With his gentle and reflective tone and manners, Josep Roca has the rare ability to convey honest emotion and sensitivity when he talks about wine. He does it on a day-to-day basis in his job as sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and has tried to express it on his book Tras las Viñas (Behind the Vines), a journey to the most humane side of wine.
Written in conjunction with psychologist Inma Puig, an expert in family businesses and consultant for Barcelona football club and El Celler itself, the book is a calm reflection about wine and the personal experiences and principles of 13 producers that they visited in their estates in Spain, the US, Argentina, France, Italy, Germany and Georgia.
Since its launch in October, Roca and Puig have presented the book in various locations. Two of them were in San Sebastián Gastronomika fair, where this interview was held after a multitudinous and applauded tasting featuring one wine from each of the producers in the book, and Girona, where the tasting was attended by the 13 producers and which Amaya Cervera writes about at the end of this interview.
Admired and unanimously respected by wine professionals for his ability to arouse emotions and his professional and humble attitude, Pitu —as he is affectionally called— defines himself as a “waiter” and talks to us about his 30 years of work in the family restaurant, which maintains its three Michelin stars one more year and is justifiably regarded as one of the best in the world.
Why did you choose these 13 producers and not others?
Because they represent the reality of the world of wine nowadays. It was a visceral choice, prompted by my experiences with wine and the people who make it. Each of the characters in the book explains an aspect of wine that I wanted to show: changes of direction, simplicity, spirituality, the farmer-cum-scientist mad type, the idea of transforming a territory with feeling and transgression, the need to find freedom for someone who carries the weight of tradition, someone who needs to create a dream to perdure in the memory, revolutions moves to unlearn things… Many of these elements are present in the book.
What do you make of these almost 30 years in the family business?
The first 30 years have passed very quickly and my overall impression is very positive. We never imagined that society would give gastronomy the importance that it has today or that our restaurant would be as well-regarded as it is. We have managed to have some sort of speakers that allow us to send messages from the kitchen that were unthinkable 15 years ago.
We enjoy a privileged situation so we take advantage of that to expand the ethics of gastronomy and send messages about health and the environment, about the need to pay fair prices to farmers, the need to eradicate hunger… The fact that this can be done after 30 years of work leaves us with feelings of calm, responsibility and opportunity.
Is it easy to work with the family?
My brothers [Joan y Jordi] and I have always seen it as a natural thing and we live it in that manner. We don’t know what it is to work without the family but we don’t feel prepared to give lessons on this matter. I don’t know whether we are lucky to be able to work all together, but we certainly like it.
Have you or any of your brothers wanted to try your luck on your own?
We have never wanted to abandon the project or explore what’s out there. Not for the time being, anyway, but it might happen. We have never felt restrained in this job; on the contrary, it feels harmonious and it makes us feel that we are stronger and we can get further together.
Just as money problems bring difficult times —and we had them in the early days— our current success is also a test. Both make you stay alert. Human beings facing extreme situations usually have at their worst.
How do you balance demands to attend conferences and events with the day-to-day of the restaurant?
With short but intense trips to visit producers. I have been around 25 times in Burgundy but these trips never last more than a day and a half, when the restaurant is closed. I have flown to Germany at four in the morning to visit three producers in one day. It is a considerable effort but I want to spend as much time as possible in the restaurant. These past three years have been my busiest in terms of traveling, but the restaurant always comes first.
What changes do you see in your profession in these 30 years?
In Spain the change has been enormous, particularly in these last years. Just as the kitchen has increased its visibility, sommeliers or waiters seem to be the missing link. Praise comes on the day-to-day of the restaurant but not in the media, and that makes sense.
There was a time when sommeliers felt they had to show off their knowledge in the restaurant with insults that have to do with the ego, with the need to prove their academic credentials. For some time, we said horrible words such as bitartrates, polyphenols, tannins or even the names of certain yeasts. All that techie talk that scares diners is behind nowadays; sommeliers are more emotional these days and are able to tell stories about the people who make the wine and the flavor of the wines.
We know our role is not necessarily secondary to the kitchen; just different. We know that we are the link between the person who makes the wine and the person who will drink it and that we have a great opportunity to advise from our experience, feelings and emotions.
A smooth service and a sommelier are essential in a good restaurant, but young people just want to be chefs. What’s going on?
