Passion for Spanish wine


Spanish wine
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Pascaline Lepeltier, at Copa Jerez last year. In the text, Pascaline Lepeltier holds her new book, Mille Vignes. Published in French, it is due to be released in English in September 2024. Photos: Abel Valdenebro and Pascaline Lepeltier


"The natural wine category has become a caricature of itself"

Yolanda Ortiz de Arri | February 19th, 2024

Born in 1981 in Angers, in the Loire Valley, Pascaline Lepeltier was on course to become a philosophy teacher, but a temporary job in a wine shop laid the foundations for her highly successful career as a sommelier. Based in New York since 2009, she obtained her Master Sommelier diploma in 2014. In 2018, she was named Best Sommelier of France and became the first sommelier ever to receive the prestigious Meilleure Ouvrière de France (MOF) award. She hasn't lost her appetite for competition and will represent her country again in November at Europe's Best Sommelier Championship in Serbia.

As well as running Chambers, her restaurant in Manhattan, and co-owning a wine project in the Finger Lakes, in 2023 she published a book called Mille Vignes. Highly praised by the French press, it is due to be published in English in September.

This interview took place last October in Jerez, where she was a judge at the Copa Jerez competition. Although she speaks with a soft voice and a friendly tone, she is a woman with a solid and consistent discourse and is refreshingly unafraid to express her opinions.

You decided to take a break from your philosophy studies and ended up pursuing a career in wine. How did that come about? 
I was on my way to get my diploma to become a university teacher but I got burnout and realized I was too young to teach philosophy. I felt like I had to do something more hands on, using my hands and my head, so at 21 I took a year off and did different jobs including working in a catering company and a wine shop. Although I'm from the Loire, I had never really enjoyed wine before, but I loved it right away. I felt an obvious connection with wine.

That year break became a new path. 
Yes, I went back to university to study hospitality management and I got more hooked because I had a lot of oenology classes and visits to vineyards. I immediately saw the direction I wanted to take. At 25 I sat my sommelier diploma, and I became a Master Sommelier at 26. 

Your name does not appear on the Court of Master Sommeliers list. Did you renounce to it?
I passed the Master Sommelier diploma in 2014. I have the title and I can still call myself an MS but with [the sexual harassment allegations regarding members of the CMS in the United States] and my own wine evolution, at the end of 2020 I decided not to be an active member of the Court anymore. I thought it was the right way to proceed.  

It's unusual to find someone giving up those letters behind their name voluntarily. 
I always saw it as a personal journey, a path to try to improve every single day, and I felt very honoured to get it. There are many people trying to get this diploma, and I’m well aware of the effort that goes behind it, both in terms of the hours and money that you need to invest, but for me, this title doesn’t make me unique. There are many great professionals who didn’t take this path and are extraordinary at what they do. Those two letters behind your name don’t necessarily make you different, but I respect anyone who decides to follow this path to improve and challenge themselves.

Does philosophy help you in your work as a sommelier?
It certainly does. I feel extremely blessed to have studied philosophy because it teaches you to use critical thinking and to not take things for granted. It helps me to understand the prejudices, other ways of thinking and to try to explain the ‘why’ of things. And there is always a ‘why', especially in wine. 
There is a trend now to make us feel that wine is extremely objective, be it for the terroir, for its historical tradition or for the mere act of nature doing its work. That's obviously not true and there are a lot of why’s behind it. Wine can be much more than fermented grape juice, embodying time, landscape and culture. 

So what is wine, from a philosophical point of view?
Bergson, one of my favourite philosophers, sees reality as a flow of ever changing phenomena, and wine is exactly like that. It’s an ever changing product that us, who are also in constant change, are trying to grasp, understand, describe and sometimes control. The way we produce, consume, and speak about wine reveals much about our relationship to nature in general.

What's quality in wine for you?
What we eat and drink goes beyond status and is deeply connected to our health and our surroundings. I offer my guests wines that make them feel good and happy, whatever the taste, which is a different story. And I know that the way it has been farmed, trying to minimise the amount of products used, is important.

You've worked in France, Brussels, and in New York. Have you found anything in New York that you didn't find as a sommelier in Europe? 
When I arrived in New York in 2009, it was a very young profession and in a way, there was a sort of invention of the job. Being such a unique and cosmopolitan city, there was a moment when traditional wine drinkers —very Euro-centric, into very specific historical regions—, gave way to a whole new crowd that was starting to discover artisanal wine, but also craft beer and cocktails. It was an exhilarating moment to be in New York: there was money and people were ready to drink more original wines from regions and countries other than the established ones. The food was also fantastic because we had influences from all over the world. I tried things like mole or sushi for the first time in my life so the opportunity to continue to taste and learn was extremely stimulating for me.

