Not any more. The wine intelligentsia who frequent Lou's, bargain hunters at Trader Joe's, diners who want to try something fun by the glass at restaurants such as Sona, Spago, Providence and Jar— all are members of L.A.'s growing fan club for Spanish wines. Labels that few had heard of a year ago now are on wine lists all around town. And not just the better-known Riojas and Ribera del Dueros that have long had cachet; wines from emerging regions are developing avid fans too. A year ago, the customers at Mission Wines in South Pasadena discovered the Spanish wine section, says owner Chris Meeske. Now, "I can't keep the wines in stock. They are selling like crazy." The wines fill a need left vacant by California winemakers, he says. "People need interesting wines they can drink every day. And there are no wines like that from California."
The values are extraordinary, says Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina's restaurant group. At Mina's new Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach, the Tres Picos Garnacha offered for $12 a glass costs just $10 a bottle at local wine stores. How to justify that kind of markup? "People don't mind paying that for a glass of wine this good," he says.
Orange County diners, Parr points out, are devoted to California wine. So he knew he was taking a risk when he cut back on local favorites to stock 50 Spanish wines. But, he says, "Spain has dialed it in. These wines are just right for the American palate. Lots of intense fruit." The Albariños, Garnachas and Tempranillos will have to be hand-sold at first, Parr says. Then he predicts he'll have trouble keeping them in stock.
Already, Spain has eclipsed Australian and Chilean wines on restaurant wine lists as the inexpensive alternative to California wines, say sommeliers. "They taste totally different than California wines, but they have that same intensity and structure," says Parr. And they cost half as much for the same quality. "No place in the world makes better value wines today than Spain," he says.
A vine revival
A revolution has swept Spain's wine industry. It started in the 1980s when a few independent winemakers started making ambitious wines. American wine lovers discovered them, and soon their popularity grew. Now vintners in every corner of Spain are dusting off old vineyards, overhauling wineries and cleaning up their acts in a bid to appeal to American wine drinkers. Suddenly, a seemingly limitless assortment of $10 and under bottles are for sale everywhere.
Spanish wine sales in the United States rose 14.6% between 2004 and 2005, rising from 3.8 million cases worth $183 million to 4.3 million cases worth $209 million. Spanish wine sales in the U.S. started climbing in 1999 after a decade in which sales stagnated at around $75 million a year.
It's all happening so fast that, unlike with every other wine region in the world, there are few experts focused on Spain. Only one wine writer, John Radford from Britain, has published a guide to Spanish wine that even attempts to be current and all-encompassing.
"It will take another decade or two before Spain sorts through this revolution," says Doug Frost, an American Master of Wine who wrote the brief "The Far from Ordinary Spanish Wine Buying Guide," recently published by Wines From Spain, the Spanish wine industry's marketing arm. Until then, Spain will be a game where smart consumers keep up with the emerging regions and avoid getting snookered by the rising prices for wine from the more established regions.
La Mancha and Calatayud were bulk wine regions that are now producing attractive, friendly red wines from Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, respectively. Campo de Borja, a southern bit of the Navarra region below Rioja, is making intense and fruity Garnachas. In the Rías Baixas zone in Galicia, the northwest corner of the country, crisp, fresh Albariño is king. And in Rueda, fruity, structured white wines made from Verdejo grapes rule.
Spain was ripe for this revolution. With more vines than any other country in the world — 3 million acres compared with France's 2.3 million acres and the U.S.' 1 million acres — the country has a plentiful supply of grapes. But since the Spanish Civil War, vintners had farmed the fruit with little care, using it almost exclusively for nondescript jug wines. If it was growing on a difficult to harvest hillside, they often let the grapes rot on the vines.
The abundance of vines dates back to Gen. Francisco Franco's failed agricultural policies in the 1950s. Spain's infamous military dictator, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975, subsidized the planting of "permanent" crops such as olive trees and grape vines that could be managed by state-sponsored cooperatives.
Without a sense of ownership in what they produced, the cooperatives operated like state-run wine factories. Neglected dry-farmed vineyards struggled to survive. In regions such as Priorato and Bierzo, there were vineyards located in "gravity defying areas that were simply too [difficult] to rip out and replant," says Eric Solomon, one of a few American importers who discovered Spanish wine early.
It was Jorge Ordoñez, a Spanish expatriate living in Boston, who first tapped the potential of those old Spanish vineyards. Growing up in the town of Málaga in southern Spain, Ordoñez learned the wine business from his father, a gourmet food and wine distributor. After marrying his college sweetheart and moving to the States, the junior Ordoñez set up a Spanish wine import company and started teaching Spanish vintners how to make wine the California way.
"SPAIN was very poor," says Ordoñez. "It took us forever to recover from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s." The prize vineyards were there — high altitude, dry farmed, old-vine vineyards. "The problem was quality control," he says. "There was no sophistication with wine."
As economic reforms led to an increase in privatization, independent vintners began to reject the collective approach to making wine. Ordoñez pushed these small vintners to modernize their wineries with stainless steel fermenters and to move toward more hygienic operations. "I'm adamant about quality control," he says. "No bacteria." If a winery complied with his recommendations and he could count on the wine being stable, he'd import it to America.
"I hate funky wines because they are short-lived," says Ordoñez. "I hate oxidized wines that have been improperly stored. They're cooked. I try to control as much of the process at the wineries as I can."