Impact International / March 15, 2002
By Larry Luxner
CARACAS -- In a country full of hard-core rum, beer and whisky drinkers, it hasn't been easy to get people to appreciate the subtleties of wine.
But Bodegas Pomar C.A., established 16 years ago by Venezuela's Empresas Polar and French vintner Maison Martell, is slowly succeeding.
Oscar Quintero, Pomar's director since 1996, says last year's revenues came to $6 million -- including $4 million from its own home-grown labels and $2 million in sales of the 24 imported brands Pomar represents.
While $6 million is admittedly a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to the $2.6 billion in sales generated last year by parent company Polar, Bodegas Pomar has been able to capture a 10% share of the 750,000-case-a-year Venezuelan wine market. Pomar now ranks as the single best-selling wine in Venezuela.
"Even though the competition is tough, I think we've been very successful," Quintero said in a recent interview. "The vineyards are mature, and they're producing more aromatic flavors, so we can produce more diversified wine."
According to historical records, the first vine was planted on Venezuelan soil in 1515, by Franciscan monks who settled on the banks of the Río Manzanares. In 1578, historian Don Juan de Pimentel wrote about grapes being produced three times a year in Caracas. Other reports of that time speak of vineyards in the valley of El Tocuyo and the highlands of Barquisimeto. And by the end of the 17th century, grapes were being harvested on Margarita Island, according to historian Don Juan de Castellanos.
Yet Venezuela never became a major wine producer, because traditionally, the need for big temperature variations and exacting soil conditions has always limited the large-scale production of fine wine to Europe, Argentina, South Africa, Chile and other locations at least 30 degrees north of the equator, or at least 30 degrees south of the equator.
Things began changing in 1986, when Polar and Martell joined forces and founded Pomar -- billed as the first enterprise to produce wine on a commercial scale in Venezuela, made from grapes of its own vineyards planted in Altagracia, an hour's drive west of Barquisimeto in the state of Lara.
The first label Pomar came out with was Viña Altagracia (rosé, white and red). It then introduced Pomar Reserva -- which is aged in oak barrels for a little over a year, and in bottles for another two years. Pomar has since won eight international medals for its wines.
"It's the only tropical winery in Venezuela, and was the first one in the world," says Polar CEO Lorenzo Mendoza. "The market for wine has shrunk, though, due to decreased purchasing power in Venezuela. We compete basically against imports from Argentina and Chile, and they get all kinds of support from their governments."
A much more basic problem for Pomar is that, unlike the Argentines, Venezuelans aren't big wine drinkers; it's simply not a part of the culture. According to Quintero, per-capita wine consumption is just 0.28 liter per year. On the contrary, the country's 24 million inhabitants do guzzle beer and whisky -- to the point where Venezuelans are among the highest per-capita consumers of whisky in the world.
To change consumer habits, Quintero two years ago launched Club Pomar. Some 2,000 members pay an average 30,000 bolívares (about $40) to participate in cocktails, tastings and other gatherings that promote knowledge of wines in general, and of course Pomar products in particular.
"Our challenge is to convince Venezuelans to accept that we have a wine that could compete with any wine in the world," he said. "But with low prices in the market, it's very difficult for us to be competitive. Almost half of the market is imported Chilean wines, and it's increasing all the time, because there's a free-trade agreement between our two countries and therefore they don't pay any import taxes."
Despite the low cost of imported Chilean wine here, he says "in general Chilean wines are great. In Chile, the base is cabernet and chardonnay. Here, we have syrah, tempranillo and moscatel. The grapes we're producing and the flavors we make are different, since we're tropical. That's what makes the difference."
Quintero, a cousin of Mendoza, is a 43-year-old veterinarian by profession; he joined the Polar conglomerate 15 years ago, working in both the snack and banking divisions before being named to head Pomar.
Quintero says Pomar is currently producing wine in three distinct categories. The first is champagne under the Pomar Brut label; currently at 15,000 cases, Quintero aims to increase that to 20,000 cases this year. The second category is premium wines under the Pomar Reserva, Selection, Syrah and Tempranillo labels; now at 5,000 cases, the goal is to double that to 10,000.
But the largest category by far is Viña Altagracia, which will total 50,000 cases this year; in addition, Pomar produces a few thousand cases of cooking wine under the Solariego label, as well as 2,500 cases of sweet Moscatel wine used by the Catholic church for consecration services.
Apart from its winery in Lara state, Pomar operates a large retail outlet at its company headquarters in Caracas, not far from the brewery that produces Polar beer.
Prices for Pomar's products vary, though the best bargains can be found on tax-free Margarita Island, where a bottle of Viña Altagracia costs only 1,700 bolívares (about $2.25 at current exchange rates).
Quintero says he's focusing his efforts on domestic wine sales, and that -- except for some minor promotions among Venezuelans living in South Florida -- his company is virtually ignoring potential overseas markets for now.
"We don't export yet," said Quintero. "First of all, we need to consolidate the market in Venezuela. Secondly, our export market would have to be in premium wines, and we don't have sufficient grapes for that."