Toni Albiol: «To all my younger colleagues out there: travel more!»
Author: Interview by Elena Vrublevskaya
We are driving up to the Divins wine boutique in the industrial town of Martorell, 30 km from Barcelona. A modernly designed space where the original style of a traditional Spanish wine shop is preserved. Its owner, the famous sommelier Toni Albiol, apologizes and asks to wait a moment before he finishes serving a customer. For several minutes, we remain tete-a-tete with the wines: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, Penedès, Bierzo… ambassadors of the ancient and modern traditions of Spanish winemaking, lovingly selected and intricately arranged, interspersed with wines from the Old and New Worlds. As I sit, I’m traveling around the world without ever leaving the Divins wine boutique, recognized by the Michelin Guide as one of the best in Spain. Señor Toni Albiol, its founder and owner, was named the best sommelier of Catalonia in 2007, is a blending champion, and has been named the best sommelier in Spain by several experts.
— Señor Albiol, what is such an honored wine expert doing in a location so distant from winemaking itself?
— I grew up around here, and 20 years ago I had the idea of opening a wine shop that would sell bottled wine. Before, people here used to drink wine from barrels. We worked on the shop with lots of enthusiasm, but not everything went as planned. On the first Sunday after the opening, we sold just a single bottle! The lucky type was Vermouth. Then we realized that if we don’t first alter the mentality of our customers, the shop would have to close in just a few months.
Our grandfathers and fathers survived the war and post-war period, and the «survivor» mentality dominated here. Just 50-70 years ago, people ate to survive… or they starved. Wine accompanied meals, and everything went along like that. Before, people buying wine looked at the price, and quantity took precedence over quality.
We pioneered a different approach: along with enthusiasts in other regions, we worked to change our clients’ mentality, promoted wine culture, motivated the transition to bottled wine, talked about the benefits of new technologies or the use of stainless steel tanks at winemaking factories, which allowed them to significantly improve cleanliness standards, in turn giving wines more subtle flavors and helping achieve higher quality.
Originally, people perceived this as an attempt to sell the same wine, but at a much higher price, and it cost us a lot of effort to prove that this was not the case. Over time, we bought an adjacent building and opened this bodega, where we founded a school of wine culture. We also did a lot of work over the radio. For over 10 years, I hosted a program about wine at the local radio station. Its goal was educational: an attempt to teach people a new attitude to wine, and to awaken their senses. We put our best bets on quality. Our motto was «drink less, but better.» There is one famous phrase I have stuck to my entire life: «if something doesn’t suit you, change it.»
— What does a sommelier pay attention to when first working with a client?
— First of all, you need to know the tastes of your client. It is important to determine what they need, and try not to make the wrong choice. For this purpose, one needs to use psychology and try to drag out as much information as possible in the most delicate manner. I could never ask a client directly how much money they’re willing to spend on wine, but I can learn that info during a conversation. The personal tastes of clients play a huge role, and here we have to sometimes take risks.
You should also be flexible, so as to get yourself out of difficult situations that may arise when helping someone. For example, just now I was opening a bottle and the cork broke, despite all my efforts… And that’s okay, we just need to push on…
— Is that unacceptable for a sommelier?
— Corks break quite often, so it could happen to anyone. When it does, the main thing is not to have it affect the quality of the wine tasting. If I pour wine into the client’s glass right away, bits of the cork may fall in with it. To avoid this, it is recommended in one fast movement to pour the first bit into a separate glass, which the sommelier can then use for the wine tasting to define its properties.
— Are there any differences in clients of various social levels, nationalities or sex?
— Or course there are! A sommelier must adapt to the client’s attitude, their culture and traditions.
— Does a client’s age determine the type of wine you offer them?
— The key here is the type of education a certain generation has had. When my father was my age, a wine totally different from today’s contemporary wine styles was consumed in this area. These were wines of a more classical style… light and without a wide range of flavors. People mostly drank wines from the Rioja region, and older people accustomed to the taste still ask for it. But new wine lovers who are excited about wine and who grew up in the era of the cultural wine revolution, and for whom the new technologies and new forms of winemaking are familiar, these people are always happy to taste and appreciate a wider range of new wines.
