Life Lessons with Victor Urrutia of CVNE winery

As CEO for one of Spain’s most historic Rioja wineries, Victor Urrutia has pioneered a global expansion. But here the Cune chief tells Adam Lechmere of his impatient streak, conservative tastes and why he’d make an excellent waiter

Words by Adam Lechmere

CVNE CEO victor Urrutia posing before barrels at the winery

There’s something Victor Urrutia is not processing, as the shrinks say. By any reckoning, the chief executive and owner of one of Spain’s greatest wineries is a modest man: self-effacing, small in stature, quiet of voice, dapper of dress. But he’s got a thing about a Porsche Boxster that he bought 20 years ago and exchanged for a VW Passat when the weight of responsibility landed on his young shoulders, and he won’t let it go.

Urrutia is one of a not uncommon breed, the accidental winery owner. In 2003 he was perfectly happy in London, pursuing a career in management consultancy, when his uncle, then chairman of CVNE, retired, and his father called to ask the 29-year-old Victor if he could take over the company. ‘I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to live in Bilbao and spend all my time in Rioja,’ he told me. But he did his duty and has now run CVNE, with his sister Maria Urrutia Ybarra as head of marketing, for nearly two decades.

CVNE vineyard
CVNE's Riojan wines include Imperial, Viña Real, Monopole and Contino. Photo by James Sturcke

Founded in 1879, CVNE (the Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) is one of the handful of noble old bodegas that cluster around the station at Haro in Rioja Alta. Its fame rests on a stable of wines – the famously long-lived Imperial, Viña Real, Monopole, Contino – produced as separate brands under the CVNE umbrella. Unusually for Rioja it owns almost all its vineyards (Urrutia’s ambition is for the vines to be entirely self-owned, and he continues to buy land).

Urrutia and his sister are fifth-generation owners. Staff turnover is glacial: technical director Maria Larrea is only the fifth chief winemaker in 140 years. What must it have been like taking charge of such a company at such a young age? ‘They were brave and possibly a bit reckless to put me in charge,’ he says. ‘There were people who’d been working there since before I was born. I had no experience and no training. Who was I to tell these people what to do? I was like a young medieval prince, wearing shorts and not really having a clue what was going on.’

But the young prince soon found his feet. Back in 2003, CVNE looked very different and Urrutia saw ways that that company could be updated. There was hardly any sales operation for example. ‘We fired a lot of people and we hired a lot of people,’ he tells me in his mild way.

On Urrutia’s watch, CVNE is expanding in all directions. It’s now a global operation – there are 100 staff in Japan, for example – and at home he’s busily increasing CVNE’s holdings, not only buying vineyards in Rioja, but also properties in Galicia (he adores Godello) and Valdeorras.

CVNE - Haro winery
CVNE's Haro winery in Rioja. Photo by James Sturcke

‘I hate showing off,’ he says, ‘but it’s not me, it’s CVNE so that’s fine. In terms of prestige, and vineyards, and recognition, we are the best. We’re the most important winery in Spain.’

What do his Haro neighbours think of such claims? He shrugs. ‘I’ve no idea. They all think they’re the best, which they should. If you don’t think you’re the best, then you won’t strive for quality.’ That mildness obviously conceals a single-minded determination: to ensure the 19th-century ancestors that laid the foundations of CVNE are honoured.

Anything else is a distraction. Urrutia seems to be conservative – even ascetic – in his tastes: his favourite restaurant is the wonderfully old-fashioned Horcher in Madrid, he doesn’t go out very much and neither smokes nor ‘does drugs’ (he says he drinks too much over dinner but that might just be wishful thinking).

But then there’s that Porsche. I know many owners of wineries with a fraction of the cachet of CVNE who treat themselves to flashier motors than an old VW Passat. The Boxster that he gave up, like Prince Hal renouncing Falstaff – that’s unfinished business, isn’t it? Urrutia gives a quiet chuckle. ‘Possibly,’ he says.

Victor – CVNE
Victor Urrutia: ‘They were brave and reckless to put me in charge. I was like a young medieval prince, wearing shorts and not really having a clue what was going on’

What was your childhood ambition?
It was more a fantasy than an ambition but I wanted to be a minor rock star: respected and talented, not famous but known by those who care. To be honest, I never had any ambitions. I was aimless, with no clear path. I wanted to do good but I had no idea how. I didn’t have an ambition to get into wine – I wonder about people who say, ‘From the day I could walk I knew I wanted to do wine.’ I struggle to believe that.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?
Not that much, really – I knew then what was more or less necessary to know at the time. Perhaps a better understanding of people. I was 29 when I took over the winery. I think I would have done things very differently now than I did then. I didn’t make any important mistakes: my mistakes were ones of omission.

What exercise do you do?
I cycle to our Madrid office when the weather’s nice. I try to ski a bit over the winter. I try to fix things around the house, repaint walls and so on.

Porsche Boxster
VW Passat
CVNE's Victor Urrutia reluctantly traded in his Porsche Boxster for a much more practical VW Passat

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
When I was 29, when I got back to Spain, I bought a Porsche Boxster with my savings. But my life changed and I found it was hard to combine with kids and all that, so now I drive a VW Passat Estate Diesel with 200,000km on the clock. I could still afford a Porsche but it sets a terrible example. In any case, VW Passats go on for ever.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I’m too impatient. I finish phrases for people who are talking to me. I worry a lot. I don’t talk as well as I could.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
As a young man, New York: for the opportunities. Right now, I’m fine in Madrid – it’s not perfect but it’s good enough.

New York City
If he could live anywhere, Urrutia would pick New York 'for the opportunities', but he's happy in his current home of Madrid

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I would have been a good waiter. I have good attention to detail and enjoy looking after others.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
My old Porsche.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Inner peace. I don’t know if you ever can achieve that: there’s no limit to what you want to do. To say, ‘I’ll be happy the day we buy a property in Burgundy,’ for example – that’s just not true.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Ban guns and have them all recycled.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
My grandfather Victor, whom I never got to know well. He achieved much in life and was a character.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Drinking too much over dinner.

Red wine – CVNE
Urrutia's guilty pleasure is a glass of red wine (or three) over dinner

What’s your secret talent?
I’m a good all-rounder. To be OK at everything is a good talent to have. I’m OK at pretty much everything.

When were you happiest?
I was happiest in 1987, boarding at Ampleforth College in England. It was just a great time of my life, a brilliant year. At that age [15] you have no work troubles, money troubles or woman troubles. It was the age of innocence.

Who do you most admire?
Loyal people who take pride in doing their work well and don’t do it just for the money.

What’s your greatest regret?
Not having gone to university in the UK. I went to university in Madrid; I wasn’t expected to get good grades but in the end I was top in the whole school. I could have taken a year off and reapplied, and gone to a decent UK university.

Levi's jeans
Horcher restaurant
A good-fitting pair of Levi's is Urrutia's go-to piece of clothing, while his favourite restaurant is the traditionally styled Horcher in Madrid

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
Chopin’s Nocturnes.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
A pair of Levi’s. I only have one pair but I like them very much. They’re nothing fancy – they just fit well, and at our age that’s important.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Horcher in Madrid.

What time do you go to bed?
Before midnight during the week; Friday and Saturday, there’s no deadline.