Jose and Miguel Gómez grew up in San Fernando, a sun-drenched seaside town that sits within Spain's Bay of Cádiz. It's a region dripping in winemaking history, home to the Sherry Triangle, where generations of families have produced fortified wines for 3,000 years.
‘We aren't from the winemaking establishment. We haven't got domains, we haven't got a castle – even the car is hired,’ says Miguel. ‘But wine has been made in this region since the Phoenician times [around 1500BC to 300BC], so I like to think it's in our genes. You don't need to be the son of a winemaker to make wine. There's a certain energy – it's in our blood.’
Answering a calling
The brothers, whose parents were a teacher and office worker, drifted into oenology (the study of wines) by chance. Both were studying chemistry at university when they went to a talk by a winemaker and were hooked. ‘It was love at first sight,’ recalls Miguel. ‘I suddenly saw myself in a place where I could express myself.’
Jose continued working in the university labs, but seeing his brother going out to the countryside to visit wineries convinced him to get involved, too: ‘I've always loved being in nature, and wine is alchemy,’ he says. ‘It's the transformation of a juice into something fantastic. That seduced me, so I jumped in head first as well.’
Studies complete, the brothers had the opportunity to travel everywhere from California to Chile, Argentina to Italy, to work the harvests, learning to make wine – but always yearning to eventually come home. Unconventional from the outset, in 2007 Miguel sent his CV directly to the head winemakers at some California wineries that he admired. One called back for an interview, and the job was his: ‘Later, she told me she was shocked that a crazy Spaniard had sent a CV directly to her, rather than going via the recruitment company,’ he says.
Working hard and making friends helped both brothers to gain vital experience. ‘I first went to New Zealand, because my brother had friends there who he'd met in California. Later I worked the harvest at [the] Bodega Chacra [winery] in Argentina, because a friend I'd worked with in Italy recommended me,’ recalls Jose. Workers are in demand, so wineries often cover expenses, too. ‘I had to pay for my flights to New Zealand, but they gave me a good contract and covered my accommodation and meals, so I recovered what I'd invested. In Italy, it was similar – they gave me accommodation and meals alongside pay. When I went to Argentina, everything was paid for. Aside from learning how to make wine, it's a great way to discover the world, other cultures and more about yourself, without having to spend much.’
The brothers rose up the ranks, gaining experience and skills that were attractive to other employers. Miguel eventually made it back to Cádiz to manage a winery in 2011. ‘I'd come from a very important winery in Bierzo in the north of Spain – Descendientes de J Palacios,’ he recalls. ‘I'd also been trained in biodynamic winemaking, so I was quite an attractive candidate.’ While he was there, an opportunity changed everything – he was offered the chance to buy tintilla de rota, a native red grape from Cádiz. ‘I called Jose and said: “Dude, we could start our own project, what do you think?” He said: “Why not?” So, we bought a ton of tintilla de rota grapes.’
Taking the leap
The brothers started small, making 1,000 bottles of red wine. That might sound like a lot to people outside the industry but, for context, English sparkling-wine producer Nyetimber produces around 1 million bottles per year, while limited-edition runs can include as many as 8,000 bottles. ‘Miguel asked to rent a small space at the winery he was advising, because 1,000kg of grapes need only a small fermentation tank,’ says Jose. ‘That's where our first wine was born: the 2011 Mahara.’ The wine's name comes from a local word that describes ‘that sweet spot between craziness and genius’.
The grapes cost 65 cents per kilo, and they hired the space in exchange for Miguel's consulting work. The bottles cost about €300, the barrels €3,000, then add in corks and labels and the total cost was around €5,000.
‘We had jobs, so our personal economy didn't depend on it – it was a bit of fun,’ says Miguel. ‘But the wine was tasty. Other people thought it was tasty, too – it wasn't just us.’ Two years in,
they gave their business a name, Bodega Vinifícate, ‘although everyone around here still knows us as the Mahara brothers’, laughs Jose. It took another six years for them to stop consulting for other wineries and focus solely on their production.
Finding a market
Making wine is one thing, but selling it is quite another – especially in the country with the most vineyards on the planet. ‘First, we tried to sell directly to restaurants,’ recalls Jose. ‘We said: “Hello, we're from San Fernando. We've made a wine here in Cádiz, with a local grape variety.” They'd say, “Leave me a couple of bottles and I'll taste them at some point.” We had only 1,000 bottles, so we had to say, “Taste a glass with me, but then I need to take the bottle away so I can taste it with someone else.”’
Fortunately, word spread. Spanish distributor Alma Vinos Únicos heard about the project and decided to visit. ‘They really liked the wine, so they gave it a price,’ explains Miguel. ‘That was confirmation that we should keep making wine.’ Hot on its heels came a French importer. ‘He liked it, too, and took virtually every bottle we'd made,’ says Jose.
The following year's red was tasted by wine critic Luis Gutiérrez, who gave it a high score in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate, a bi-monthly wine publication. It was a defining moment for the new kids on the block: ‘We've never been particularly interested in wine scores but, if Wine Advocate gives you a high one, that's the holy glory,’ says Miguel.
The perfect pairing
The brothers see starting as outsiders as a blessing. ‘We don't have to live up to anything,’ says Miguel. ‘We've been able to do and undo whatever we wanted, while always being very respectful of the history of the region.’ For example, it didn't cross their minds to submit their wines for a protected designation of origin, which gives wines a stamp to guarantee where they come from, the grape varieties and production methods used. ‘That way we're not constrained by any rules. It meant we could be playful,’ says Miguel.
They've come a long way since those early reds, with the range now boasting whites and cult-worthy sparkling wines, made using local grapes like palomino, best-known for sherry. For the brothers, it wasn't breaking into the wine world that was tough, but maintaining their position. ‘You can easily sell those first 1,000 bottles because they're new and exciting. The second thousand, too. But, when you make 5,000 bottles, you need to be consistent and produce high-quality wine, because there are a lot of established wineries that can take your space in the market very quickly,’ says Jose.
So, how are they navigating that challenge? ‘It's very important to find your personality. If you taste all our wines, since the very beginning there have been changes, but they all share a personality. The salt from the local marshes, the levante [a warm, dry easterly wind that comes from the Sahara Desert] and poniente [the westerly wind that brings the humidity from the Atlantic] all are in every bottle. They speak of Cádiz.’
Miguel is philosophical about their evolution. ‘I personally wouldn't change a thing,’ he says. ‘We've had a lot of fun exploring how to make a truly Gaditano [local to Cádiz] wine. We've fallen on our faces, but we've always seen that as a lesson, and today we can comfortably say that we can make a natural wine in Cádiz that drinks very well and that goes with the food of our land.’
Jose, meanwhile, reflects that while they studied winemaking, nobody taught them how to be businessmen. ‘We didn't have a long-term vision, or any idea how to manage incomings or outgoings. We've learned on the job.’
They don't plan on slowing down any time soon. ‘Having a defined path stresses me out. It suppresses my creative side, so I want to start a different project,’ says Miguel. ‘We need to keep evolving.’
Jose agrees that they can now streamline and focus on the wines they know work best, while innovating new ones. ‘With Vinifícate established, now we can try a crazy idea on a small scale,’ says Miguel. ‘And, if something cool comes out of that crazy idea, it can become our next project.’