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Passion for Spanish wine

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“Spain should pay more attention to its vineyards” Wine Advocate writer Luis Gutiérrez, after the interview in La Música del Vi in Barcelona. Photo: Yolanda Ortiz de Arri

Interview

“Spain should pay more attention to its vineyards”

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | May 18th, 2016

As The Wine Advocate’s taster for Spain, Argentina, Chile and Jura, Luis Gutiérrez is an influential man in the world of wine. Many think he is lucky for managing to combine work and play, but behind such good fortune there is plenty of hard work and dedication. Gutiérrez, who was born in Ávila but lives in Madrid, combined for over 20 years his job as an executive in Tetrapack with his passion for wine. He tasted, travelled and wrote mostly for publications such as El Mundo Vino and Jancis Robinson until a phone call from Robert Parker in 2013 led him to practice his hobby full-time. 

We conducted the interview in Barcelona, during La Música del Vi. He also took part the previous day in the Tasting in Pairs competition hosted by wine distributor and retailer Vila Viniteca, an event he enjoys even if he didn’t reach the final. 

Easy-going and amiable, his passion for wine is palpable and he still gets excited when he discovers a new wine or a new producer who is able to bring the best out of a great vineyard. 

How did you start in the world of wine?
I started as a wine lover and still am. Wine is my passion; you just don’t get over it if you’re really into wine. I still buy lots of bottles and want to try all sorts of things; this job gives me the chance to carry on learning.
I love to walk on the vineyards and see what’s behind the wine. At the end of the day, I need to understand; it might be my engineering background, but I want to understand the wines in their context and the reason why they are as they are.

Have your tastes evolved?
There’s been a big evolution. I now write about the Jura for The Wine Advocate but I would have never guessed 15 years ago that I would find them exciting; back then, I found them weird and unusual.
It would be worrying if I had not evolved. With time, I also realize that I hardly know anything. We must overcome prejudice and preconceived ideas, like those we have about the New World. It’s fascinating what’s going on in Chile and Argentina right now. We have a stereotype but when you go there you realize that reality is far more complex than expected. There are passionate people everywhere; the world of wine is beautiful. 

You are smoker. How do you handle tasting and smoking?
I smoke for pleasure, it’s not an addiction. I don’t stop in the middle of a tasting and go outside to smoke, but I like to light up a cigarette when I am relaxed. It’s something that my brain keeps under control —I’m very stubborn.

And your family, how do they handle your love of wine?
I have three children aged 20, 18 and 15 and, so far, they are not really interested in wine. The youngest is interested in food and enjoys cooking but at such ages it is unusual to enjoy wine in the way we do. Wine is great for a time in your life when you are more relaxed and have other interests.

But in places like London, San Francisco or Buenos Aires young people drink wine.
It’s seen as cool over there, but in Spain wine still has an old-fashioned image. We have really pushed hard to make it elitist. People still say ‘I don’t drink wine because I don’t have the skills’. In fact, you don’t need any skills; all you need to know is whether you like it or not. That’s it. We tend to complicate things a lot.

Do you think that products like blue wine or kalimotxo (a coke and wine cocktail, popular in Spain) might be a gateway towards quality wine?
I don’t think so. For me, wine is a part of cuisine and I find it shocking that there are so many chefs who have no interest whatsoever in wine. I don’t understand it. 
I think food —as well as the fun, recreational side of wine— play a bigger role in that evolution. Blue wine and kalimotxo are something different; I don’t really know the recipe to bring young people onto wine, but I think it might be a matter of fashion. Maybe millennials here will realize that his peers in Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and Singapur go to wine bars and actually enjoy it!

Are natural wines just a trend?
I think it’s good to have people willing to do things differently as a reaction against boring, industrial, soulless wines. Natural wines can help to break the mold, specially among young people.
I have to say, though, that there are many natural wines that I dislike, wines with defects. Obviously, most people try to make something good but there are good and bad natural wines. In any case, I’m interested in the result rather than the process, although some people who are deeply involved in natural wine care more about the process.

And what about wines without added sulfur?
As a concept, I think it is silly but it has its positive side. I disapprove of using large amounts of sulfur but I neither think it is a good idea to shut down and refuse to use it at all. Sulfur is an antioxidant which has been used since Roman times; it should be used in minimal and essential quantities.
If you have total control over your vineyard and grapes, you will be able to ferment with native yeasts. If you purchase grapes and don’t control the quality, you will probably need to use selected yeasts; if you have bacterial problems, you will have to use additional doses of sulfur and if you have a clean and controlled winery and understand things, you will be able to reduce its use. But if you fail to control hygiene and you are a sulfur taliban, you will end up with defective wines. There are great wines and bad wines both with and without sulfur.