— What makes a good sommelier? Is it experience, or talent? Can you be a good sommelier when you’re just 30?
— A sommelier’s expertise doesn’t depend as much on age, as it does on talent and experience. From my point of view, sommeliers aren’t born, they’re made.
— Yes, but that’s what experience is in a certain sense—when you’re 50 you have probably tasted more wines than when you’re 30.
— Quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Experience has a certain degree to it. When I participate in sommelier contests, I sometimes encounter young professionals, graduates of sommelier schools. They all have the theory fresh in their minds still. They can remember the grapes varieties grown, let’s say, in the Caucasus, but I can’t. But I’ve traveled half of the world’s wine zones, visited famous wine houses, met with prominent winemakers, seen how they make wines at their estates, and tasted a large number of wines… The basis of the sommelier’s art is their experience, their cognition of new wines, and continuous training. Experience is something that cannot be acquired at school. Sommelier school only gives attendees professional training; it’s like a driving school training future drivers. But once you receive your license, you’re not a driver quite yet.
— What mistakes do your younger colleagues make most often?
— They lack modesty. A sommelier should never be arrogant! The fact that you have knowledge in a very narrow field that isn’t available to everyone, doesn’t make you an important person or give you the right to treat your customers condescendingly.
— A sommelier is in a way a kind of artist. Can they ever ruin their canvas?
— I don’t think you can «ruin the canvas» if you follow common sense, respect the criteria for wine serving temperatures and provide good service to your clients by consulting about a certain wine’s characteristics in a calm and courteous manner. A person’s attitude and how they address people are important, along with the even keel that comes with years of experience, and the ability to justify your choice and communicate and convey your knowledge to a client.
First and foremost, the sommelier is a communicator, and as any self-respecting expert engaged in communications, be it a journalist or radio/TV host, they must be an impartial person and a real master, who can pass their knowledge on to the public. We must assess wine with the utmost honesty, modesty, and utmost generosity, always keeping in mind the people who worked hard to create the wine.
Crafting a good wine is like drawing a good picture. Even if the wine turned out not so successful, it is unlikely that the winemaker wanted to deliberately create a bad wine. They certainly made every effort to obtain the best result they could. So you always have to be generous in your assessment. You should be able to distinguish better from worse, but you should never talk about wine with a lack of respect.
— How can a sommelier quickly reach a high professional level?
— I recommend that you travel as much as possible, visit wineries, meet with winemakers, and talk to people who can teach you something. Be near people who have the ability to pass on information to you. There are people out there who know and love wine, but cannot communicate their knowledge to other people at all.
It is very important in my mind to learn the language of wine. My job is akin to the work of an interpreter… In a way, I’m a wine interpreter. There are people who have mastered the art of communication, they are able to convey their emotions and their passion. And there are people (I don’t want to offend anyone) who always repeat the same thing, and produce the same wine, as they are all set in their ways. The best wine for them is the one they produce. They aren’t interested in anything new, and don’t compare their wines with others’ or develop professionally in any way. Visits to their wineries result in nothing but boredom. These professionals can’t teach you anything.
— You brought up a beautiful image of a sommelier as an interpreter. What language should one use: poetic, metaphorical, or very precise and structured, to have a person quickly understand a wine?
— As I said at the beginning of our conversation, you have to be ready to use psychology. In that picture on the wall you see a group of young guys who just turned 18 years old. They just reached the legal age to drink wine. And I teach them how to drink it properly and slowly. I can’t use one and the same language for 18-year-old guys who have come to a tasting paid by their parents, as I do for the professional sommeliers of restaurants to whom I sell wine. You must be equipped with a variety of tools and be able to adapt to the most diverse conditions.
As a good interpreter who doesn’t just translate words, but also conveys to the listener the deeper sense of the words and emotions of the speaker, so I convey to the client the sensations and emotions that each glass of wine evokes in me.