He has just received Spain’s National Gastronomy Award to the Best Sommelier of the year and is proud of the fact that this prestigious prize goes to a restaurant like Venta Moncalvillo, far form the large cities but focused on delivering quality and pleasure in large amounts.
It is also a recognition of the hard work and perseverance of Carlos and his brother Ignacio. Both have spent 20 years managing this restaurant in Daroca (pop.50), a village tucked between mountains and vineyards in La Rioja and the smallest in the world with a Michelin star.
Always with their feet on the ground, the Echapresto brothers have adapted to the times and tastes of their clients but always making use of the ingredients found in the area where they live. Vegetables are grown in their own garden, in full view of the restaurant’s diners, and many of the 1,300 brands stored in their cellars make up the history of Rioja.
What are the implications of having a restaurant in such a small village?
When we started, I was 20 and my brother was 19. For us it was a way of life; we never imagined it would be what it is today. We just wanted to live in our village and as our mum was a good cook, we thought that a bar serving lunch to hikers could be an interesting addition to the family’s farm.
I was meant to be the chef and my brother was going to be the waiter. Life has taken us on different paths, but we have managed to do what we wanted where we wanted.
Have you ever been tempted to move to Logroño or to a large city?
We have had many serious offers to move to Logroño and to cities like London or Dubai, but we want to live here. We are deeply attached to our roots. Having a restaurant to pay the rent and living in the urban jungle is not for us.
It seems a firm decision —you have undergone significant renovations in the restaurant.
Our cuisine and service have evolved a great deal over the years but the image of the restaurant was old-fashioned. Last year we decided to do a comprehensive renovation of the restaurant to make it bigger and more luminous and build a cellar that is my pride.
What do you store in the new cellar?
I have one bottle of each of the wines on the wine list, the rest is in the storage rooms. There are wines from Georgia, whites from Germany, Alsace, Jura, Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux reds, quite a few sweets and fortified, bubbly and of course, Rioja.
Wines are sorted by origin and style: Reserva and Gran Reserva, single-vineyard wines and we are widening our verticals —Tondonia, Valpiedra, Lan, Contino, Monte Real, Murrieta, collection wines and old vintages. There are no set rules that say when a wine becomes old so for us, all the vintages before the foundation of the restaurant are old —basically, any wine that is 20 years or older.
How is the wine list organized?
It is divided geographically, including subareas and varieties although we really have two wine lists: one for Rioja, which I’m redesigning with illustrations, and one for everything else. Our international clients want to drink and discover Rioja first hand and our Rioja clients —many from wineries in the region— want to try wines from elsewhere.
In terms of international wines, we have three styles: a wine to know the area, a wine to enjoy and a treat. I cannot have a 2010 Château Palmer but I can stock more affordable producers as well as complicated vintages from the top maisons or their latest releases. I don’t want to have the best of the best; instead, I aim to offer valued and recognizable wines.
Why have you specialised in historic Rioja wines?
For us they are a distinctive feature. We cannot compete on a national and international level with a five-star hotel, with titanium or with a centuries-old producer but we sure want to have the best local wine list possible. I love Rioja wines and their history. Only this year I have bought 800 bottles out of 10,000 that I’ve seen.
What about the food you serve at Venta Moncalvillo?
Over the last years we have gone more natural and not because it’s trendy —we’ve always done that.
We grow our own plants and do a selection of products that we later plant in our vegetable garden, like our tomatoes. We started with 20 varieties and we have finally selected five. They are not the prettiest but they have flavour.
Our cuisine is local and is always linked to wine. 80% of the ingredients in our menu come from a radius of 50 km. We are Slow Food but we do not like labels —we’d rather prove it on the table.
Are you a waiter or a sommelier?
I want to remove the words maître/sommelier from my business card and replace it with “Carlos Echapresto - host”. My brother is going to do likewise. We welcome diners into our home and take them to the vegetable garden or the cellar where they enjoy an aperitif and we then take them to the table. We want to offer the best to our clients so they enjoy a great experience. My brother and I are both here 80% of the days; if one of us is away, the other is certainly here. We like to welcome guests at the door and be their hosts.