I couldn't find that in Paris. At that time, France was still quite chauvinistic. I felt it a little bit in Brussels, because people there are really into wine and are curious, although there was not as much diversity in terms of wine culture, and there was less money.

It must be hard for any sommelier to move back to Europe after such experiences. 
When you live abroad and gain a different perspective, you rediscover and appreciate what you have at home. I’m from the Loire Valley and I really value my region and the rest of Europe. Here there is a sense of tradition, time and patience. Things are done at a different pace, whereas in New York it’s always the novelty, the latest, the fastest. I'm very lucky to have a balance between the two.

At your restaurant in Manhattan, you list around 2000 different wines, mostly from vignerons, and mostly organic, biodynamic and natural. Why do you feel passionate about these wines?
Chambers is a down-to-earth neighbourhood restaurant, with well executed, simple farm-to-table food. I really believe that good wine and food are very important and can make you connect or identify with an origin. I taste thousands of wines every year, and I connect with the ones that have this very strong energy, wines that are respectful of the life of the vineyard. And then is the people behind them. I want to be part of a movement that champions the need to change the way we farm and the way we eat. This change is possible and not much more expensive —it just takes more time. Respectful eating and drinking makes you much happier and this is why I work with these wines. They are just better at every single level.

Championing sustainable food and wine is a militant act? 
We have to eat. Maybe we don’t have to drink, but I think it’s part of the humanisation of mankind. The way you eat, the choice of the food you farm, is extremely political. And I'm based in the US, which is a catastrophe in terms of food culture, with its abundance of junk food, the decrepitude of part of the land, and the effect this has on the health of the American population. We ought to get kids to learn how to taste, to discover the real flavour of food and the patience of cooking for yourself. It would change our relationship with the environment and our surroundings.

I guess that’s easier in Manhattan than in the Midwest.
We are lucky to work in a luxury environment that is a restaurant today, especially in our kind of restaurant. We have a lot of rights, but we also have duties. For me, one of these duties is to strongly defend what should be the agriculture of tomorrow, otherwise there is no tomorrow. And you can do that with a glass of wine and a good dish for a very decent price in Manhattan or elsewhere. At the restaurant, we try to keep it very affordable on purpose. I never really wanted to work for the 1%, super fancy restaurants. But you’d be surprised to know how difficult and expensive it is to find good products, even in Manhattan… and as soon as you leave the city, it is almost impossible.

Do you think natural wine is evolving in the right direction?
Success brings awareness, but it also brings excesses. Unfortunately, the category has become a caricature of itself because it just points to one thing, a tiny element that is the absence of sulphur. The problem is that we separate nature and culture. I often say to winemakers that they are not the only ones making the wine. The yeasts make the wine, and the light makes the photosynthesis, bacteria also give nutrients to the plants. Let’s put that into perspective. We are just a small part of a larger chain and we need to show more humility. That was the power of this movement: to realise that, if we farm industrially, we will destroy everything, so let's go back to things that we don't understand but we know they work.

Natural wine shed the light on this, but unfortunately its success attracted producers who only embraced the marketing power of the term, not the work or the ethos involved behind. Now it’s time to reevaluate the level of human intervention and to take a step back for the sake of nature.

What about the name ‘natural’ wine?
Hopefully, the name will disappear one day because it’s doing more harm than good. Perhaps it is the philosopher in me, but the concept doesn't work and we have what Bergson called a false problem. He says that a lot of the problems we have occur because the word and the concept don't fit the reality. Natural wine is a false problem because the definition of nature is wrong. But if you think a little differently, understanding that there is no separation between nature and culture, the problem disappears. The questions now are: How much do we want to preserve the biodiversity that is needed for life? To what extent do we want to control it and kill it even though we are unable to recreate it?. We are skilled at killing the soil but we don’t know how to build it. Only nature knows. 

Living in New York, you're exposed to a lot of trends and fashions. Anything that you’re concerned about?
There’s clearly a movement to drink less and better and I think that’s a good thing. Seeing how much wine has to be distilled because there are no markets for it to be sold, particularly in Europe, we realise that we're in a machine that has become schizophrenic. Wine businesses get funding to plant clones and then to irrigate, and then they get grants to distill. It’s obvious that there is something wrong and these wines are not going to survive. And this is not only expensive but unfortunately, it will have social consequences.

