Well-trained Sommeliers Add Value to the Restaurant Experience


Bilbao-Rioja Venta Moncalvillo Carlos Echapresto

Photo:  Venta Moncalvillo. Carlos Echapresto is the co-owner of the restaurant along with his brother Ignacio.  Carlos holds Spain’s National Gastronomic Award and was Spain’s Best Sommelier of the Year in 2016.

About twenty years ago I led a group of sommeliers from the USA on a tour of Rioja wineries and restaurants. During a visit to one of the area’s top restaurants, I asked the head waiter, who was also the sommelier, how diners chose which wines to order with their meal. He replied, “Older locals always choose their favorite Rioja before ordering the meal. Younger locals and visitors from other parts of Spain and those from abroad choose the food first and then ask for recommendations about pairings. The older locals will always choose a Rioja but the others are willing to experiment, even with wines from other parts of Spain.”

Both are legitimate strategies, but obviously only the latter warrants the intervention of a sommelier or a qualified head waiter for guidance. This almost invariably leads to some pleasant surprises. With the growth in international tourism to our region, the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in La Rioja, Alava and Vizcaya (16 restaurants with a total of 19 stars) and the inclusion of a dizzying number of wines from other Spanish regions and from abroad on our wine lists, the need for a well-versed maître d’ or a sommelier is a necessity, especially if a guest is from outside the region.

A good example is at Remenetxe in Gernika, near Bilbao. Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementería’s wine list has 1400 wines, of which 550 are from Rioja and of these, 290 from Rioja Alavesa alone. Unless you’re a Rioja wine connoisseur, Jon Andoni is there to help.

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego is the maître and head sommelier at the two Michelin-starred Echaurren in Ezcaray in La Rioja as well as the president of the Association of Sommeliers of La Rioja. He talks about his wine list like a philosopher as “…more than a menu. It is a book of sincere reflections that speak of wines through those who make them. (Each winemaker) describes his way of understanding the vineyard, his way of working, his life, in short”.

Chefe Paniego

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego, maître and head sommelier at Echaurren

Félix Jiménez, the owner of Kiro Sushi (1 Michelin star) in Logroño, makes choosing a wine easy because he only serves one. To accompany his sushi menu he serves Akemi (‘bright, beauty’ in Japanese), a white Rioja chosen specifically by Jiménez after tasting a huge number of samples to find the perfect taste.

Félix Jiménez

Félix Jiménez, alma mater of Logroño’s Kiro Sushi (Photo: Kiro Sushi)

Carlos Echapresto, the co-owner with his brother Ignacio of the one Michelin starred Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja doesn’t use “maître” or “sommelier”, on his business card, but rather “host”. In a 2017 interview on the Spanish Wine Lover website, he explains that before his guests are seated he offers them an aperitif and tries to discern their food and wine tastes to make the food/wine pairing experience more enjoyable. He is a big fan of wine by the glass, offering more than 70, which is fantastic if you are ordering the tasting menu.

Some of his guests will tell him, “I have a budget of X, make some suggestions.” Echapresto says, “If there’s a good vibe in the restaurant and I have the opportunity to offer something really special, I’ll open it.“

The wine by the glass strategy is a must with a tasting menu, but it works best if the customer is given the chance to choose. I discovered this the hard way recently when my wife and I went to a well-known restaurant with a Michelin star in Cantabria to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We decided to try the tasting menu with the wine pairings recommended by the restaurant. The pairings were not specified on the menu but we trusted the sommelier’s decision.

It turned out that three of the pairings on the nine-course menu were from the same winery – a ‘cava’, a white and a red, and two others were a wacky red and white from new appellations in Cantabria. A furmint from Tokay saved the day. We concluded that most of the wines in question were good deals from a local distributor who in turn passed them on to the restaurant. A consequence of COVID-19 and a three-month forced closing? The meal was delicious but most of the pairings a little forced. We felt that it would have been more honest if the pairings had been written out on the tasting menu. After all, how much does it cost to print a page on a laser printer? Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware!

Josep Roca

‘Pitu’ Roca (Photo Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Has the pandemic caused by the covid-19 virus changed the role of the sommelier? Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, maître and sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, voted #1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015, is sure that it has. He recently told La Verdad that his dining room staff has gone from one day to the next from being purveyors of happiness to superfluous. “COVID-19 has mandated social distancing, requiring us to reduce contact with customers to a minimum”.