It is not surprising that youngsters want to be chefs. It is highly unlikely to find a family who is keen on the idea of their 10-15 year old child studying wine. It makes sense that they gain experience in the kitchen first. I think it is important that the dining room staff are convinced about their decision. That usually happens once they are over 20 years old; they are a bit more mature and they have trained in the kitchen. I have always thought that a good waiter is someone who has previous experience in the kitchen —they can be great ambassadors of the white chef coat. These days, a waiter is just as important as a chef.
Nevertheless, being a waiter in Spain in still seen as a temporary job.
Yes, it is something that students do while at college, that’s true, but I also think that society has changed. It needs a more humanist vision, with people who are trained to connect emotionally with a society that has a shortage of feelings and time for emotion. Of course there will students filling the gaps but I think there is a new reality which will draw more people onto the profession. I think hospitality and service are trendy.
Should sommeliers have cooking skills?
It is essential; just as sommeliers learn how a wine is made, they should learn about how food is prepared. Furthermore, I think they should know more about cuisine than about wine producers. You don’t need to be a good taster to be a good sommelier. The threshold of sensory perception helps you to smell the intensity of a particular fruit in a wine, but it doesn’t help you to understand what is best for the client sitting in front of you. You need a different set of skills and values to perceive that. Analytical skills are important but not imperative.
Which are the most important skills to be a great sommelier?
Passion, generosity and being hospitable; with those skills, and depending on talent and intelligence, that person will be able to make his or her mark in the world of wine but always with emotion.
Few chefs seem to like wine. Why is that?
It is very sad. French chefs have been able to embrace the culture of the regions they come from so they have been the main ambassadors of wine; they not only talk about it but encourage its consumption. This has to do with education, which is a slow process. We have focused our energies on learning techniques and products; what we need now is that chefs embrace wine culture.
Some chefs have already done that, but compared with France, I miss that sensitivity towards the land, towards a product like wine, which is also part of our gastronomy.
We have made leaps and bounds in cuisine; chefs have devoted their time to be at the cutting edge of knowledge, to proof their worth but the world of wine is so complex that they might be afraid of it. But that has also happened with critics: they have focused on the food and have ignored wine. And wine critics have ignored food. As Inma says, where you focus your attention you focus your life.
So in Spain we lack good critics who write about wine and food.
We have critics specialized in food and critics specialized in wine; they work in parallel. Both understand the complexity of the other side but they don’t delve into it. The country’s most renowned sommeliers work in famous restaurants; there might be better sommeliers than us out there but food critics have never met them.
Few people know Raúl Igual, who works in his bar-restaurant in Teruel and represented Spain in the world’s championship. A fellow sommelier from Aragón, Guillermo Cruz, who represented the country in the same competition and works in Mugaritz, is widely known and lives a completely different reality. Beyond their talents, the media conditions their fame.
Is wine taken into account when new dishes are created?
Most chefs don’t but there are people who find inspiration in the world of wine. It is just another part of the creative process and it can happen in different places of the world where wine is made. Chefs like Alain Senderens, at Lucas Carton in Paris, who at the height of nouvelle cuisine says: “I understand that wine is more important than food and from now on I am going to make dishes based on the wine”. France, three Michelin stars, grandeur. It’s been done before; we are not inventing anything new.
It may be something that a renowned French chef like Senderens, who gave up his stars, can do.
No, anyone who wants to seduce their clients and have a full restaurant can do it. You need a different message, based on good taste, hospitality and seduction. It can be done in a Parisian restaurant or in a local tavern.
How do you achieve that in a local tavern?
In one of his books, Alex Rovira says a waiter can improve a client’s life in 30 seconds. Such occasions to seduce should not be missed. They call it mirror neurons —it’s a matter of seducing with something genuine and natural using empathy. For example, you can fill a stoneless olive with an Amontillado-based gelatin —that’s just something off the top of my head, but anything is possible!
Wine consumption in Spain has gone into free fall and wine marketing must be renewed. How should we approach it?
These days we are led by large food and drinks corporations, who are brave and daring in their marketing approach and have devoured craftsmanship. We, as craftspeople with a voice, need to try and overcome being a minority and rejuvenate consumption.
This happens in Spain, though, but not in the US, where wine is perceived as modern and drunk in wine bars playing loud music. Here we still carry the tradition of our parents but I think there is a new generation who will turn things around. We are in a society that looks to the land in a different way —people are more environmentally aware and have a holistic view that rejects the way land has been abused.
So we are in the hands of the young.
