His voice sounded on the radio strafing knowledge of that ethereal and glamorous world of wine, then, he was being interviewed by Radio Caracol’s Enrique Cordoba, who graciously agreed to give us the contact of this peculiar character. He himself told us, Fernández is a living encyclopedia.
Juan Ramón Fernández had come to that interview as the writer and poet who was to discuss his latest book, “El vigía de los dioses”, but the magic of his knowledge as sommelier, and the way of narration and linking the episodes of wine history made that interview into a conversation between fans of the pleasure of good food.
A Cuban, born in Camaguey in 1956, whose history, like his books, is told with humor and wisdom.
We were interested in talking to him for the freshness with which he explained his knowledge, but also because recent market studies endorse what the world has been whispering for a while: if you want to talk about wine, you should include the United States.
And it is that by sharing some data, that Juan Ramón gave us and we endorsed through official figures from the Institute for Foreign Trade of Spain, on the wine market in the U.S., it appears that:
- The market growth rate is constant ( 3% ). For 2011, total wine consumption in the U.S. was 312 million 9-liter cases, just above France and the relegated to a third place, Italy. By 2012 consumption estimates amounted to 322 million cases. U.S. is the second largest consumer in the world by volume, although its per capita consumption falls to thirteenth place, which confirms that this is a young market and wine culture is new.
- The latter is also given because consumption by state is not homogeneous, being the main population centers of the east and west coasts, where consumption is more common, and there are the most cultured layers, more affluent who travel abroad more.
- USA is the fourth largest producer, according to the International Organisation of Wine -OIV- , following in the footsteps of France, Italy and Spain .
- But, as we confirmed our interviewee, it is interesting that two-thirds of the wine consumed in the U.S. is of domestic origin , meaning that this is nothing close to the phenomenon that occurs with cars, and wine production if a prophet in its land, all thanks to generations X and Millennials.
- Then it turns out that , although the European Union is getting very fond to American wine, Canada is the largest buyer with 29.85 % of the market, followed by the UK and Japan.
So as you can see, talking to a sommelier, immigrant and excellent storyteller, became a very good topic .
How does a Cuban enter into this mythical world of wine?
I studied biochemistry of food in Cuba, I worked 15 years for a major research institute, bringing the world of food to which I was always very familiar. There I began to know the world of drinks, and keeping in mind to leave the island, I began to study English and I joined a winemaker. It was at this time when the country opened up to tourism, then, with the creation of the luxury hotels, the sommelier career was widely positioned.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, in which I would later work, was about French wines, and Italians … they had the best in the world, but there was no knowledge. It was crazy, the best chateau, burgundy, the wines of Bordeaux. So I did my first course with a sommelier who came from the Bodegas Torres Barcelona, Spain (one of the best in the world). After spending some time there (at the National Hotel), I went to Spain, where after a year and seven months I managed to bring my family, that was in 1998.
So, Spain provided you practice?
There, I joined completely to the world of wine, I started working as a sommelier in the Tri chain at different hotels in Spain. It was a practical stage of full knowledge, from vintage, to how the broth is made, the juice, the wine, the harvest … (See wine glossary).
And from there I did a tour across France from Toulouse to Paris, I enjoyed all those vintages, in Burgundy, for instance, one can breathe the richness, in that area of north-central France, from the moment you breathe you know something good is being harvested.
To the north is the area of Champagne- Ardenne, there is a very special region called Chabris, where there is a spectacular white wine: The Chardonnay.
But you’re a writer, how do you manage these two passions?
I like to write, because for me the chemistry is very much like writing, because it is a creative act. The world of wine took many hours from me, and even while in Spain looked for a bureaucratic job, which gave me the time I needed to write. My literary necessity prevailed. Today, the plan, once I finish this second novel, is writing a third which will link the two worlds. It will be a novel that has a lot of this wonderful area of the fruit of the vine.
How do you get to this wonderful text that marked your life interests?
When I was a boy of 14 or 15, my aunt who lived in the Vedado had a huge library, I read many books, but there was one that got me into this world , La casa de Lúculo o el arte de comer, by Julio Camba. This writer was a great eater, and wrote about food in every country of the world.