Do you ever buy wines in the supermarket?
No, never. They are practically a different product, even though some brands may overlap. Customers who purchase the same brand throughout their lives are uninterested about vintages or other details; they just want their wine to taste the same and find a standard product, which is incredibly boring. Why do they bother writing the vintage on the label if it’s always the same? I’m not interested in that sort of wine.

We are a country with little wine and gin culture. Why is gin such a best-seller in Spain and wine isn’t?
It’s a matter of trends and fashion, but as I said earlier, I think wine could reach that point. When our millennials find out that wine is a tool of seduction, they will latch onto it. If you want to impress a girl in Argentina, you invite her to drink a bottle of quality wine. Consumption is much higher over there, exactly the same as in neighboring countries such as France, Portugal or Italy. In Spain we drink about 15 liters per person, and that figure includes tourists. We clearly have a consumption problem and it’s not because we don’t drink alcohol. Spain is one of the world’s top consumers of whisky and gin.

Does the way wine is treated in bars and restaurants contribute to that problem?
It’s great that people order wine in bars but as wine culture is non existent, what you get is usually cheap and badly treated, served too warm or too cold and at times it's oxidated. I don’t take risks; if I order a glass of wine it’s because I know they have an interesting list. It would be wonderful to be able to go to any bar and order wine, but it is bit of a Catch 22 situation. As there is no demand, there is no offer.

Your turned your hobby into a job, but you still take part in activities for wine lovers such as the Wine Tasting in Pairs competition. Do you surround yourself with friends who are wine aficionados?
I’m surrounded by wine at all hours, but that was the same before. My life has changed for the better; I don’t have to go to an office anymore and I do what I like. A great deal of my friends are wine lovers; my closest friends are very much into food and drink and sharing great bottles. We are messing about with wine all the time.

How much money do you spend on wine?
Much more than I ought to. I can spend over €15,000 per year, which is well above the average. We are weird; wine consumption in Spain is at rock bottom levels despite people like us. 
I store a great deal of what I purchase because I like to have wines for each occasion: depending on who you are going to drink it with, the food you’re pairing it with, if it’s summer or winter… I might feel like drinking some champagne or an old Rioja, or perhaps a younger, simpler wine. I have over 3,000 bottles at home; I enjoy having a cellar that allows me to have plenty of options. 

You must have a large space to store so many bottles...
We have been living in our house for 11 years and my only requirement when we bought it was that it had a cellar. There is space for less than 3,000 bottles but I have more. I built it small on purpose because wine is like gas: it tends to fill all available spaces.

And what sort of wines do you store in your cellar?
My tastes have gradually changed and I buy things to see their evolution, although the experimenting part is over. I now buy bottles which are well tried and tested. I have a lot of wine from Burgundy, northern Rhône, plenty of sherry and a considerable number of classics. I buy to drink, not to collect.

Do you buy them by the case or by the bottle?
A little bit of everything. Certain wines, I buy everything I can get hold of whereas I buy single bottles of certain wines. Burgundy prices have skyrocketed so it’s hard to buy them anymore. Fifteen years ago you could buy a Grand Cru for €80 whereas now that same wine costs €400. Regions like Jura, which I didn't care for much before, fill that gap nowadays.

Is it exciting for you to discover new regions?
Not so much regions, but it’s great when you come across new producers or vineyards. Meeting someone who has found a soil where he or she has recovered an indigenous variety and shares it with you is absolutely exhilarating.

Do you find people like that in Spain?
Of course. There might be more in Galicia than in Jumilla, but there are people like that everywhere. That’s why wine is going through such an interesting moment in Spain right now. We have weathered a difficult patch when wines felt very similar, trying to imitate the same style —they were terribly boring times. There’s a lot more diversity and interesting projects going on now.

A few producers are going back to the roots, planting indigenous varieties and pulling out international ones. Do you think this movement is here to stay?
I think it is an evolution, rather than a trend. There’s more knowledge these days; people are taking things more seriously and they don’t reject the old or the traditional. That happened at a time when it was necessary to break with the past —we must take Spain’s history into account.
Standard or industrial wines made from international varieties have ended up being simpler wines; producers need to compete in price with them. What do they offer that sets them apart from the rest of the world? They have to fight the price battle and there will always be someone selling it cheaper. 
Wines with personality is what the market demands now. Differentiation, rather than standardization, is what gives competitive advantage. The old, boring days are more or less over. It’s true that there are people who still want to make a Ribera del Duero or a Bordeaux wine in the Canary Islands with Listán Negro in a subtropical climate and complain that the variety is not good enough.

