When I was a kid, Spanish wines in the US were almost non-existent. The lack of options was abysmal. What was available came from a limited number of wineries, particularly those which had the financial means to export, (i.e Torres and Marqués de Cáceres). However, over the last 30 years or so, Spanish wines in the US have experienced an exceptional and steady growth in both sales and popularity. As an example, only 18 Rioja bodegas exported their wines to the US in the 1980s. Today, there are over 180 producers from that region alone who have penetrated the American market. Recent data show that Spanish wine imports in the US have risen almost 50%, from 46.9 million litres in 2009 to 69.6 million litres in 2013. Total imported cases over the last 10 years follow the same upward trend, from 3.7 million in 2004 to 7.1 million in 2014.
All of this momentum was not attained without hard work. The efforts of several intrepid wine professionals have helped to bring old world classics to a new world audience. Some of the most important Spanish wine importers have shared their experiences with us.
Steve Metzler first imagined selling quality Spanish wines in the US in the late 1970s but it wasn’t until 1984 that he and his native Spanish wife Almudena de Llaguno founded Classical Wines, a Seattle-based wine import company that has since become a stamp for premium vino from the Iberian Peninsula.
“We have been privileged to pioneer the import, if not the export, of wines from numerous remote Spanish wine areas. Our greatest memories are cumulative, as we have watched those regions develop from their earliest stages.” This hard-working couple of wine lovers surely has unlimited stories to tell about their travel experiences. Looking back, I don’t think it’d be out of line to say that Steve and Almudena have been partly responsible for the overall recognition of Spanish wines internationally. The prosperous global story behind, say, Pesquera makes more sense if one adds Classical Wines into the equation.
Other remarkable achievements may include keeping manzanilla consumption [outside of Andalucía] alive, fostering the emergence of Rueda as a popular white wine region and turning Americans on to Cava. “For us, it is the uniqueness of the Spanish soils and climate, along with its traditions, that provide unique contributions to the international palate of fine wines.”
A few years earlier, the legendary négociant Christopher Cannan started Europvin in Bordeaux, the French wine capital, in 1978. With time, Europvin has developed unrivaled expertise in the distribution of quality European wines in the US, and all over the world. Even so, Europvin’s Spanish wine sales in the US represent up to 75% of its global revenue.
“Our founder, Christopher Cannan, was one of the very first to go to Spain looking for high quality wines –everyone else at the time went to Spain to get just the cheap stuff. Europvin has been instrumental in building the market for high quality, higher value Spanish wines in the USA since”, says Colin Gent MW, when asked about his employer’s strong points.
And who questions them when big names keep appearing throughout its portfolio? Vega Sicilia, Lustau, Mauro, Cvne, Clos Mogador… the impressive selection of prestigious Spanish and European wineries goes on. “This remains our point of difference today”, Colin adds. “The average cost per bottle we ship corresponds to an SRP of $25. I cannot believe many of our competitors come near that.” They must be doing things right given that Europvin has been the international image for most of these global iconic brands for over thirty years.
During those early years Jorge Ordóñez’s Fine Estates From Spain (1987) and Eric Solomon’s European Cellars (1990) also appeared on the scene. Both of them have been major players in the business of importing Spanish wine into America with numerous top-tier wineries on their books.
André Tamers is the mastermind and creator of De Maison Selections, a North Carolina-based importing company with an exquisite Spanish selection. When asked for his personal wine tastes, Tamers says: “I drink everything that is different and that I haven't tasted as long as I know it is restrained.”
While most of Andre’s import selections surely present lean profiles, his wine portfolio is anything but. So, how did he make this happen? Surely André’s charming personality and multilingual proficiency have helped. He champions wineries that are family-driven and also small producers “with [their] own vineyards that are solely located in the heartland of the appellations leaving out any wines from cooperatives or negociants.” Think along the lines of what Italians would consider a Vino Classico. “Authenticity, originality and differentiation” are three of his favorite words.
It is no wonder that among his experiences across Spain he recalls: “Probably the most memorable was going to El Rocío which is down south [in Huelva, Spain] for the celebration of the Virgin of the Dew, a celebration of culture and of sherry!” Incidentally, André is one of the few importers who can be credited with the recent sherry renaissance in the US.
For Monica Nogués, the determined Catalan businesswoman and founder of Think Global, “soul, personality and history” are the key factors in wine imports.“Good wines have personality through time, and should always be balanced.” Monica began her career back in the mid 1990s. She prefers to keep her operation small and currently features eight Spanish wineries in her portfolio. Despite its size, Think Global is very proud of the producers that they represent, some arguably being among the most respected wineries in Spain. Her business motto is to rely on “honesty and long-term relationships”. One of the most memorable was with the late Don Pedro López de Heredia Ugalde, “a great man” as she describes him and undisputed model in Rioja’s wine history.
