Paco Berciano and Maribé Revilla have been selling wine for 30 years, first in Burgos in Vinoteca El Lagar, and later across the rest of Spain with their company Alma Vinos Únicos (Soul Unique Wines) and La Tintorería, the store they opened in Madrid eight years ago.
The early days were tough —in the eighties, few people in Spain knew what a vinoteca was— but this couple has been wise enough to sow and wait to reap the fruits of their work. They travelled up and down France to bring wines from producers who are renowned nowadays —André Clouet, Aubert de Villaine o Alain Graillot— and on the pages of the local newspaper in Burgos they wrote columns like one called “Red Ribera, please”, in which they explained the value of the region’s reds, largely unknown back then.
Bottle by bottle, they have achieved small feats like introducing the work of a great number of small terroir-focused producers to many of the country’s sommeliers and aficionados, contributing to make Burgos one of Spain’s most interesting cities for wine lovers and taking home for the second consecutive year the IWC Merchant Award in Spain.
How were your first years in the wine business?
Maribé: Soon after we met in 1986, we decided to open up a wine store. Back then, Paco ran a restaurant in Burgos called El Azogue. Agustín Soto, the chef, was awarded a Michelin star before he passed away at the age of 29. His cuisine was very cutting-edge and Paco’s wine list was very diverse but it was all a little too modern for the time so the restaurant closed down.
We opened the shop in 1988 and decided to call it Vinoteca El Lagar, despite the fact that many people did’t know what a vinoteca was…
When did you become wholesalers?
Both: We soon discovered that a wine store without distribution was tricky. Back then, reds from Ribera [less than an hour’s drive from Burgos] were virtually unknown in our region and we started with Pesquera, a small pioneering producer in the eighties.
El Lagar distributed wines that were available; they might sound classic now but they were pretty new back then: Ismael Arroyo, Muga, Sierra Cantabria or Can Rafols del Caus, which was just starting and didn’t even make cava.
And how did you discover these producers?
Paco: We looked for wines that were a little different. I discovered Gran Caus at a wine fair in Barcelona. There was a stand with unlabelled bottles; I really enjoyed one that only had a telephone number on it: 93 897 0013. I remember the number because I called lots of times. The Italian man who always picked up the phone didn’t understand me. One day a different voice answered; it was the owner, Carlos Esteva, who told me that the Italian man was his father-in-law and didn’t speak Spanish. After that first successful call, he remembers hugging his then wife and telling her excitedly: 'We are going to make it! We’re getting calls from as far as Burgos!’. Afterwards, Carlos came to meet us and since then we’ve always had a very good relationship.
You managed to sell wines that nobody knew.
Maribé: When we started traveling to Bordeaux, we used to go to a restaurant where Paco was known as “Paco d’Espagne”. And at L’Envers du Décor, a classic bar-à-vins in St Émilion, they greeted us with an “Ah, mes amis les espagnols!” because hardly any other Spaniards travelled there. We brought wine from France, Porto, Penedès, Jerez and other obscure areas and we organized free tastings for friends and clients. Many of the sommeliers in Burgos discovered foreign wines and developed a passion for wine with us.
Paco: In the end, you reap what you sow. Nowadays Burgos has around 20-30 bars and restaurants serving foreign wines and another 20 where you can drink Ribeira Sacra or Sherry by the glass or wines from small independent producers from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Rueda. It’s a real feat for a city with 180,000 inhabitants, particularly compared with neighbouring cities like Valladolid, Vitoria or Logroño. Many sommeliers from Madrid are amazed at the availability and prices we have in Burgos.
Why did you launch Alma Vinos Únicos?
Paco: Maribé and I were on our own until 2000, when we met Telmo Rodríguez who suggested we set up Alma Vinos Únicos. He was making a few wines and needed a company to sell them; we were already importing wines from France and Burgos was starting to feel a little too small. In later years other members (César Ruiz, Nacho Jimenez and Flequi Berruti) have acquired a minority stake in the business, but the day to day is managed by Maribé and myself. Telmo remains an important partner —he is very well connected and has a solid knowledge of international wine.
How do you cope working together and being a couple?
Maribé: We knew from the start that it would be difficult so when we opened El Lagar we decided we would live in separate homes. At first we did everything ourselves: buying, selling, paying, delivering, opening the store… When the company starts to grow it gets more complicated; delegating is essential. Paco handles that part better than I do.
Paco: Maribé, who is very efficient, feels it’s easier to do it herself than asking for help. Sometimes we argue about this but overall we handle it well. We never have discrepancies about the company’s principles. We always agree with regards to the staff we hire and we have always tried to make a solid team. We like people to have their say in the decisions we make.
