Selling wine should be easy, given that it’s such a wonderful product and life enhancer. A greater pleasure for those in the wine trade is introducing people to truly special wines — not the uber-expensive ones but rather those with an interesting “back story.”
What is a “back story?” In this case, it’s something about a wine or winery that makes it special, a legacy, person or practice that sets it apart. So we asked several US retailers and restaurateurs which Spanish wines’ “back stories” have proven enticing or enchanting to their customers.
For Kyle Meyer of the Wine Exchange in Santa Ana, Calif., it’s the person behind a winery. “Our clients are constantly enamored by the work being done by Peter Sisseck. This 'great Dane' set down roots back in the ’90s and never left, using his knowledge and intuition to steer Hacienda Monasterio to superstardom while developing his own label, Pingus, a wine that many consider to be Spain's finest.
“In the meantime, he has not rested on his laurels. In fact, quite the opposite. His Psi project brings together a whole slew of tiny growers in the Ribera del Duero with patches of small vines. He has struck deals with them to re-learn farming, organically, to preserve and maintain their old vineyards. The resulting wine is one of the finest values in the Ribera del Duero and is only getting better with the building of a new, dedicated winery.”
For another merchant, Chuck Kanski of the Iberia-centric Solo Vino Bottle Shop in St. Paul, Minn, Rioja a region that resonates with this customers — and a tried and true one, but with a twist.
Kanski mantra with his clientele: “Rioja is the last value-driven wine region in the world. In the last two decades we’ve witnessed prices for Tuscany, Bordeaux, and Burgundy rise higher and higher. In contrast Rioja is the last region remaining that offers mature wine at a reasonable price.
“To go back in time five years to grab a Hermanos de Peciña Señorio Crianza Rioja for $20, or 10 years back for a reserva from La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza, for under $35. For something with even more age, 15 years, look for a bottle of Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva for about $50”, recommends Kanski. “Believe me, if these vintages were available from Bordeaux or Burgundy, you’d need to rethink your annual wine budget.”
Meanwhile, at the immensely popular Columbia Restaurants in Florida, the back story is about an occasion.
In 1973 fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart honeymooned with his wife Melanie for two weeks at a Spanish vineyard during the harvest season. So when the restaurant wanted a wine that would enhance the dining experience, they went to the source: Bodegas Mendoza in Alicante now produces an exclusive wine called Melanie, an unoaked Chardonnay. The label, featuring her signature, has proven quite popular.
Taurean Philpott, wine director at Rootstock and Vine in suburban Atlanta, said two producers in particular have excited him and his guests.
“Joan D’Anguera is widely considered to have introduced biodynamic winemaking to the Montsant region, which has now been adopted as common practice. Finca Planella is a Grenache-based blend with Cariñena and Syrah. I was blown away by its depth, complexity and purity. It is alive, vibrant and vulnerable, a true expression of the blue slate (llicorella) that the region is so famed for.
“Raul Perez is a bit of a pioneer, and it is his Sketch bottling of Albariño that opened my eyes to what Albariño could aspire to. It’s made from a vineyard planted in 1973. The fruit is left on the vine for a month longer than usual, not allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, aged in seven-year-old barrels and then bottled and aged under water off the northern coast of Spain. Profound!”
Sam Bogue, wine director of the San Francisco’s Ne Timeas Restaurant Group, also likes to pitch an Albariño vintner. “Alberto Nanclares in my eyes crafts the most stunning Albariño coming out of Spain today. With no formal training in viticulture, Alberto spent most of his career as an economist before buying a small property in the town of Cambados, which coincidentally came with a small vineyard in the back yard. As a hobby he started to make small amounts of wine in his garage, which grew into a full-on passion. Alberto works with a few plots scattered around the region, doing all of the farming himself utilizing organic principals, a true difficulty in this humid coastal area”, explains Bogue. “To this day he still works out of his garage, making a tiny amount of highly sought-after wine. Dandelion is Alberto's entry-level bottling coming from all of the plots he farms, but provides the best value, stunning minerality and enough acidity to take the enamel off your teeth, the perfect pairing to any seafood-inspired dish.”
And like the folks at the Columbia restaurants, Bogue enjoys sharing a love story connected to a Spanish wine.
“Succes Vinícola is the product of Mariona Vendrell and Albert Canela, who fell in love at the age of 20 while studying winemaking in Tarragona. After school the two moved to the little-known Conca de Barberà region of Catalunya, while working off of a few small plots of family land and purchasing fruit from neighbors, they discovered beautiful old vines of the Trepat grape”. Bogue adds: “Trepat up until this point had essentially been a coloring agent aimlessly used for blending in Cava production, but Mariona and Albert saw its potential as a still red wine. The Cuca de Llum bottling is from 70-year-old vines made in stainless steel. Snappy and refreshing dark fruit blends with crushed herbs. Our guests just can’t get enough.”
At another Bay Area chain, the Spanish Table group of three retail outlets, owner Andy Booth is especially enamored with Daterra Viticultores.
“Laura Lorenzo in Manzaneda is making some outstanding and very interesting wines from a bunch of different plots around the area. They're all old-vine and essentially field blends. She used to work at Dominio de Bibei and left to start her own small projects. Our customers have really gravitated to the story of her setting off on her own with her partner Alvaro (who does the artwork on her labels).
“She farms all biodynamically and does a natural ferment. Her wines are clean and free of flaws, so that has made them an easy sell. Many have tried her wines because of the story, but return and buy it again because they like them.”
Booth also often gives a shout out to another Jose Pastor Selections operation, Envinate, a collaboration between four winemakers (Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos, and José Martínez). “They met in school and then continued to work together in various places throughout Spain. Again the minimal work in the winery has enticed a segment of our customers to try and many do return — although they definitely seem to each have their favorite as to region they prefer.”
One region that Envinate has mined is also its own selling point. Booth adds: “Customers have been very curious about wines from a place they know little about: the Canary Islands.”
Several wines have done well in his stores: “the entry-level red from Fronton de Oro, but we also have seen the Negramoll from Matias i Torres and the Malvasia Seco and Listan Negro Rosado from Bermejos do very well this year. And photos of Lanzarote vineyards definitely make an enticing lead.”
People, places and grapes: All of them can help lure people wishing to discover special wines.