This younger generation will understand that drinking wine is a way of taking in nature. The only way to make wine more interesting for the young must come from the young growers making wine. They should be heard, like chefs were heard in earlier times, so they can share and project their love of the land.
These young winegrowers have inherited their grandparents’ vineyards and have got university degrees but they don’t find a future in these sectors so they go back to the land because it gives them a sense of self-awareness. The shake-up will come from this group; the marketing battle has been won by the soft drinks and beer industries.
Will consumption be simplified?
I think bulk wine, sold in carafes, will return. We will see a return to simplicity, without the exclusivity or the bombastic language of the past. It’s the pleasure of drinking wine and sharing the experience. I hope this new breed of young producers manages to pass this onto younger generations.
Marketing has eluded us, but we have the new digital tools to connect with countless people. Nowadays, there are a lot of committed people, both in Spain and abroad; these producers might not make the best wine in the world, but it surely is genuine. That’s the main difference now.
Sommelier Agustí Peris [formerly at El Bulli and Etxebarri] said that Spain has great entry-level and mid-range wines but that more cult wines are needed. Do you agree?
Agustí is a good friend of mine. His vision of wine is eclectic; he has studied and lived in London and the lesson you learn there is universality and to look at things with perspective.
Such a comment might hurt some in Spain, but he understands the reality well. I think he means that we don’t have many producers who have been making quality wines non-stop for 50-100 years. He talked about Galicia in particular, and I think he meant that up to 1975 most of the wine was sold in bulk. This region lacks producers with three-four-five generations making good quality bottled wine, like some in Rioja or Sherry. That is a tangible fact.
So is it a matter of waiting?
It’s a matter of time; we have made tremendous progress in very little time and we should be proud of that. The world keeps its eyes peeled for the latest developments here. When we show wines from Priorat or other areas, foreigners are happily surprised. Barely one and a half generations have been making quality wine in Spain. It’s a very short period of time with regards to other historic areas which have a wine tradition since 1700 or 1800. We have to accept it. We have a long history as a country but we didn’t pay attention to excellence. We do now.
Up to 900 glasses are used during each service in El Celler de Can Roca and it is not unusual the you change pairings based on diners’ tastes.
Yes, we use between 700 and 900 glasses. María and Radia, who work backstage on the day and evening shifts, are of great help. They perform this little miracle aided by some glass-cleaning machines, which means glasses don’t have to be dried by hand. But the logistics are crazy.
The six sommeliers in the restaurant change the wines and glasses based on each of our 55 clients. It is a very complex dance but it helps to avoid routine. In the kitchen, work can be mechanical but in the dining room anything can change in a second, depending on the satisfaction of the clients, the atmosphere, the silences, the conversations with them…
Do you check the wines suggested to the diners by the rest of the sommeliers?
All the sommeliers have my trust and are able to interpret the wines that they are going to serve, although if I’m around I like to know what’s going on. I visit all the tables when they arrive observing with a thousand eyes. Each table has a previous history. We write down all of the wines they drink so that in case they return, we have a record. It’s a way of knowing a bit more about the clients on our tables.
It’s a three-hour service so we serve the same wine for everyone and then we move onto other wines, based on how the table responds. If you see the wine wasn’t transparent enough, you change onto something else; there’s no need to make them understand that that the wine is very good if they don’t like it. We should give lessons to the clients.
How do you decide which wines are served at each table?
We try to establish a connection with the clients and we try to listen. I always say: “normality as a norm” because we know that some clients may feel daunted; we want them to feel at ease and relaxed during the three hours they are with us.
Clients say a lot of things with very few questions; they tell you if they are experts or not. If you ask someone how they like their wine and they answer “with moderate alcohol, unbaked and local”, you know this client has a clear idea of what he wants but if someone just says “one from the region”, you know they are interested in wine but not excessively so we should not offer an expensive wine because otherwise they will get angry.
Have you ever refused to serve an expensive wine because you though the person asking for it would not appreciate it?
Not to a person, but I have done that in some occasions, when I’m asked to open a bottle that would go to waste because the clients were tired, overcome by alcohol and with no food left to serve. That’s why I’ve sometimes said that I didn’t have any more bottles left. They would have left the restaurant with a picture of the bottle, but it’s just not right.
It’s brave of you to acknowledge that.
