After a 20-year stint in London, Spanish sommelier Agustín Trapero returned home to take up the job of beverage director at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel in Madrid. For someone who has been pursuing the Master Sommelier (MS) title for the last five years, opening the hotel amidst the pandemic is by no means discouraging. Serious, composed and tempered, Trapero’s conversation is peppered with English words. His impeccable manners reveal a long experience in luxury hotels and restaurants.
He was born in El Tiemblo (Castilla y León), a small wine producing village in the mountainous region of Gredos, and has clear memories of Garnacha-laden tractors approaching the weighing area at the local cooperative. However, his interest in wine didn’t materialize until he had worked for some time in the hospitality industry in the UK. In fact, except for a short internship in El Celler de Can Roca, he has developed his career in wine abroad, so this is his first full-time job in Spain.
In this interview, Trapero, 40, talks about the wine list he is putting together at the Four Seasons, his years in Britain, his views about Spanish wines and Spanish sommeliers, and what it means to be an MS candidate amidst the recent scandals involving the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
What are your first wine memories?
Pruning and collecting the vine shoots with my grandfather in the village of Burgohondo. I was a little boy then so for me it was more about playing and having fun. At home, there was always a glass of my grandfather’s Garnacha on the table.
Why did you decide to go to the UK?
We were four friends who intended to spend a year in the country to learn the language, but the others only managed three months —we arrived in summer and the weather was wet and a bit depressing. But I said to myself: 'Now that you are here, you might as well learn the language and then return home.’ I hardly spoke any English, so I tried to find a job at a Spanish restaurant. I started as a dishwasher in the mornings while I took free English lessons for non-native speakers in the afternoons. As I became more fluent, I was promoted to waiter, then head waiter. Eventually I had to choose whether I wanted to focus on wine or management and that’s how I started to work with a team of sommeliers.
What is the most important thing that you learnt during those 20 years away from home?
On a personal level, I became an adult in the UK and this means that my way of thinking and managing is very British —in fact, I like the way Brits analyse things. I had to work very hard, but the country gave me the opportunity to work my way up, develop my professional career and become who I am so I can only be deeply grateful for that.
How do you see the profession of sommelier in Spain?
As with most things, there is room for improvement. I entered the Best Spanish Sommelier competition twice while I was living in the UK, but the experience was not good because it was based on standards from 40 years ago which I think were outdated. As an example, we were asked about types of rice and olives or kitchen equipment, which are not part of a sommelier’s job anymore. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the job of sommelier was not properly defined, general managers looked after the floor and the cellar. I found it odd too that there wasn’t a greater focus on international wines given that Spain is a major tourist destination —it makes sense to be able to deal with the requests of the many foreigners who visit the country every year.
So these competitions are not in line with international standards?
Not enough, and this is not just my opinion. You can see it when my Spanish colleagues take part in international championships. They do not meet expectations because their training is insufficient; a stronger support from wine associations and the institutions is needed. These shortfalls are obvious on an international level and it is frustrating for candidates and even for myself. On a positive note, I must say that a growing number of Spanish professionals working in the hospitality industry are training abroad as sommeliers in order to achieve a global vision.
Can Spain contribute in any way to the sommelier community?
Of course it can. The new generations of Spanish sommeliers are working extremely hard, taking international courses and making the effort to learn about obscure wines and regions. I’m thrilled whenever they contact me to find out more about my experience at the Court of Master Sommelier or the WSET. It’s very rewarding because it gives them a completely different approach and it is a great help to be more competitive and grow professionally.
What’s your impression about Spanish wine consumers?
I’ve only just returned to Spain, but what I see so far is that people are rather conservative in terms of their tastes and wines they like. Spanish clients are reluctant to accept recommendations or explore regions that they are not familiar with —they seldom go beyond the four “R” [Rioja, Ribera, Rueda, Rías Baixas]. But of course there are also great wine lovers who are willing to try new things. It’s just an anecdote, but I find it bemusing that Spaniards like to drink their red wines very cold.
Tell us how you have organized the wine list at the Four Seasons.
First of all, I had to consider the different spaces in the hotel. The large hall of this building, which used to be a bank, is now El Patio. It is and open area —no reservations are required— so it must have a bit of everything from a simple Verdejo to more complex wines. At Dani Brasserie, the restaurant on the rooftop terrace, we follow the philosophy of chef Dani García and his Andalusian-inspired dishes, so we offer a wide selection of sherries to meet the expectations of his regular costumers. But the Four Seasons is also a brand that welcomes large numbers of worldwide clients who expect to find Bordeaux, Burgundy and other international wines.
Are you allowed to include any personal choices, then?
Absolutely. There are no ties at all. We have received offers from major brands, but the aim is to remain independent and build our own identity.