People are increasingly looking for identity and pleasure in the wines they drink. They’ve understood that wine is special amongst alcoholic beverages, both in terms of quality and aesthetics. I see a switch in people who now say ‘We don't want to drink two or three bottles tonight. We want to drink one very nice bottle and enjoy it”. This trend is getting stronger.

Is this trend affecting your wine sales?
A bit, but sales are consistent. My restaurant is special because there’s a big focus on wine so people keep coming. And we are reaching a new crowd of people who want to drink the style of wines we serve.

Is that young people? 
A bit of everything, actually. Attracting young people is getting a little harder, because New York, and Manhattan in particular, is very expensive to live in. Not everyone has the means to go out and buying a bottle of wine is expensive.

Let’s talk about Spanish wines. How do you see their quality and image? Has it improved?
Absolutely. The potential was always there, but maybe these wines were not bottled separately in the past or perhaps they were not accessible in foreign markets. The New Spain, if we can call it that, includes names that have undoubtedly refreshed the perspective on Spanish wine.

Which wines see higher demand?
My customers look for wines with a strong identity. They don't want to drink Chardonnay from Penedès. They want to drink local grapes like Xarel.lo, Malvasia de Sitges, Albarín from Cantabria, Godello, Treixadura, Caíño… In the last 10 years or so in New York we’ve seen a few pioneers, people who really captured the essence of each region and now the whole scene has blossomed. We are selling a lot of wine from Galicia, both whites and reds; from Catalonia —not Priorat or Cava, but from the rest of the region, both red, white, with skin contact and without—, and of course, the Canary Islands are very popular. Gredos is also in high demand because their new expression of Garnacha has totally changed people’s perceptions. Vinos de pasto have been very successful in my restaurant for the past two or three years, specially by the glass. People are increasingly asking for them.

Are consumers familiar with the name vino de pasto? As you know, there is a debate in Jerez about how to call these wines. 
Sommeliers have been using this name for some time to refer to these white wines and New Yorkers are getting familiar with the term because they’ve seen it on the mainstream press as well.

Do you think vinos de pasto can be a gateway to traditional sherry?
I think both styles are going to feed each other; if you know a little bit about sherry, you cannot fail to see that they are connected. What I find fascinating about vinos de pasto is the way they express a sense of place with the different pagos and how they reconnect to the fortified styles.
During my visit for Copa Jerez, I was lucky to do a tasting with the guys of Territorio Albariza. They each have their own style in terms of vinification but you can see in their wines the pagos, the weight, the volume and the tension. You can see Sanlúcar and the difference between Miraflores and Carrascal; it all makes sense. 

Are Spanish producers good at selling themselves and the diversity of wines they produce? 
In specific markets like mine, they are. Spaniards are always happy, jovial people and there is a real friendliness to them. There is perhaps a disconnection between the larger boards’ marketing campaigns and what is sold abroad and the more alternative styles. Long-established wine countries like Spain, France and Italy tend to rely on the largest appellations, or technical, mainstream international styles of wine. But that’s going to get more complicated in the future: this international style of wines is not what people are asking for anymore.

Do you think that might affect well-known regions like Rioja? 
We all see what is going on internally there and it’s complicated right now. At my restaurant, we sell Rioja wines that fit with our philosophy, which is either the old classic style or the new generation of producers with very transparent wines from very specific areas such as Rioja Alavesa. Having mass produced wines in an area like that is problematic. It’s just too much wine with an OK level of quality that the public perceives as a brand that gradually loses power. Champagne has been pretty good at preserving this brand identity and fighting for it, but not every region can do that. Cava is an example.

How do you see Cava right now?
Cava had that problem and the leading producers left the appellation to set up their own group. When you are not really into sparkling wine you may drink cava, franciacorta or prosecco but as soon as you start to be interested, you're going to drink Recaredo. And when you start to drink that style of wine there’s no going back. This problem also happens in some appellations in France. The big players control the identity of the area and therefore dilute the brand so the best producers leave and you end up with two speeds, one focused on larger volumes and price and another trying to express a place. Fortunately, I think the future looks a little bleaker for mass market wines just because there’s less people drinking these wines. The artisanal movement seems set to have an easier time to survive.

