The music world’s loss was the wine world’s gain. Just over three decades ago, Eric Solomon was an aspiring percussionist who started working at a London wine bar “for pocket change.”
“My owner sponsored me for a spot at the still rather new Institute of Masters of Wine,” he said. “I was the very unpopular first and only American among a bunch of bratty Brits. Goodbye drums, and hello wine.”
Instead, Solomon became a “rock star” for Spanish wine producers and American consumers. He certainly put Priorat on the vinous map, and his European Cellars portfolio has always encompassed unexpected pockets of Spain (one of the latest: Sierra de Gredos).
The man whom MW classmate Jancis Robinson called “lanky Yankee” was literally seduced by Spain, and he remains passionately engaged in ferreting out still-obscure varieties and bailiwicks.
What made you first decide to target Spain as a wine importer?
This is a story that’s literally, not just figuratively, near and dear to my heart. I was still a diehard Francophile and had a solid presence in France. It was not so much that I found Spain with some moment of visionary epiphany, but that Spain found me.
Daphne Glorian [who became his wife] was part of a group of wonderfully crazy zealots who went to Priorat; she was owner-winemaker at Clos Erasmus. She reached out to me and sent some samples, unsolicited, to my little hovel of an office in Manhattan.
I was tasting quickly, and I was on to the wine after hers and was still tasting and went “What was that?’ I took a cursory glance at the label and saw “Clos” and thought France, then saw “product of Spain” and went “huh?” and then saw Priorat, and went “double huh.” I sent her a Telex — that’s how long ago this was [chuckles] — and said: “this is fabulous; can I buy 100 cases?” She said: “that’s my whole production.”
So I now have my first Spanish wine, and I thought “this is pretty incredible, these wines from Priorat, what else have I been missing that I should know about in Spain?” The country had an inferiority complex everywhere — food, wine, culture — and to me it was kid-in-a-candy-store material, this lack of identity, or this identity as an almost Third World cheap wine and food scene. I was compelled to do a lot of turning over of stones in backwater places.
In terms of a competitive business strategy, I was really lucky, because there were only two importers paying any attention to Spain, Jorge Ordonez and Steve Messler at Classical Wines. There were so many hectares of old-vine wine and so many producers eager to come out of the shadow of anonymity.
What has happened in Priorat since then?
When I talk about the history of wine in Priorat, it’s the monks, the malaise and the mavericks. The monks were the Carthusians having the foresight to find this little hamlet of Escaladei [in the 12th century] and plant vines on a hill. The first period of malaise [in the late 19th century] was phylloxera, where we saw 10,000 hectares of vines shrink to 600 or 700.
The mavericks were the pied pipers of modern Priorat, how René Barbier excited and enticed Álvaro Palacios and my wife and a couple of others to join his journey in that forgotten land of great Garnacha and Carignan.
And then came Robert Parker.
After the mavericks there was a second period of malaise. As Daphne likes to say, we went from Woodstock to La Scala because all of a sudden [Critic Robert] Parker gave 100 points to a couple of wines, hers included, and then there was an explosion. In ’89 there were about five wineries, and two of them were co-ops. In the late ‘80s, 95% of the wine was sold in bulk to fix other people’s weaker vintages. Fast-forward to the mid-’90s, and there was zero wine sold in bulk and there were 102 wineries by 2000.
Some people came in with big eyes and dreams and thought they’d make a lot of money, so there was a period of over-the-top, overly alcoholic, overly extracted, bomb-like wine. Having high alcohol is not a sin; having unbalanced wine is. They became too big for their own barrels.
There was a period where sommeliers didn’t want to talk about Priorat because they kind of typecast the wines and said ‘I don’t even want to taste that. They don’t go with food, they’re all oaky.’ Prices rose too much, too soon.
But there was a right-sizing, a generation next coming up in the last 10 years that are making wines not as a fad. They’re learning to embrace the Carignan, which more so than any other place in the world can be equal to the top bottles of Garnacha.
In the world of caffeine, you’ve got two schools. You’ve got coffee, which is based on extraction, and tea, which is based on infusion. There are still people making triple red-eye espresso toasty wine, but there’s this beautiful school of whole-cluster, slightly earlier harvest, not austere, not lean, not meager, but balanced and highly perfumed. But sort of where the term “Grenache becomes the Pinot Noir of the south” becomes a truism.
That must have helped with sommeliers. Do they seek Spanish wines when they look for special and different things?
In general, somms today that have the buying power and are the influencers are quite young, and not only are they not chasing the historic trophy wines like Vega Sicilia, they are actually going the opposite direction. They want to know about which young vigneron has the oldest vines in Ribera del Duero, and who put in the field blend not just the ubiquitous Tempranillo but maybe white grapes and other heirloom varieties.