Almost every team member in your store in Madrid is making wine in their own projects.
Both: They have real passion for wine. We set up La Tintorería with Nacho, Flequi and César because they are all very competent and we thought it was worth setting up new projects with them. We are lucky to have such an accomplished team working with us.
Can you have a comfortable life selling wine?
Paco: It depends on your ambitions. If you want to own a country pad by the sea or a penthouse in the centre of Madrid, then forget it. But if life means enjoying it on a daily basis, then yes. We don’t complain: the company has always enjoyed a steady growth and is not in debt. In any case, it is difficult to become a millionaire in the wine business, specially on the distribution side. We act as intermediaries between the producer and the client and the share of the profits in Spanish wine is small throughout the chain.
Maribé: Don't forget we work with very small wineries who have limited stocks of wine to sell.
Is this the philosophy behind Alma Vinos Únicos?
Both: The soul of our company lies in working with family producers who are attached to their land: Luis Anxo Rodríguez, Guímaro, José Luis Mateo, Rodrigo Méndez, Algueira… in Spain and the same abroad: Thibault Ligier-Belair, Tissot, etc.
We started to work in Champagne with small producers like André Clouet at a time when the big houses had the good name. When we signed Pol Roger, we knew we wanted it but we also knew that it was our limit. Pol Roger is big —1.5m bottles, small if compared with others in the region— but they still remain a family business, with their own vineyards and their own style.
In that regard, we have always tried to be coherent with the name of the company (Alma Vinos Únicos means Soul Unique Wines). We’ve received highly tempting offers but we have turned them down for our principles. We’ve always agreed on that too.
What has wine given to you?
Maribé: It’s a way of living. Wine has given us much more than what we have given. We have always tried to transmit our passion because we are lucky to work in this business that fascinates us.
Our holidays are always spent in places where wine is made. The great winegrowing areas of the world are truly beautiful — Ribeira Sacra, Loire, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Douro or Mosel. We used to visit wineries all the time when we started —we loved discovering how wine is made, the soil, the terroir. That’s how we met Telmo. He was surprised to see two relatively young people wanting to visit the vineyard instead of going straight to taste the wines. He warned us that the fields were muddy, but we didn’t care. That was before his dog sprayed mud all over us! (laughter)
Paco, you have written a fair bit about wine.
Paco: I’ve always liked the media and I have written for newspapers like El País, Cinco Días, Diario 16… I used to write and Maribé took the pictures. She always reads what I write; she’s my critical voice. We have recently set up a group of winelovers called La Banda de la Sed (The Thirsty Band) and we manage the wine pages of the leading newspaper in Burgos.
And what’s your impression of wine communication in Spain?
Paco: Improvement efforts have been made but there’s a long way to go. I love reading books about wine and I have to say that Spain lags well behind France in this field. It’s great to have books like The New Vignerons by Luis Gutiérrez, backed by the reputation of The Wine Advocate. I wish there were more wine books in Spain.
Wine is talked about on the internet and social media but there should be more websites like yours in Spain. Many offer contents of little interest, sometimes lifted from other sites: I have seen pieces published by renowned writers which are nothing but translations from French books. It would be great to have a wine programme on TV now that food shows are everywhere. Not one of those with a famous presenter, bu something innovative and serious, bringing it to the soil, explaining why a wine tastes the way it does.
And wine writers and journalists, do they spend money buying wine?
Both: Lots of people write about a particular region without really knowing it and few wine journalists really like wine and spend money buying bottles. Many of them just taste what the big players send them. To improve your knowledge you have to taste all kinds of wines, including the greatest to gain a wider perspective. Before joining The Wine Advocate, Luis Gutiérrez spent good money on wine and he still does, because it’s his passion. In contrast, there's a well-known wine expert who admits that he’s not really interested in wine to drink it and enjoy it; he prefers to taste and analyse it.
You are still working with the traditional producers you started with. Do they fit in well with your current portfolio?
Paco: Yes, classics are back. We liked Tondonia whites so much that it was almost just us selling them. One day, about 15 years ago, I got together for lunch with María José [López de Heredia] and Telmo Rodríguez. María José complained that she couldn’t sell her whites: “Telmo buys some for his visitors and you buy some for your shop”, she said. So we asked her to let us distribute her wines nationwide and she agreed. A few years later she said: “It’s the first time in my life that I do this, but I’ll have to take the distribution away from you because you sell too much. We are running out of stock!”.