What is the difference between a sommelier and winemaker?
The sommelier is a specialist in the wine market, while it is the winemaker who produces wine, a chemist.
Since I had studied biochemistry of food, the first thing I did was learn the ABCs of wine production. But I have applied it to the commercialization of wine, because my world is the world of dealing with people and selling wines. I increase the sales.
And then what is the importance of the sommelier?
A hotel is considered five stars, not only for the luxury it has, but because it has several French specialties, including a sommelier, or a team of sommeliers. The same happens with a restaurant.
Wine shops should have their sommelier. The best wine store here in Doral hired me and the first thing I did was to differentiate the offer, in such as special place and with so much investment we couldn’t offer the same as the corner store.
Specialty stores will save a lot of money with a sommelier to help them choose the initial purchases. And if they are fortunate enough to have a permanent sommelier, that is the person who will ensure that the customer leaves happy with what they wanted and more.
His arrival in the U.S.
Leaving Spain, where he was comfortable, meant a great personal sacrifice, in order to please his wife, whose family lives in South Florida and provide opportunities for children. In that Juan shares the story of millions of immigrants. He resents, as many in Miami do, the lack of spaces for walking, and people reading on the subway or in a park. But after overcoming the initial depression, which was strong and paralyzed his pen for about four years, Juan Ramon is not only writing again, the biochemist has served contributing his knowledge to the state, and also has begun to compete in a promising market. Miami is one of the emerging wine markets more strongly positioned amongst the public of appropriate ages, the need for glamor and sophistication, and the necessary connections with the rest of the world knows and loves wine.
What’s lacking from the U.S. wine?
United States is within the ideal range for wine production in the north, it is competing. The U.S. West Coast, produces excellent wines, especially in the states of California, Oregon and Washington. It lacks what the Spaniards call “solera” , i.e. artisanal quality, like cheese and bread, when it is massified it loses that quality that is culturally transferred from generation to generation.
The other thing that is great is that in any store in the U.S., even in the corner drugstore, you will get wonderful wines, not as cheap as in Europe because of the issue of taxes, but at a relatively affordable price, equivalent to at least one hour of minimum wage, you could get something very interesting.
In conclusion the American wine is very good with a medium to high quality, and it is because since 20 years ago the owners have moved the main French wineries, as did Veuve Clicquot, where the only difference is that in the American version’s expiration is shorter.
Some tips to demystify the subject of wine, from the hand of Juan Ramón Fernández:
- The first tip, do not stay with the first thing you see, explore. Someone who is entering the world of wine has to try, do not stay with one vision, there are many places that sell wine by the glass.
- Know what you want, something smoother, stronger, sweeter, less fruity, or just the opposite.
- Have in mind the type of food that you will combine to make contrasting flavors.
- The trend worldwide is to remove the cork, synthetic substitute and screw caps are valid, now the cork becomes a myth. The worst defect a wine can have is a corked flavor.
- Fish does not necessarily go with white wine, another myth.
- It has become common to hear that that the best target is a red wine. That’s crazy, there are exquisite white wines, as well as pink wine that has an undeserved bad reputation.
- The flour and yeast of the bread cleans the flavors from the mouth.
- The wine, contrary to what you may think, has an expiration date. Do not aspire to have a cellar in your home, in addition to being expensive, you could lose a lot of money. What might be a good investment is a small wine refrigerator that maintains an average temperature of 64° Fahrenheit.
- The sommelier looks at the wine, the visual phase. Then the olfactory phase, which is more important than the palate, there you catch fruity or spicy scents, it cannot give you any type of smell that the taster rejects, if you don’t like it, you are better off not trying it, many wine tastings end in the second phase. Sipping wine, the third stage, is the operation in which you also breathe, and that taste stays in your mouth for a while. It can be a little strong at first, but within seconds the flavor sits there and there you can really taste the wine. Now you know if it is a good production.
We conclude by asking: Juan Ramón, what wine would you like to drink right now?
A Tokaj , which reminds me of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba , brings me back to the 70’s. It is a Hungarian wine, has to do with nostalgia.