If diners give you freedom to choose, how do you decide which wines to serve?
As I am both maître and sommelier, I talk to diners before they sit at the table and order their drinks. I ask them where they come from, whether they like wine and if they want to discover new things.
To local diners, I like to serve non-local wines: Sherry, Jura… I like to take a calculated risk. We have international customers who come with the Parker list and want to discover small winegrowers and single-vineyard wines and then we have the bargain-hunters, who want to try well-regarded wines or old vintages at affordable prices.
Other guests say to me: “We have this budget, you choose for us”. If I see that diners are up for it and I can open something special, I do it. I might have to charge €12 for a glass but I adjust the final price with the next wine.
Have you ever refused to serve a special wine to someone?
This is not about you having a lot of money to pay me: I have super special wines, like a 1934 López de Heredia which is amazing —last year, I was lucky to open seven bottles. I won’t sell it to a Russian billionaire who wants it as a whim because I don’t want to make money with them. The public might think they are worth a certain amount, but it’s not my case. I store these beauties to treat friends or sommeliers like Pitu Roca, Guille Cruz or Pedro Ballesteros and we drink them together. Some bottles are meant to be shared with people, beyond their economic value.
Do you feel obliged to stock wines from the large wineries in Rioja?
No, I have the wines I like. In fact, certain producers whose wines I don’t stock are clients of my restaurant. I don’t have a recommended wine or a house wine to avoid pressures.
The large wineries are welcome here but I don’t get anything out of opening a bottle like say, Muga Crianza, because that wine is widely available. However, I have the largest collection of Prado Enea, with bottles dating back to the birth of the winery. I want people to come here to enjoy scarce, difficult-to-find wines. Prices in both our food and wine menus are very reasonable. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable about ordering a second bottle because of the cost —if they wanted to drink a Crianza, I want them to have a Reserva instead.
Do you serve many wines by the glass?
We have a selection of 70 wines by the glass and my goal is to offer all the Sherry and Port I have by the glass. In any case, I prefer to open bottles rather than using the Coravin. I like it when people are in the mood to enjoy wine —if I sell four glasses and the fifth one has to be for me, it’s not a problem!
How about Rioja whites?
I am a firm advocate of Rioja whites and we list many of them, as well as from other regions in Spain and the world. They pair very well with our food, particularly our vegetables. I have specialized in Rioja and in wines that don’t compete with Rioja such as Burgundy, Riesling, Sherry and Champagne.
Have you noticed an increase in wine sales since you have the new cellar?
It is an investment that I am trying to capitalize; not so much in terms of sales but rather as a tool to lift our image. People come here knowing that we have an interesting cellar and end up ordering more wine. We tailor menus based on a particular wine from the winery —it’s something we do quite often because we want guests to enjoy their experience in our home. It’s as if you have guests at home and you adapt to what they like —we do the same here.
So you and your brother Ignacio work hand in hand to create dishes and pairings.
My brother understands that food needs to adapt to wine. I recently found a 2002 barrel-fermented Honorio Rubio white which had been returned back to the winery on the grounds that it had refermented. Back on its day, the bottle cost €2.80 and it was just another white, but it turns out that the wine has evolved like a Riesling and it’s just amazing. So I bought the 60 bottles that were returned and I said to Ignacio: “We must make a dish for this wine.” We went into the kitchen and created a dish with vegetables that paired well with the Riesling notes. While we’ve had the wine, we have served this dish to regular clients and wine lovers.
Is it easy to work hand in hand with your brother?
Yes, it has never been a problem for us. We both know what we want: he takes care of the kitchen and I do the same with the dining room and the service. We both ensure that there is good communication between us and that we can both take part in each other’s realms, although I must admit that I exert my right more often than him.
Does your brother like wine?
He likes the clients to enjoy the experience and if this occurs thanks to the wine, all is good. Sometimes he alerts me about wine collections that are on sale so I can check them out. He doesn’t drink much wine, mostly Champagne, but he appreciates good wine.