Tondonia is fashionable now, but is it easy to sell Crianzas like Pesquera?
Both: Pesquera has always strived to make the same style of wine whereas others, like Muga with Prado Enea and Torre Muga, have adapted to the times. A major flaw in the world of wine is immediacy and modernity. Everyone wants to have the very latest and that’s madness. You may or may not like Pesquera, Valsotillo or Viña Pedrosa but classic style wines must be respected. It’s great to have new producers with top scoring, highly demanded wines but in Spain, perhaps because of our history and internecine character, we tend to praise the new and forget the old.
Should we be more respectful of tradition and history?
Paco: The French concept of five generations working the same vineyard is unknown here. Apart from half a dozen historic wineries, grapes are generally bought so producers do not have a deep bond to the vineyard so it’s hard to find its expression over the generations.
The 2003 vintage was generally warm in France and vignerons drew parallels to 60 or more years earlier, to their parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, that cannot happen in Spain. The Spanish wine sector is also a victim of Franco’s cooperatives and his megalomania for huge buildings where everything was thrown in together to remove any traces of individuality. I said this at a conference and was accused of mixing politics and wine, but I mix facts and wine. Individualism was penalized in Spain for 40 years.
Fortunately, the new generations are changing that.
Both: Spanish wine is undergoing great changes and, if authorities don’t interfere, it can be very successful. There’s a new generation who is familiar with worldwide wines, is well-travelled and is interested in wine. People like Manuel Cantalapiedra, a twenty-something former pianist, have a tremendous wealth of knowledge.
Galicia is one of your strengths and the number of new producers seems to be constantly increasing. Is there a danger that this new way may arouse too many expectations?
Both: Yes, but it’s really interesting because individuality will be crucial here. It makes sense to have many small producers in Galicia. Minifundio (smallholdings), which was considered a hindrance in farming, has saved the vineyards in this region, contributing to preserve many local varieties. If vineyards had been larger, native plants would have been pulled out to plant Albariño.
Galicia is the Spanish Burgundy and has tremendous potential. It was lucky to have such a wonderful group of growers in the early days: Fernando Algueira, Pedro Guímaro, José Luis Mateo (Quinta de Muradella), Rodri Méndez (Forjas del Salnés), Luis Anxo Rodríguez and others who joined later like Pepiño Ferreiro (Do Ferreiro), Xurxo Alba (Albamar), Zárate… who are very consistent.
Fernando Algueira says that we were key to popularize Galician reds outside of the region. We were the first national company to sell reds from Galicia and the category is now very well considered. Part of the merit lies on César Ruiz, a member of Alma, who has been crucial to open up a niche in the market.
Burgundy is one of your favourite regions. Should the Spanish learn more from this part of the world? Should Burgundy’s model be replicated here?
Both: They should look, but that doesn’t mean reproducing it in Spain, because it is impossible. Burgundy exists as we know it because the vineyards were owned by the church and there was no commercial interest in selling them or in creating a brand. Vineyards were farmed separately because they knew their quality.
The concept of being committed to terroir is something we should learn from Burgundy. Everyone knows that Spanish vineyards vary in quality but nobody has talked about this until now. Winegrowers need to see this fact reflected in the market in order to truly care for quality.
Should Denominations of Origin be more vocal about such differences in quality?
Paco: I was tidying papers the other day, and I came across a piece I wrote in 1993 called “Appellations: solution or problem?”. Back then I questioned whether DOs, which had initially been a solution, were starting to become a problem. Bureaucracy always tries to knock off creativity.
Should they disappear?
Paco: They should use their resources elsewhere. Or prevent the largest bodegas from having ties with the DOs. The main problem is that appellations finance themselves through the sales of back labels and the main players are their top sellers.
It makes no sense to have a €5 Rioja wine —or €2, which also exist— with the same back label as a quality single-vineyard wine. Things need to change. France has no Regulatory Bodies; instead there are inter-professional associations.
What changes would you like to see?
Paco: If we want the real thing, we need to dig into the essence, into the land where wine originates. Wine is not an industrial product; it is an agricultural, artisanal product. Terroir wine and industrial wine coexist here; industrial wine is a heavyweight and engulfs terroir wine slowly. But what’s happening now? Industrials are starting to be afraid because they see that terroir wine is increasingly popular among customers abroad.
But we need a strong sector that is recognized and valued outside Spain.