Which are the cheapest and most expensive wines right now?
The wine list is constantly evolving and it changes on a daily basis —it’s a work in progress. There are 200 wines listed right now but the aim is to reach 1,000. The cheapest is Senda los Olivos Verdejo at €26 and the most expensive is a bottle of Pétrus which costs €7,000.
In Spain, many people complain about being charged high prices for wine in restaurants.
I really don’t understand why Spaniards complain about this. This implies a lack of knowledge of the processes behind the wines. I think that our customers fully understand that the Four Seasons is a luxury hotel. Wine is served by professionals at the right temperature and in hand-blown Riedel and Schott Zwiesel glasses. So when you order a bottle of wine, you pay for the whole experience: service, setting, views, knowledge… Prices are not exorbitant. A bottle of Macán Clásico [a red Rioja produced by Vega Sicilia] is listed at €45.
Have you had the chance to explore wine-friendly addresses in Madrid?
Not yet, but I’m looking forward to it. We opened doors on September 25th, but we started to work on August 25th. I live in the mountains north of Madrid so I drive into the city and back every day, and also work on weekends. But many sommeliers and wine lovers have come to meet me. They usually ask me to compare Spain to other wine producing countries and want to have my views about Spanish wine in an international context.
And what do you tell them?
In the UK, Spanish wines are gaining notoriety. Prior to the pandemic, there was an interesting trend towards small producers and specially Gredos. The vigneron movement in Spain is truly interesting.
What about traditional wine producing regions like Ribera, Rioja or Priorat?
Ribera del Duero doesn’t really work there. Wines have high alcohol and an excess of ripe fruit and oak for British palates; the area is seen as the Arnold Schwarzenegger of reds. They prefer to drink round, subtle, low-intervention wines. When I judge Ribera with the Spanish team at the Decanter Wine Awards, we all know that we will have to taste oak. However, we are witnessing an interesting shift towards fruit and freshness among some producers like Dominio del Águila, Goyo García Viadero or Bosque de Matasnos. Vega Sicilia plays in a different league and is usually associated to Bordeaux rather than Ribera del Duero.
Priorat has made a positive, much needed move from what they used to do in the past. The focus now is on the vineyards and on making fresher wines. This region is now identified in the UK with Mediterranean grape varieties like Garnacha and Cariñena rather than Syrah or Cabernet.
What is the real weight of Spanish wines on the Four Seasons wine list?
Right now they account for 70%, but when we reach our goal of 1,000 wines, there will be the same number of Spanish and international wines. We will have a very strong selection of foreign brands including some very exclusive wines sourced directly from producers in Burgundy, Barolo, Napa Valley… which I think will expand the wine offer that is available in Madrid right now. I’m also working on a Vega Sicilia vertical, which is a must, and classic vintages from historic producers in Rioja.
Which Spanish regions do you find particularly exciting right now?
There are three great areas for reds: Galicia, Sierra de Salamanca and Gredos. With Galician whites already well-established, the reds from Ribera Sacra and beyond make a real difference and are full of freshness. Sierra de Salamanca is an obscure region that deserves to be better known. And Gredos, particularly DOP Cebreros, where I’m an advisor, is doing an outstanding job. Established in 2017, it hosts 14 producers, 11 of which export their wines. The goal is to gain a reputation abroad and achieve a rebound effect in Spain. There is an amazing old vine heritage: 80% of the vineyards are older than 60 years.
Regarding whites, I like those produced in the Canary Islands, particularly in Tenerife and Malvasía from Lanzarote, and I have also tasted some interesting examples from Mallorca.
Have you acted as ambassador of Spanish wine throughout your career?
At the restaurants where I worked or advised, I focused first on customer requests, and then I tried to add my personal touch. As I said before, there is an increasing interest for small producers in the UK, even though large wineries are well established. To a certain extent, Spain was perceived in a regional way rather than as a whole country: Rioja, Jerez, Cava and more recently, Rías Baixas. Now it is more about who makes the wine (Raúl Pérez, Telmo Rodríguez...). An increasing number of wines are chosen because of who is behind them. In terms of varieties, Tempranillo is usually associated to the country as a whole while other grapes are identified with specific areas; for example, Xarel.lo and Catalonia, Garnacha and the Mediterranean...
A few days ago the incoming and outgoing presidents of the FEV (Spanish Wine Federation), Emilio Restoy and Miguel A. Torres, spoke of the decline of Spanish wine in international markets.