How do you find these old wines?
I like to visit producers and find things; I practice wine archaeology. Not long ago I found a Rioja rosé from the 1940s in a small bottle and it’s a little jewel. Soon after, I had dinner with Mª José [López de Heredia] ad her husband and I brought a bottle that they loved.
I have another one from Armentia y Madrazo (Bodegas Vasco-Riojanas) with a back Rioja label that hardly anyone remembers. These people were négociants; Madrazo was local (although not related to Jesús Madrazo, former Contino winemaker) and Armentia was Basque -the winery was the start of Paternina. After selling the commercial side to Paternina, they continued with Carlos Serres. In fact, their bottling register number is the same as Carlos Serres has nowadays.
Do you get a lot of calls from people wanting to sell you old vintages?
Most callers want money and information, but they are not really serious about selling. There’s a lot of profiteering now and what’s more, without any proper knowledge. I’ve had calls from people who want to get rid of their father’s cellar to exchange them for a sports car.
What do you store in the underground cellar?
It was the family’s old cellar and leisure room. I store the same bottles that I have upstairs, old wines and wines that are not meant to be sold in the next ten years. I have bits and bobs like one of the first single varietal Graciano wines ever released (2001) or a bottle of Tondonia Cepa Sauternes Sixth Year. I have wines from forgotten wineries that don’t exist anymore and wines that their producers don’t have. I also have wines that I don’t want people to know I have.
How much of your time is spent in finding old wines?
Whatever I can. I am lucky in that my hobby coincides with my job and, as I say, it’s tax deductible.
I’ve been collecting old wines for five years, but since we set up the restaurant I have been reading and learning everything I can about wine.
For the first time in many years, wine consumption has increased in Spain. More is better?
The saying goes "Drink little but drink well". I think part of the increase is due to the fact that spirits consumption has dropped. It's good that people are drinking more, but more wine education is needed. When that happens, people will enjoy wine more.
Should public bodies invest money in educational wine consumption programmes?
I think that popular festivals such as Riojano Joven y Fresco and others are redundant. Drinking for the sake of drinking should not be encouraged.
I think we need more education spurred by knowledge; instead of ordering a Lambrusco in a restaurant because it’s cheap, I would like to see consumers ordering a young carbonic maceration style or a rosé and get to know our wines gradually. Simple restaurants should be the first in educating and explaining their wines. A tavern in a pincho street explains to their customers that the sauce in their grilled mushroom is made with parsley, olive oil and vinegar and they should do the same with the wine and explain that it is a Tempranillo from such and such vintage and region. Basic wine education is missing at the street level, not in fine restaurants.
Who should take the initiative to see that happening?
Perhaps the regulatory bodies should help popular bars and restaurants instead of helping individual producers to sell their wines in these bars.
Do you think sommeliers are valued?
The restaurant revolution is happening in the dining room and I think it would be good to see famous chefs helping their colleague sommeliers to increase their visibility.
I was upset with a piece I saw in a publication with nine million readers in which four chefs from four well-known restaurants showed their cellars; it turns out that those four restaurants have first-class sommeliers.
Journalists might find it easier to talk about a famous chef but perhaps journalists should let sommeliers have their say. Recommending a fino or a manzanilla might not be Ángel León’s job, no matter how famous he is, and the Consejo Regulador should propel the figure of the sommelier instead of the chef’s. The press should write about the sommeliers, as it did with chefs.
But the chefs are still the stars. We see that in programmes like Masterchef or Top Chef.
And why don’t the Consejos Reguladores sponsor a pairing exercise in one of those shows? It would fit in perfectly.
We have to seize the value of having famous chefs. Italians have been able to sell their wine worldwide as part of their cuisine. Each region should support their wines although the old Spanish saying that it’s hard to be prophet in your own land is true.
Do you need to have a good palate to be a good sommelier?
