine markets, but also as a tool for social control in rural regions. 

To avoid any divergence with the dictatorial power, the co-ops were politically purged, with some of their leaders expelled from the management boards. Internal democratic mechanisms were eliminated, people close to the regime were appointed to executive positions (thus mocking the democratic ideology of the majority of the cooperative members) and the members who were believed not to support the regime could be expelled for any reason. With Mussolini firmly in place, the regime used a carrot-and-stick approach: offering of financial aid as a way to promote the expansion of wine cooperatives and then configuring them according to the model the regime wanted, with threat of violence always on the horizon.

After the fall of Fascism in 1943, co-ops began to gain back some of their autonomy, but it wasn’t until after World War II, when Italy underwent massive reconstruction and economic growth, that the wine industry was able to get back on its feet. “There was an interest in making sure agriculture was modernised and farmers did not abandon their land,” says Ferrari. Strong government incentives allowed co-ops to play a fundamental role in reviving the sector. Indeed, they changed from small artisan organisations, characterised by improvisation and in some cases, incompetence, to significantly more modern and structured firms. As more small-scale farmers joined, larger co-ops were established, which were capable of competing more efficiently in both domestic and international markets. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, cooperatives began to focus more on improving the quality of their wines. This involved adopting modern winemaking techniques, investing in technology, and implementing stricter quality controls. It was also during this period that Italy implemented the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) classification systems to ensure quality and authenticity. As Italian wines gained more recognition on the global stage during the late 20th century, cooperatives continued to adapt to meet new standards. 

Co-op wineries have been able to withstand the incredible circumstances of the past 150 years, but a long-held perception is that their overreliance on EU subsidies has made them inefficient, producing mass volumes of poor quality wines on the cheap. If this was ever the case before, Ferrari says things have changed a lot in the recent years. “Attention to quality has become a fundamental requirement and many social wineries have started to produce prestigious labels, which receive high scores from guides and are sold at elevated prices.” 

He references Epokale 2008 of in Alto Adige that in 2018 received 100 points from Wine Spectator. “Today, a cooperative with the ambition to remain on the market cannot afford to focus only on quantity. Social wineries in South Tyrol are a perfect example of this philosophy. They are modern companies that maintain a solid base of partners and suppliers with the courage to experiment and produce high quality wines also producing millions of bottles.”

In the 21st century, Italian wine cooperatives continue to evolve. While ideology played a big part in the formation of cooperatives, this is hardly the case today. Still, wine co-ops have played a crucial role in democratising the wine industry; smaller producers are not only able to survive, but thrive alongside larger estates.

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