You have taken part in top level sommelier championships throughout your career. How do you prepare for a competition at that level? How do you handle the stress, the nerves? 
I’ve evolved a lot in this respect. In the past, I trained at an amateur level but I had to do it on top of my job so it was difficult to handle. When I prepared for the world championship in 2023, I wanted it to be about improvement and pleasure, not a stressful experience so I worked with multiple people, including a nutritionist, who helped me change my diet and be healthy, to sleep better, and to feel better. I also worked with a mental coach of France’s Olympic archery team to improve mental concentration and with a coach in the US to learn to memorise things better. And I had a coach to help me be physically fit. All these tools helped me balance my work and personal life, but also to ensure that the time I devoted to studying was sheer pleasure. In a way, it was like going back to school, but learning  better and enjoying myself. I recommend it.

How long did you prepare for?
Nine months. All this took place while I was opening my restaurant and writing my book. I had very little time but I learned to learn. The experience made me realise that you don't need to study 10 hours a day because it just doesn't work. I also learned to be more at ease in general, talking in public… I’m generally pretty shy, but I really felt I was growing. And even though I didn’t win the competition, the experience was a great achievement and I had a really good time.

Did people treat you differently after being the first woman to win France’s championship?
Sure! It's like having an MS diploma. You are the same person the day before and the day after but suddenly you are legit. I think you need to surround yourself with the right people. Once I won the French titles in 2018, my circle didn’t change their perception about me; it changed in the media and among other professionals that didn’t know me. It also gave me incredible access to a lot of things, but I wasn’t actually the first woman. In the 1980s two women won in the restaurant/sommelier category, but their victory was never acknowledged. One of the women went to the 1992 Best Sommelier in the World competition as a substitute and she was never mentioned either. That was a great disappointment for me. These women deserved all the credit because they broke the ceiling and were the real pioneers.

What qualities or abilities are needed to be a good sommelier? 
You really need to like people. My job as a sommelier in a restaurant is first and foremost psychology; I have to make you say something truly intimate about you, which is your taste and what you like. I need to understand people in a very specific context and to do it very quickly. I also need a good memory to find the right wine for them. That’s my recommendation if you really want to do a good job on the floor, otherwise you don't need to be a psychologist; you just sell whatever.

How important is blind tasting for wine professionals? 
Blind tasting is critical to continue to know more about yourself. I really enjoy blind tastings, but not so much to guess the wine as to understand the wine and the intention of the person behind this wine. There's always an intention, be it that it’s made for one specific market, or to fit a price point or because the producer wants to make the best wine of their life. I like to find the connection between the winemaking and the purpose of the wine. Of course, I'm happy when I guess the wine correctly because that means I understood it. I’m gradually working more on my salivation, because it's a natural reaction of my body to tannin and acid and it doesn't lie. I'm also trying to be good at knowing when something was added and to strip that out, to try to see what lies behind. 

So when you taste wines, the palate is what matters to you.
Yes, I don't really care about the nose. It always comes after the palate. First and foremost is the energy, to what extent a wine has been processed or not, the type of salivation, whether there is a sense of place in the wine, and then I try to understand the intention.

You are part of Chepika, a project to make sparkling wines with native varieties like Catawba and Delaware in the Finger Lakes. Why did you get involved? 
I wanted to have an organically certified wine from New York State in my restaurant. My friend and now business partner Nathan Kendall told me that the only certified organic vineyards were local hybrids that were naturally cross-pollinated in the 19th century. I had never heard about these native varieties but the fact is that the Finger Lakes region made hundreds of litres of Catawba sparkling wine in the 19th century with a winemaker who had worked in Veuve Clicquot.

We were lucky to find a 100-year-old vineyard grown organically since the 70s, and we decided to give it a shot by making a sparkling wine. The harsh climate of the Finger Lakes means that diseases like mildew, odium and botrytis are common but hybrids have been there for 250 years and are adapted. So instead of rejecting these varieties because they have certain aromas, we have focused on making quality, affordable wines from the natural and historical resources of the region.

Have your clients taken to these wines?
We’ve had a great deal of success with this tiny project, but again, this is more political, it’s about recovering a heritage —75% of the vines in the Finger Lakes are hybrid. They don’t need treatments, produce good yields, and a variety like Delaware tastes like a neutral white wine and could really work for entry-level wines. Of course the region can make Riesling wines but they ought to be made well. I think it's easier to change the taste of the market than to try to grow a variety that is not adapted to a particular area. Here’s the ‘why’ again.


What do critics really value in Spanish wine?
“You don’t need to be a good taster to be a good sommelier”
Agustín Trapero: “The image of Spanish wine abroad is improving, except for Cava”
Sommelier Carlos Echapresto: “Rioja could be a victim of its own success”
César Saldaña: “Jerez would benefit if other wine regions did biological ageing”
Five Spaniards share their somm life experiences in London
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