Being a great taster is not the most important thing. I don’t stand out in that respect but I do have good memory, which is necessary to enjoy moments, memories or past feelings. Memory and coherence are essential tasting tools. Coherence is the key to everything: coherence in what you do, in the kitchen and in the wines I recommend.
What is the main asset of Rioja wines?
Diversity, without doubt. Thinking that Rioja is just whites, reds, Crianzas and Reservas is ill-advised. The greatness of Rioja resides in its soils, varieties and producers, particularly the young ones leading interesting projects that break stereotypes. The constraints of classicism are bearing down on Rioja.
Does Rioja have the fame and influence that it deserves in the world?
Not at all! Rioja lags four steps behind the place it should be. The marketing teams in the Regulatory Body have a great deal of work to do; more than the producers, who are focused on selling their own style of wines. The whole of the DO is the sum of all the styles that need to be championed, not just those backed by the wholesalers.
Rioja’s Regulatory Body approved a new single vineyard designation. Is it a step in the right direction?
The first steps have been taken. It’s a good start but many more changes are still necessary. The single vineyard designation is just one of them.
Perhaps it was a good opportunity to make deeper changes.
Changes need to be thought out thoroughly and people need to be steered towards them progressively. Drastic changes are not a good idea because we might make mistakes. It might be a problem if changes are carelessly made or just benefit a minority.
Should you or others in your position be consulted for these changes?
Nobody has asked me what I think, but someone like me, who is in contact with national and international clients, old and young people, brand-lovers and generalist aficionados, might have something to say. If they only hear the opinions of the large bodegas —heavily influenced by market conditions and the opinions of importers in third countries who mostly care about price— they might be getting it wrong.
Are there any Regulatory Body who listens to people in your line of business?
Perhaps Jerez comes the closest. A few months ago, I took part in Copa Jerez; at this conference producers, sommeliers and winemakers interact together.
Should Rioja pay attention to other wine regions?
Rioja has a lot to learn -otherwise it could be a victim of its own success. Changes are underway and they should continue as they did in the past. Large volumes could kill Rioja. Different quality levels should be established to face the future with certain guarantees.
Are you in favour of the quality pyramid?
No, I have my own opinions about how these quality levels should be established based on my knowledge of the market and international wines, but that would be a whole new interview.
But what is the best model for Rioja?
We are going back to winegrowing and that is good but dividing vineyards might not necessarily be the solution. I think it’s great to have producers making 5,000 bottles of a top wine, but Rioja will not be great until we have bodegas who are capable of making 80,000 bottles of a great wine, as it happens in Bordeaux. Rioja is not Bordeaux and it’s not Burgundy. I am an advocate of Burgundy’s single vineyard identity but the best model for Rioja involves picking elements of both regions and adapting them to our identity.
Could Champagne be a good example?
I think it is the closest to Rioja. The négociant and vigneron models live together in Champagne. Both are capable of making a great cuvée prestige.
Unesco turned down Rioja’s bid to join its World Heritage List as a unique wine landscape. Do you think Rioja deserves this recognition?
The whole thing wasn’t handled very well. The problem is that we’re not ready: we don’t believe in ourselves and we only care about our own individual interests. If we all start to clean up our land and organize the landscape to avoid eyesores like industrial estates, rusty farming tools or power lines demanded by large business groups, then things might start to change a little. There are spots in Rioja which could be part of Unesco’s World Heritage today and there are others where there’s plenty to do. Union means strength and right now, there is no union.
Is that lack of union the reason why Rioja doesn’t move forward in terms of quality?
There are too many partisan interests and everyone only looks after their own. There’s no team effort.
Are there any great wines being made in Rioja right now?
I think there are people making really interesting things. I have tasted wines with great potential that will reach the market over the next years. Customers will appreciate them but I think the gap between quality wines and large-volume plonk is widening. We now have several big players whose only interest lies in churning big quantities of wine; their profits are made from cents in millions of litres and that’s not good for the image of Rioja. The only positive thing is that the medium segment is being pushed upwards and cannot engage in price wars.