Among the ideas that have occurred to him are “emphasizing movements more than words, using gestures like they do in the Far East, cultivating the poetry of rituals or the eloquence of silence. In short, employing new ways of transmitting safety, good taste and happiness.”

Roca also suggests modifying wine lists, not by removing wines, something he considers a travesty, but rather by using graphic elements and simplifying choice for guests. Roca suggests printing out a shorter list on recyclable paper in accordance with guests’ choices of food items, a wise suggestion that our restaurant in Cantabria would be smart to consider.

My takeaway is that the adventurous food and wine lover can learn a lot from a sommelier if she’s willing to experiment. Wines by the glass are a great way to discover new things, especially with a tasting menu. Most top restaurants understand this but even more modest restaurants could increase their offer of wine by the glass, especially in today’s difficult economic climate. Even though a restaurant can’t afford a sommelier, the maître or the chef can be a reliable guide.


The magic triangle of wine

El triángulo mágico del vino was the theme of the first wine tasting/dinner held at Echaurren, Rioja’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, on June 18.  The magic triangle refers to the locations of the three wineries profiled:  Agrícola Labastida in Labastida, Abel Mendoza in San Vicente de la Sonsierra and R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia in Haro.

First, the food.  Francis Paniego is an extremely talented young chef who learned his craft both from mother Marisa Sánchez and at several restaurants in Spain and abroad, including El Bulli.  One of his favorite tricks is to take one of his mother’s signature dishes such as potatoes with spicy sausage and turn it on its head by liquifying the ingredients and delicately layering them in a conical cocktail glass.

In my opinion, the tasting menu was less of a wine pairing exercise than a feast of the senses, accompanied by four wines that showed some amazing similarities in spite of the unique personality of each.

The apéritif was:

  • a slice of Cameros cheese with sesame seeds and honey
  • a piece of marinated salmon with soybean sprouts
  • croquettes (no one makes them better than at Echaurren.  I would love to go there and eat nothing else)

These dishes were served with a barrel fermented white from Agrícola Labastida, Tierra Fidel, made with viura, white garnacha and malvasía, delicately perfumed but with a firm mouthfeel, and Jarrarte maceración carbónica, an explosion of fresh fruit.

The five-course tasting menu was

  • a Mediterranean tzatziki-type cold purée of yoghurt, liquified cucumbers, almonds, green apple ice cream, bread and olive oil
  • white asparagus cooked at 65ºC for 6 hours with a mushroom mayonnaise (by the way, this did NOT alter the flavor of the wines)
  • lemonfish with roast root vegetables and a liquified green bean sauce
  • lamb’s tail glacé with a touch of ginger and fresh vegetables
  • a piece of hard toast with lukewarm Cameros cheese, apple and honey ice cream.

Now, the wines: Tierra Fidel 2006, Abel Mendoza Selección Personal 2007, Viña Tondonia red reserva 2001 and Viña Tondonia white reserva 2002.

At first Tierra Fidel was oak, herbaceous, spicy with quite high acidity. After about 30 minutes, the nose evolved toward tobacco. Very attractive.

The Abel Mendoza reminded me of Mediterranean hillside plants like rosemary, with good balance between red fruit and oak.  Again, with fairly high acidity.

The Viña Tondonia red 2001 (according to Julio César López de Heredia, not on the market yet) was amazingly fresh and reminded me of strawberry jam. High acidity.  Julio told me that he didn’t think it was ready to drink yet, but I disagreed.  There were no sharp edges here.

Viña Tondonia white reserva 1992 had a nutty, butterscotch and honey nose and was delicate, perfectly balanced, with high acidity.

My overall impression was that in spite of obvious differences in style, all four wines served with dinner showed two similarities:  thankfully, they were not high-alcohol, overextracted fruit bombs and were fresh on the palate, stimulating your taste buds.  If these wines are the current direction Rioja is taking, I applaud the move.  Rioja has always been a food wine and these brands illustrate this trait perfectly.


Padre José García 19, 26280 Ezcaray (La Rioja) Tel: 941 354 047

Picture:  the Echaurren logo

Potatoes Riojan style

potatoesLast Saturday was my birthday so my wife decided that we were going to have a party at our summer house near Santander. Since most of our neighbors are from Bilbao, and consequently, Rioja lovers, we took  a healthy supply of wine (three cases of 12 for a party of 16) and prepared ourselves for a day of fun.  The party started at 1 PM and lasted until midnight.  I understand that several videos and pictures were taken of the event (I don’t remember) but haven’t seen them to be able to decide if they’re You Tube-worthy or not. You, the faithful readers of Inside Rioja, will have a ringside seat!

