"THINK, EAT, SLEEP AND DREAM GRAPES"
We spoke to the commercial manager and long-term partner of Aartsen Gonzalo Mery of grape distributor Santa Elena in Chile.
A quick email conversation back and forth, with a time difference of six hours, and a Zoom date was made to discuss company culture, traditions and twenty-five different kinds of grapes. Gonzalo Mery is instantly friendly and charismatic from the screen, and you quickly understand what kind of company Santa Elena must be if he's been there for over 18 years.
''Working somewhere for over 18 years is a massive part of growing up and education, and when I started, I started in the fields, picking grapes. We export over 3 million boxes of grapes a year worldwide, and it was founded by investors from England over 28 years ago. Their idea was to find a good place in the world to produce grapes and to supply retail locations in the UK. Eventually, Santa Elena was bought by the current four shareholders, who all started as growers. They kept the same strategy: producing the best grapes to serve retailers. Therefore, Santa Elena is very firmly based on retail relationships. About 50% of the total production comes from our farms, and 50% comes from third-party growers. Yearly we grow about 1000 hectares in different areas, involving more than 5000 employees.''
When discussing Santa Elena, a big production that exports worldwide, it sounds like a close-knit company.
''We started small and still feel that way because it's essential that our grapes are the best and our employees are happy. We don't like to work with titles like CEO and CFO. We don't have titles; we have people. The primary market for us is the US and Canada. Asia is becoming a massive market for us, and Europe and UK also are essential. We are producing
25 varieties of grapes, an extensive portfolio compared to the industry. In Chile, only five companies have that kind of comprehensive portfolio. My work involves the growing side and what is happening in the final market, but keeping our customers happy is essential. It's not just about the payment. It's everything together, everything together always, that allows us to produce the correct grapes for the specific final customer. It's an archaic way to operate, but it enables us to be very involved and helps us continuously improve, as we are very focused on the quality of the fruit. We are doing about 50,000 boxes of cherries.
That, compared with 3 million grapes, is a relatively small business. We think, eat, sleep, and we dream grapes.''
''I love the continuous contact between the farms and customers. We love feedback because our philosophy is based on long-term relationships; just like we have a great relationship with our employees, we also have a great bond with our partners. Aartsen and Santa Elena have worked together for about five years and started with tiny volumes. The industry development in the past years, especially in the Asian market, changed significantly to a demand for new kinds of grapes, and the past years with the pandemic have been challenging for all of us.
Still, we want to be at the top of the industry. If there's something new, we must be the first to discover it; every market is different —significant differences. One market needs rounded grapes, another elongated fruit. It’s our strategy to focus on the high-end customer and start—knowing what the customer wants, and we have to put everything together to have a successful business— a successful development for every market.''
What is your favourite grape variety?
''Muscat is my favourite variety, and Santa Elena owns it. It's the oldest variety in the world, coming from Alexander, and has an extraordinary flavour.''