Although naturalized American, Aurelio Cabestrero is a genuine español. His friendly demeanor and pleasant disposition make him one of the easiest importers to work with. Originally from Madrid, Aurelio came to the US to work as a sommelier early on in his career. It didn’t take long before he felt ready to pursue his lifetime passion of importing wines from his beloved homeland. His venture, branded Grapes of Spain, was launched in spring 2002 and focuses on wines that are “modern but not international.” For Aurelio, the key to success relies on “that distinctly Spanish combination of concentrated, intense fruit character balanced by fresh acidity.”
Despite his modern taste he says: “I believe the wines in my portfolio represent an authentic expression of Spanish wine.” Today, Grapes of Spain imports wines from 28 different producers. Aurelio openly claims that the origin of the wines does not necessarily bother him much; “my goal is to look for gems regardless of the Denominación de Origen; there are exciting wines in any region.” As you would guess from Aurelio’s affable persona, Grapes of Spain has kept long-term commercial relations with some of the most prominent suppliers in the Spanish wine arena such as the distinguished García family from Ribera del Duero.
Olé Imports is the name of Patrick Mata and Alberto Orte’s wine import company in New York City. When they got their start in 1999, there were only three wines in their portfolio and Patrick was not even old enough to consume alcohol. Today, with around 35 Spanish producers in their book, their reputation has unquestionably grown.
For Olé Imports, their progress is directly linked to having “a good logistical foundation or an extra pair of eyes on the ground to keep the relations with the suppliers in check and provide on-the-spot support.” Alberto permanently lives in Spain and he works out of their office there. When it comes to selecting wines to represent in America, Olé Imports looks for producers “with a deep knowledge of their vineyards and the terroir they are grown in”. In other words, long-established family-owned growers who can tell their surroundings apart. For Patrick and Alberto, “diversity, complexity and value” are distinct advantages that Spanish wines still enjoy in the United States today.
Baron Ziegler is a perfect example of new blood being injected into the trade. Baron’s young age doesn’t prevent him from having amassed impressive experience in the industry. For years, Baron managed the national sales for Eric Solomon’s company. He finally started his own import business in 2011.
Valkyrie Selections might well represent the new generation of youngsters with a lot to say about wine. Not surprisingly, Baron feels that the major advantage offered by the Spanish wines in the competitive US market is “the country’s young and innovative people working with old indigenous vines in traditional ways – that willingness and passion for melding new into old and old into new.”
One of Baron’s strengths is that he has chosen to use his vast social network to expand and solidify his portfolio. “Almost every winery we are introduced to and end up working with is through a friend, or a friend of a friend.” Baron has made a splash in this industry both literally and figuratively. One of the memorable reflections regarding his trips across Spain involves him and his fellow travellers diving into as many DOs as possible; whether into the rivers of Valdeorras and Navarra, the open sea of l’Empordà or even a “hidden watering hole” in Monsant.
Steve Miles is a bold American who can only be described as a “Wine Torero”. Instead of fighting bulls, he has wrestled with the trends of over-oaked wines.
“The wine must taste like what it was made from grapes. The foremost characteristic of a wine should always be the fruit from which it was made. I’ve never seen anyone juice a barrel stave, but I’ve tasted wine that tastes like they did!”, Steve says.
If dodging oak bombs isn’t gutsy enough, Steve is also courageous in professing his love for the mighty Garnacha Blanca whites. In his personal life, he alternates between living in his Colorado home at high altitude (he is an accomplished Alpine skier) and regularly visiting the Iberian Peninsula. For him, his adventures through Spain are about getting to know different cultures, engaging with locals and navigating the challenges of the rural countryside, “a true dream” of his.
Since he founded SMS Wine in 2007, he has only represented and imported Spanish wines. Prior to that, Steve showed true grit while working shoulder to shoulder with the demanding Eric Solomon, which may be where Steve truly fell in love with Spanish wine too.
“I don’t believe in chasing the market, from a stylistic standpoint. You can never really catch it and it changes too quickly. Making/importing wine that is true to the character of its D.O., and not manipulated to becoming something that it isn’t, will always win in the long run,” Steve adds.
Another name that I think has greatly contributed to the diversity of Americans’ taste for Spanish wines is José Pastor. From his home just outside of San Francisco, José has been an advocate for some of the lesser known quality regions and off-the-path styles.
Instead of promoting wines based on scores and reviews (which frankly he does not care about), José has managed to lift the profile of wines from many obscure regions across Spain. As a long-time promoter of the still very rare Galician red wines, and wines produced on the Canary Islands (mysterious even by Spanish standards), among others, José’s stubbornness and devotion to unique offerings are widely respected by many influential buyers throughout the nation; he is often celebrated for bringing attention back to once forgotten regions like Vino de la Tierra de Cangas in the northern Asturias region.
If you are looking to build an eclectic Spanish wine list in the US, undoubtedly his selections should be at the top of your list. While his website touches on the importance of several winemaking processes like indigenous yeast used for fermentation, sensitive oak treatment, minimum filtering, and seeking out new farmers, José’s first love is soil. “I believe it’s not about a style, region or variety but about soil type. In my humble opinion, the answer is granite.”