Are wineries still focused on making wines to please the critics’ taste?
There are stereotypes everywhere, including about critics’ tastes. I have an anecdote from the day I met Parker three years ago. We started to chat about San Sebastián, the food, Rekondo restaurant and he said to me ‘why don’t you do a txakoli tasting? I love txakoli and we never have written anything about txakoli’. Is there anything more anti-Parker than txakoli? Well, the fact is that Parker likes txakoli, Burgundy, etc but in the end what remains is the stereotype and the simplified formula. 

And your taste, is it still perceived as Parker style?
Most people more or less know my tastes. What you find in The Wine Advocate these days is a reflection of the world, which means more diversity, more styles, different areas…. We want to avoid stereotypes. There isn’t a Wine Advocate taste and nobody tells me what wines I have to taste or like. When I was hired they told me: ‘We’ve hired you because you are the expert and you’ll now what you do’. At first it was rather daunting, but then I realized it’s a real luxury because I do as I please.

Do you have complete freedom?
We have an editorial calendar, but I suggest my programme. As long as I hand over well written, good quality pieces and I don’t miss the latest good wines to emerge, there is no problem. There isn’t an editorial policy that dictates the taste. The only edition is in terms of style, but I’ve never been asked to re-taste a wine. If that happened, I would leave and I’m sure my colleagues would too.

Do you have any pressure from producers, Regulatory Bodies, etc to taste their wines?
Well, that’s relative. A lot of people are unaware of how we work and want me to taste, say, a wine from Chile now. I have to explain to them that I don’t taste Chilean wines until February. I focus on one area for two months and then onto the next. In these two months I have to choose the wines, find them, gather all the information about them and enter it in my database, taste 800 wines and write a piece with pictures. I cannot taste a new vintage from Rioja just because the producer has released it at that particular moment; I go at my own pace. 

But if it is a friend of yours who asks you to taste his wines?
Friends don’t ask me because they know how the system works. It is actually those who don’t know me who are more confused. Some people still think that The Wine Advocate is an annual guide; years ago, Parker used to taste Spanish wines once a year and used to publish one article a year, but that has changed completely.

What percentage of The Wine Advocate subscribers are from Spain? 
Very few, barely around 300. The rest get to read the scores and a short paragraph because a friend or the Regulatory Body emails them those two details.

Do you find that disappointing?
Of course. I write 8,000-word pieces talking about the region and most people don’t even know that exists. Putting together a bunch of numbers would be a piece of cake. It is a real shame that people are unaware, but it is no surprise given Spain’s consumption levels and poor wine culture.

Do you see any future for the publication in Spain?
My market is not Spain, but the world. I cannot taste every single wine from each of the regions under my watch; instead, I carry out a selection thinking of wines that might be of interest from San Francisco to Singapur. 

Do you prefer to taste wines which have a distributor? 
Not necessarily. Readers who are really interested will find the way to get hold of any wine; some of them even get signed up by an importer because we write about them.
I do plenty of research prior to my arrival in the area to taste the wines: I try to keep abreast of what’s been going on in the area since my previous visit 16 months earlier; I ask my friends on the ground to give me updates on their fields: sommeliers, restaurant owners, wine enthusiasts… I quickly look for the new and interesting and if there is a producer who is making quality wines with personality, I will taste them regardless of whether there is an importer or not. 
Producers always ask me: What do I need to know for you to taste my wine? And I always tell them that it’s very easy: they just have to make an excellent wine.  

Are large wineries negatively affected because of their standardized image?
No, I read everything that gets published, including the wineries’ websites, and I ask around. I send forms to receive information from the wineries and hear their news, even though their launch might not be ready until two years later.
Researching information is a very important part of my work; it’s great to find thrilling wines. I think I was the first to write about Las Beatas from Telmo Rodríguez. Not many people had tasted it —trying it and seeing the vineyard where it comes from was deeply moving.

What do you think of the work done by the Appellations of Origin?
The Denomination of Origin system is obsolete and needs to be updated because circumstances have totally changed. It was very good when it was first established because it allowed everyone to work together under a common name, but a differentiation is needed now. Champagne has a village classification in terms of their potential and producers are divided between those who buy grapes and those who make wine with their own grapes; in Burgundy the system is very advanced and they know the differences between plots; Bordeaux has a commercial classification with the various brands which is also a differentiation.
Hiding underneath the idea that everyone is good is, on the long term, a bad thing. It leads producers to make wine of inferior quality. Bad wine sold under the Rueda appellation is bad for everyone working in Rueda; it’s a very short-sighted approach.