I do not have this perception, neither in terms of sales nor of its image. I believe that the image of Spanish wine abroad is improving, except for Cava. There was a turning point in the 2008 crisis. At the time, I was working in the restaurant of a hotel in the City where Champagne used to flow happily. When clients were forced to rein in their spending, Cava should have moved in using a very powerful reasoning —it is made with the same method but at a more affordable price. However, it was Prosecco that seized the opportunity. Today Prosecco almost outsells Champagne. In my last job in London, at a restaurant in the stylish Mayfair district, we offered an "unlimited Prosecco" brunch and poured between 1,300 and 1,500 bottles a month. Just imagine if it had been Cava.
Don't you see a change after the latest regulations approved by the Cava Regulatory Board, with the new zoning and the quest for quality?
It’s a positive move, but there is still a great deal of confusion regarding the parajes. And the big boys have left the appellation to establish themselves as Corpinnat. Rioja, for instance, has more weight than Cava on the international scene. In the UK, Cava is a supermarket wine. As for Corpinnat, individual producers are better known than the collective brand they have created.
What’s your advice for a consumer who wants to learn more about wine, and to a professional for further improvement?
I would urge professionals to find a mentor, someone who guides and pushes them and becomes an example to follow. This is what we do in the UK —be it to take part in competitions, courses and tastings— to become better professionals. Mentors are uncommon in Spain, but they are necessary and I'm positive that they will become an increasingly popular figure in the future. I would recommend consumers to seek professional advice, take a course such as levels one and two of the WSET, attend tastings, lose the fear of talking to the sommelier in restaurants, show an interest in wine and explore.
After the recent scandals involving the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), the profession is certainly not at its finest…
The Court of Master Sommeliers has two chapters. The American chapter was born as a branch of the European Court. The title and the standards are the same, but they are managed separately. The whole thing has been extremely distressing, not just because of the accusations of sexual harassment, but also because of the Black Lives Matter and the exam cheating scandals. The family of professional sommeliers is extremely concerned and this will have serious consequences. Ronan Sayburn MS, president of the European Court of Master Sommeliers, said that this was unacceptable and some American Master Sommeliers have resigned their title in protest.
Your are a Master Sommelier candidate. How do you live this long-distance race?
My life has changed a great deal this year, so I have taken a break, but I will retake it in 2021. For the sake of the profession, Spain needs more Intermediate, Advanced and eventually, fully fledged Master Sommeliers.
How do you train for your exams?
It’s mainly self-preparation. You have to achieve a number of standards and in order to do so you work with the Master Sommeliers and other candidates. I am trained by Master Sommeliers and I train other sommeliers to pass the Advanced level. Unlike the Master of Wine and the WSET courses, we do not have workshops. At the CMS, we work individually for the theory exam, but you need a group to prepare the tasting test.
This makes it even harder.
Yes, because you really need to be surrounded by other candidates. In my study group, we helped each other and used to ask Master Sommeliers to arrange tastings and exam mockups for us, but the rest it’s entirely on your hands.
What has it been like for you so far?
Once you pass the Advanced level, you have to apply for the Master Sommelier and receive acceptance. So far I have taken the exams five times with different results and I am still working on it.
It is really difficult to obtain the title. Isn’t it frustrating?
It is, indeed. Last year I hired a mental coach to get the best out of me, both in terms of mental preparation and managing the exams. The theory test is truly stressing. It is and oral examination and you have 45 seconds to answer each question; if you don’t succeed, you cannot go back. In the tasting, you have 25 minutes to assess the wines, describe them and determine the vintage, grape variety, region and subregion, so you really need to have very clear ideas and a strong mindset. Then comes the practical wine serving examination. If you pass one of the three parts, you have two years to pass the other two, otherwise you must start from scratch. This is the stage I and other candidates are in right now.
Why do they put so much pressure on you? Does it make you a better sommelier?
The focus is on clients. For example, if the conversation revolves around the soils of Barolo, I must have the knowledge and the information to be able to respond quickly; or if someone asks me which was the first vintage of Opus One. This is what being a Master Sommelier is about —we train to be able to answer anything we can be asked in a restaurant. We also have to be ready in case we have to deal with a wine critic, a Master of Wine or a producer. Although it is impossible to know every single detail, there are great wine aficionados among our clientele. I was once asked about the gradient of a particular vineyard.
This is really different from the Master of Wine title.
Yes, the Master of Wine focuses on particular topics and on the reasoning behind different issues. The Master Sommelier is about facts, key elements… Questions are very specific; you either know the answer or you don’t. The minimum score in the three areas —theory, practice and tasting— is 75%. My living room is packed with books, notes and flashcards: the question is written on the front, the answer on the back. We sommeliers used to ask questions to each other at the restaurant and organized tastings between services. You must keep your mind strong and be able to give up everything else. Right now we are three Master Sommelier candidates in Spain: Roberto Durán, Guillermo Cruz and I, and I do hope that a growing number of professionals will apply for the Advanced Sommelier level so that in four or five years there are several Spanish Master Sommeliers.