The somms are the reason I have a second, if not third opportunity to recreate myself with a sort of incubator company within my company called Indigo, from both classic or near-extinct regions. That’s what they want to talk about. I was at [New York’s] Gramercy Tavern recently and the wine director was fascinated with what’s new and what’s emerging, like maybe a vertical of Trousseau from Galicia.
I feel more optimistic; not about the economics, but about the level of interest and openness to trying new things. It is probably greater than it’s ever been in America in my lifetime.
One would think the somms are also looking for a good back story to hand-sell the wines.
Stories are everything. What they’re looking for is authenticity. I’m sort of the self-appointed rescuer of near-extinct and heirloom indigenous varietals, and they love hearing about grapes that were almost extinct and can be found only in this place, on this hillside, this part of an appellation.
A few people are propagating them through selection massale, where they graft the rootstock of the 120-year-old vine to a new one so that they continue the DNA pool that’s inherent to that place and that variety.
What does your gut tell you about the future of Spanish wines in the US?
We had big double-digit growth for years in America, and that’s softening. What we’re seeing is importers who are adapting and have a real connection to what’s valid and what works.
Luis Gutiérrez’s The New Vignerons talks about the next generation and about how young winemakers who felt insecure with their unknown region, their unknown grapes, are embracing it, and those people have gone on to quiet cult status.
I can give you an example. There’s one that we have represented from Day One called Comando G, and the “G” stands for Garnacha. They’re very high up, about 45 minutes from Madrid, up in a region called Sierra de Gredos. When we started representing them, nobody had heard of the region.
From the start it was a lot of fun and passion-driven but slow going, and right now there are 20 countries waiting to be on the list and we sell them out two years in advance. And that’s for a backwater, pure Garnacha on pure granite soil where the wines are so light in color, ethereal and very highly perfumed. It’s for people who love great Burgundy or great red wines from the Loire, and this is what the sommeliers are fighting over.
It’s the fastest-growing part of my company, this little division called Indigo, [the name is shared with Indigo UK, the company founded by his friend Ben Henshaw in Britain] as a sort of incubator for new talent. I have painted myself into a beautiful corner.
In recent years, there has been a big, or at least loud, “natural wine” movement. Do you have wineries that were making this kind of wine before the term even came into being?
Yes. I’ll give you two examples in Spain. In Priorat, Ester Nin (Nin-Ortiz) makes wine in amphora and concrete eggs. She would check the boxes of a good, sound, not flawed natural wine. And in Valencia, Celler del Roure makes wine from local indigenous varietals, white and red, in 150-year-old subterranean amphoras that were discovered as part of an archeological dig.
I have wineries that check which boxes of whatever natural wine could be, but I don’t advertise it.
It’s a subject I get prickly about because there’s so much bad wine sold under the moniker of natural wine, it’s not something I go out of my way to use the nomenclature on.
Are there regions or grapes that surprised you along the way?
In terms of a region that still continues to wow me in terms of how old the grapes are and some varietals that apparently don’t exist anywhere else in the world, there’s this little Shangri-La of surviving heirloom varietals, it’s Galicia.
Galicia is on the world map because of Albariño, but beyond Rias Baixas, there are probably the most exciting red and white wines that I’ve never heard of. The wines have such a purity of naked fruit expression that it would be a sin to [use new oak]. It’s like a lucky person that’s born with perfect features, why would you put make-up on? Why would you try to embellish it? Stay out of its way, let it shine.
Yes, Matt Kramer uses the phrase “somewhereness” to describe the blend of terroir, climate, vine and vintner that lets a wine stand apart.
It’s a great term, and I actually unknowingly coined a phrase that I went on to trademark because I didn’t want to say “sense of place.” Richard Nalley of Forbes and I talked about the importance of “place over process.” And that’s what we try to embrace. It’s on a lot of our back labels. It’s like if you have the same grape and you move a kilometer or go up a north slope instead of a south slope or the soil changes from slate to chalk, the wine should taste different. Otherwise, what’s the point?
There’s a lot of talk about the under-40 crowd being immune to brand loyalty and traditional marketing …
“Allergic” might be a better word.
How can Spanish wines become part of addressing that?
They can and they are. I think it’s not just the younger [consumers] but also the sort of classic collector of my age, early 50s and younger, want to go to. They wanna be on the backroads, a dusty, bucolic, rustic setting that makes soulful local cuisine and the wines that go with it.
From a pure intellectual curiosity in terms of loving indigenous heirloom varietals there are three places on this Earth that are ground zero for lots of unique heirloom varietals, and they’re Greece, Italy and Spain. So I seriously believe the best is yet to come from Spain.