A marathon like this begs for careful preparation, so we decided to feed the crowd with a staple of Riojan cuisine, potatoes with spicy sausage, called ‘patatas a la riojana’ everywhere in Spain except in Rioja itself, where we call them ‘patatas con chorizo’.

This is the perfect party meal for several reasons:  it’s loaded with carbs to provide energy to keep dancing for hours, it fills your stomach to delay the absorption of the wine into the bloodstream and it’s damn tasty.

This type of food (called ‘spoon food’ – ‘cocina de cuchara’ in Spanish – has always been popular in Spain.  Imagine what life was like in the country 100 years ago.  You awoke before dawn, had a full meal including a bottle of wine, followed by chores until about 10 AM when you had a big mid-morning snack (see a previous post about ‘almuerzo’) with another bottle of wine, more chores, followed by lunch and more wine, more chores, dinner and more wine and to bed when the sun went down.  Sociologists reckon that the average Spanish farmer drank three bottles of wine and a copious amount of food every day to provide enough calories to manage the hard work.

Energy food like potatoes with spicy sausage, lentils and chickpeas, made like stews and eaten with a tablespoon, were served almost every day.

This tradition remains today, as people are going back to the culinary habits of their grandparents because of these dishes’ simplicity and downright good taste.  As a matter of fact, Rioja’s best-known restaurant, Echaurren in Ezcaray (http://www.echaurren.com) is actually two restaurants side-by-side:  mother Marisa Sanchez’ traditional dining room where generations of diners have enjoyed her traditional northern Spanish cuisine and son Francis Paniego’s avant-garde dining room, where many of his mother’s dishes are turned inside out (notably his rendition of potatoes with spicy sausage, served as a multilayered purée in a conical martini glass).

More about this amazing restaurant in a future post.

Hungry yet?  Here’s a recipe for potatoes with spicy sausage.  Please bear in mind that all measurements are approximate and can be corrected.

Ingredients for 6:

  • 1,5 kilos (about 3,5 lb. of potatoes (not the kind used for frying – note from my wife)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of spicy red paprika
  • 6 pieces of chorizo, each about 1 inch long
  • an onion
  • 1 bay leaf

Peel the potatoes and soak them in cold water.

Peel and fry the cloves of garlic in a small frying pan in the olive oil.  As soon as the garlic takes on a golden color, sprinkle in the paprika. Then pour this mixture into a pot, adding about 36 ounces of water (the contents of two empty bottles of wine, for the mathematically challenged).  Add the peeled onion, the bay leaf and the chorizo, which shouldn’t be too dry.

When this comes to a boil, lower the temperature, cover the pot and cook slowly for an hour.

Preparation of the potatoes (VERY important):  They should not be sliced, but rather ‘broken’ (‘cachado’ in Riojan) by inserting a knife about 3/4 through and twisting the knife so a piece of potato breaks off.  This, I’m told, keeps the starch inside the potato rather than letting it leach out when the potato is sliced. Break the potatoes into pieces about 1 1/2 inches in diameter (a’ hunk’)

Add the potatoes to the pot and, if there’s not enough water to cover everything, add more until it does.  Add a little salt (careful!  the chorizo is salty).

Cook in the covered pot for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are soft but a little firm. 

If you want a thicker stew, mash one of the potatoes with a fork and stir into the rest.

Serve in soup bowls with some spicy green peppers (‘guindillas’) on the side.  Some people here will hold a ‘guindilla’ in one hand and take a bite from time to time while others will chop  theirs up and mix it into the stew.  I prefer the latter.

My wife, who refused to help me with the recipe because like all experienced chefs, never measures anything, preferring to fly by the seat of her pants, mentioned that she slowly fries the onion and garlic, puts them into a blender and then adds the mix to the stew, as she thinks that non-Spaniards won’t like to eat a piece of onion and much less, a piece of garlic.

To be a real Riojan, enjoy a healthy portion of this stew with a few glasses of red Rioja, turn on the TV and watch the football game. You’ll probably fall asleep, though!