I have been lucky to meet the people who make this wine; I know they make it in tiny amounts and with a great deal of effort, so I have to say no. Next to some wines on the wine list says “not available” but if someone insists and I can feel their interest, I open a bottle and I won’t charge them for it. Take for example the 2011 Pierre Overnoy served at the [San Sebastián Gastronomika] tasting today; these bottles were from my personal collection but they were meant to deliver a message, to connect with people, to share so I open them and don’t charge anything for them. Even though it costs €20, this Overnoy bottle could stand next to a €7,000 bottle of Romanée Conti, because it means a great deal. As the Overnoys live an austere life, it’s fair that their wines have that price.
Is it easy to let an honest story or the personality of a producer become more important than the quality of a wine?
This is the part where sommeliers must display their knowledge, experience, skills and rigour. They must be able to differentiate between a fault, as is the case in some natural wines, or the virtues and energy of a wine. As Pierre Overnoy used to say, his wines didn’t smell like cider or baked apples; cider is cider and if a wine smells like cider, it is faulty. Sommeliers must be able to reject both wines with an excess of oak or others which have faults.
Do you drink wine on a daily basis?
I drink wine when I work and I like it, but we professionals must be careful. I try around eight to ten wines per service. At home in the fridge there’s always a bottle of Sherry for dinner; at most, I drink a glass of sherry but that’s all I’ll drink at home. Outside, when I go to a restaurant, I like to open a couple of bottles with my wife although I never finish them.
Is Sherry exciting?
Well, it has the ability to last in the fridge without damaging itself or me and it has great longevity [Laughter].The truth is that my connection with Sherry is very natural and genuine. These wine have so much concentration and flavour! A small amount of Sherry feeds my soul tremendously.
On November 15, Pitu Roca brought together the 13 producers featured in Tras las Viñas with the exception of William Harlan (Harlan Estate, California), who was represented by one of his closest collaborators, the winery’s director Don Weaver.
Together with psychologist and coauthor Inma Puig, Roca introduced each of the producers in what he described as a "festival of the people”. Following the book’s approach –and Roca’s day-to-day philosophy at El Celler de Can Roca– the event revolved around the people behind the wines. All of the producers spoke in their own language (English, French, Italian, Catalan and Spanish) except for Reinhard Löwenstein who captivated the audience with his vitality and his effort to communicate in Spanish.
Celebrated winemakers Pierre Overnoy from Jura and Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy from Burgundy didn't say much letting their wines speak instead. Ricardo Pérez Palacios (Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo) overcame his shyness and expressed admiration and gratitude to his uncle Álvaro Palacios (who brought a beautifully aerial Finca Doff Garnacha 2012) and to many of the producers who sat by his side. Christian Moueix, who brought a magnificent Château La Fleur-Pétrus 2010, acknowledged that this was his very first tasting in Spain. Argentine-born Matías Michelini surprised the audience with an extreme 2016 Sauvignon Blanc with 10% alcohol and 10g of acidity which tried to capture the flavour of rock water.
Following this extreme citrus experience, the Taleia Reserva 2013 made by Raül Bobet in northern Lleida very close to the Pyreenes, calmed our palates with its combination of tension and creaminess before facing the opulent, rich nuances of Löwenstein's Riesling from Mosel. The Harlan Estate 2012 we tried was still a baby --it clearly needs some cellaring to reach it peak.
John Wunderman, an American who fell in love with Georgia and its wines, talked about the ancient tradition of fermenting and aging wine in amphorae and explained how most producers feel like they are a mere transmitting agent between the land and the wine itself. In Georgia, wine still has a sacred character.
Wine made by women stood out for their sheer force and distinctive character. While the Vosne Romanée Les Genaivrières 2006 (Domaine Leroy) combined strong flavours with a subtle expression, Elisabetta Foradori’s Teroldego Morei 2013 (Trentino, Italy) showed great tension and purity of fruit. From Spain, María José López de Heredia introduced the white Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1994, a powerful, concentrated, rich vintage with plenty of acidity to age. Sara Pérez brough a traditional sweet wine from Priorat, Mas Martinet Rançi Dolç Garnatxa, which has never been bottled. In fact, Sara started it from very old soleras given as a present by different women in the region.
Around 400 wine lovers attended this unique, unforgettable tasting. Neither the producers, nor the audience knew about the multitudinous character of the event. Once again, Pitu Roca played the role of a magician, creating vivid emotions and proving that wine can be much more than just wine. His farewell sentence was: “Probably in wine there is life and wine is everything.”