Both: Yes, we need great prestige brands. We mustn’t forget that Burgundy Grand Crus represent only 1.5% of the total production but they lead in prestige. The same thing happens in Bordeaux. We have some here like Vega Sicilia, Álvaro Palacios, Telmo Rodríguez, Peter Sisseck, Artadi or Tondonia.
There are many ways of working with wine: between the small vineyard concept and Tondonia’s there’s a broad spectrum. The key is that wines must be decently made. There could be many more industrial-style wines, but well made. The problem we have is that we’re always competing in price. The big players in Spain are obsessed with quantity, rather than quality, and dropping prices. This is a sort of noose that gradually chokes grape growers —these large brands don’t usually own vineyards.
With regard to Rioja, what’s your opinion about the new Vinos Singulares and Village Wines categories?
Paco: Village wines are key, but this rule that the vineyard and the winery must be in the same village is a botch. The location of the winery is totally irrelevant. Anytime there is an important movement, bureaucrats always try to take control and neutralize it. The rule that obliges producers to have a winery in Labastida in order to make a wine from a vineyard in Labastida is absurd. It goes against the essence of the truth. Who cares if the winery is in Labastida or Haro? Where does wine get its flavour? From the vineyard or from the place where the winery was built?
This rule is a way of neutralizing this movement. Why do they care? Because the Control Boards of the DOs only defend the interests of the big guys and these find it more profitable to buy in a large area like Rioja, where they pay little, instead of buying in a small area like Haro, Laguardia or Labastida, where grapes are more expensive.
In your opinion, what are the necessary requirements for village wines?
Both: Village wines are the base of the structure and their yields should be much lower, unlike the farce we have now. The number of back labels issued by the DOs should also be controlled. The advantage of labelling a wine say from Labastida is that it is is proven that wines from this Alavesa village are better than those from a neighboring village, Labastida wines will be in high demand. Growers will get a fair price for their grapes and clients can ask for quality as they are making more money.
Single-vineyard wines should be able to be labelled with the name of the vineyard and the plot —unlike now, as plot names can be registered trade marks. Take Viña Ardanza, for example. It is a huge plot with many owners by only one of them is allowed to use it. Bierzo is a good example in the right direction —El Rapolao is a vineyard worked by Raúl Pérez, César Márquez and Diego Magaña and they can all use the name. I wish there were more cases like this.
In Rioja, 37 bodegas have officially registered their interest to make village wines. Do you think consumers will be able to tell the difference between a wine from, say, Laguardia and one from San Vicente?
Both: Not yet, but we will develop this knowledge. Some time ago, we visited Las Vistillas vineyard in San Vicente with the father of Carlos Fernández, from Bodegas Tierra in Labastida, and he said: “we used to taste wines from the different villages and we were able to guess where they came from; we could recognize those with more body against others with more finesse”. We won’t be able to tell the difference today but when we start to taste wines from Laguardia or San Vicente, we will know they are different.
Even though the clones that have been planted are very similar across the region?
Both: Vineyards are another major problem. In Spain, there are over 100,000 hectares planted with the same two Tempranillo clones chosen for their productivity and resistance to diseases.
Old vines will have to mark the style. Customers will gradually refine the options. This is a long-distance race, involving one or two generations; it will not appear overnight. We must take this into account.
Wine consumption in Spain is another battleground.
Both: We drink very little and we drink low quality wine. We used to say that we would drink less but better —instead, average spending is still very low.
Wine is still seen as old-fashioned but at the fair we host in Burgos every other year we are starting to meet an increasingly number of young people with great passion and knowledge. This is linked to the new wave of young producers we have.
Is the wine trade doing anything with regards to consumption?
Both: The wine trade as such doesn’t really exist. Large companies get together but there isn’t really a major lobby capable of fighting its corner. It doesn’t exist here but it doesn’t exist in France either. Emmanuel Macron was supposed to change that but, despite France’s wine culture, it hasn’t happened yet. French presidential candidates undergo blind tastings; imagine doing that here with our politicians: Mariano Rajoy, Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera or Pablo Iglesias. Even if one of them liked wine, he wouldn’t dare doing it.
There are some 260,000 bars in Spain but few pay real attention to wine. Why is that?
Maribé: Many of them are not interested in wine and profit margins are lower than other products like coffee or beer. And let’s not forget, the beer sector has huge advertising budgets.
Should consumers demand more quality and skills from bar and restaurant staff?
Maribé: Indeed. Consumers are not very demanding. Many refuse to pay more than €3 for a glass of wine but surprisingly, they don’t have such qualms to pay a gin & tonic or even a bottle of water. We need to change this perception. Wine is generally disregarded; more education is needed.