What would be the best model for Rioja?
In my view, the appellations that are working in the right direction are Priorat and Bierzo —they are both trying to define the villages. A hierarchy must be established but it must be built slowly and from the bottom upwards, because it is awfully complicated. Perhaps, those vineyards which are used to make simple wines could have higher yields but shouldn’t be used to make high quality wines.
Something must be done but it’s got to be measured and realistic. You cannot start by identifying the greatest vineyards. We will not get to see a classification like Burgundy’s. That takes years and years, but maybe a classification of soils could be a start. And origin must be recognized too.
Differences in Rioja stem from the location of the winery rather than the vineyards. Priorat started with a classification of villages; at first the differences were not visible but you can start to appreciate nuances between wines from Porrera and wines from Gratallops.
Reality must go hand in hand with the theory, and that’s another reason to take things slowly. The wines might not be able to express a particular plot if the expression of that site is not yet known.
Wines must also express that classification. Creating detailed categories is one thing, but translating such essence onto the bottle is complicated.

There is much talk about a sherry renaissance. What do you make of it?
Sherry is going through a small revival, but the general situation is still delicate. Some wineries have shut down, distilleries have entered the business, vineyards have been pulled out and some wineries have sold them because they viewed them as a burden rather than an asset.
There is a renewed interest now: people like Equipo Navazos have done a tremendous effort to put these wines on the spotlight, but the big players still need time. Pagos or single vineyards are the new buzzword, but plenty of time is needed before we get to see wines reflecting the character of vineyards like Mahina or Macharnudo. Regeneration takes time.

Will we get to see it?
Yes, some of it. The difference between today and 10 years ago is huge. At least people nowadays have heard of sherry wines being the greatest in Spain; that’s something that was unheard of a few years back. They used to be seen as wines for grannies, the drink of choice for old people; there has been a huge change over the past 10 years but there is still plenty of work to do. We are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. 

What should the Spanish wine industry focus on?
One thing that needs to be addressed in Spain is the issue of viticulture and vineyards. We must pay attention to this matter because there lies the origin, the source, the beginning of everything else. I don’t mean the rest has to be left unattended, but viticulture has suffered a great deal: good vineyards have been pulled out, the collective memory of where the good vineyards are has been lost and productive clones have been planted in fertile irrigated ground destined for vegetables or sugar beet. 
Luckily, we still have some good vineyards in many areas and there are young producers who are taking care that they are not pulled and lovingly work them, but there are places like the Sherry Triangle where old vineyards were decimated and bad viticulture practices took over in response to the low prices.
If grapes are worthless, growers cannot care for them as if they were worth a fortune. That’s another reason to demand differentiation. Everything is leveled at the bottom, with the minimum quality and excellence is punished. That’s why there is a rupture —those trying to climb up on quality opt out. Differentiation and hierarchy are needed.

Many producers complain that the price of their wines, particularly abroad, fails to reflect their quality.
The first thing you need to offer is quality, but we must understand reality. Sometimes producers are not realistic about prices, competition and the global market. A wine that is sold here at €20 will cost $40 in the US. Is that wine cheap or expensive?
I think we have been able to offer good value but there has been times when prices went over the roof and some wines have been left out of the market. It isn’t easy to make small amounts of quality wine and earn a lot of money, but quality and differentiation are an absolute must.
Having unique wines that cannot be reproduced in other parts of the world — for their grape varieties, soils, history, tradition and climate— gives us competitive advantage. When all that is wasted selling in the supermarket at €1.5, as it has been the case in some of the most prominent appellations, the image of the region is destroyed.
If winegrowers get paid by the kilo, the message they receive is that they need to produce more kilos. Perhaps prices should be set per hectare. The figure of the vigneron has not existed here. A friend asked me recently, 'who is the Bartolo Mascarello of Ribeira Sacra?' And I laughed and said to him that there’s no Bartolo Mascarello in Ribeira Sacra or in the rest of Spain, for that matter. Spain’s history has favoured a rupture. The little wine culture that developed in Rioja and Jerez was lost after the Civil War and Galician winegrowers survived with small holdings. There isn’t a family like the Chaves from the Northern Rhône making quality wine from the same vineyard since the year 1600. Centuries will come and go before we have that. 

Are Spanish producers able to defend themselves well in international markets?
Firstly, you’ve got to know the wines of the world. We Spaniards have never been very good at selling or speaking foreign languages, but the producers who are making the best wines in the country travel a lot and spend money on buying and drinking wines from other regions in Spain and the world. They take an interest in learning and understanding what’s out there in the market —this attitude is mind-opening.
English is obviously necessary but those who just get by in espanglish, exchange bottles with other producers and worry about trying wines from other parts of the country and the world are making the best wines.
People demand magic formulae and this is one: if you want to make great wines you need to spend money and travel to places like the Rhône, Burgundy etc. You cannot make a great wine if you don’t know what a great wine is.


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