Interview with Luis Gutiérrez
One of the most influential critics in the world of wine, Luis Gutiérrez is particularly well-known for his opinions and ratings of Spanish, Chilean and Argentinian wines in his work for Robert Parker’s team.
His opinions offer much more than a strict evaluation of a wine and a number on a scale of ratings. Luis Gutiérrez tells the story of each wine, its winery, the men and women who produce it, the nature and landscape from which it has been created, and in doing so we understand and position the wine among its peers. His sincerity and coherence, alongside years of experience, have made him an essential reference in the wine world and the source of knowledge and learning for many wine enthusiasts, ranging from experts to beginners.
Here at Vinissimus we spoke to Luis to get to know him better, both as a person and as a wine writer forming part of the team that prepares The Wine Advocate guide. We were also curious to hear his opinions on certain questions related to present day developments in the world of wine and winegrowing. Unsurprisingly, as we talked to Luis we discovered a true passion for wine and gastronomy, a meticulous engineer with his eye on even the smallest details, a wine enthusiast who takes note of every aspect of winemaking and does not hesitate to question or criticize bad practises, or vain and incoherent projects, while also being more than willing to praise the qualities of good wines or recognize wines unjustly ignored. To sum up Luis offers us his honest opinions not just anyone’s ideas but those of one of the world’s experts.
Luis Gutiérrez, the person
— ¿When or how did your passion for the world of wine begin?
—It was a gradual thing, in the mid-1990s, but then it really took off when internet appeared on the scene with online forums and the appearance of elmundovino.com at the turn of the century.
— ¿¿What does wine mean for your life?
—Now, wine is my life. More than a job, it is a way of life. I cannot separate my work and my life now, it is all the same thing.
« Wine is my life »
— ¿When you go out to a restaurant, who chooses the wine?
— ¿Do you give people wine as a present? How do you choose which one?
—Yes, of course, I do. To friends who are big wine enthusiasts, I give them one of my bottles (even though it hurts to see them go!). For other people, I choose wines which may surprise them as well as giving them enjoyment.
—When you are on holiday, are you one of those people who wants to disconnect and forget about your work, the world of wine, or do you enjoy wine even more with the added freedom?
—I eat and drink on holiday, working as usual … wine is my life.
Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate critic
— ¿How did Robert Parker convince you to join his team?
—It was easy. They asked me what they had to offer for me to go and work with them. I said I needed to maintain my family, and they accepted.
— ¿Would you change jobs now? Or would you perhaps like to change anything about your job?
—Yes, I would taste fewer wines, write more and take a deeper look at the great wines and the great histories behind them…
— ¿How do you decide which regions and winemakers you are going to visit?
—I plan a schedule which is more or less the same every year. It never ends, rather like living a ‘groundhog day’.
— ¿When you visit a winery, do you taste all their wines?
—Yes, I usually do.
— ¿What do you pay attention to when you visit a winemaker?
—Everything. I love the small details; I am an engineer.
— ¿How do you select which wines to taste every year?
—Based on years of experience and when I hear about a new wine which stands out or has a promising future.
— ¿Why do some wines disappear from your tasting list from one year to the next?
—Because I don’t think I should recommend them to my readers.
— ¿How many wines do you taste in a year? Is any period of the year especially intense?
—I taste between 3,500 and 4,000 wines a year with the same intense work rhythm all year round. We never stop.
— ¿What kind of glasses do you use for tasting wines?
—At home, the Zalto Universal glass. Anywhere else, simply the best ones available.
— ¿Do you follow a special tasting sheet or a specific order?
—I have a sheet to note down details about the winery and wines but I don’t have a special tasting list. I form a general and personal evaluation of the wine. It is my opinion, my ideas, how I organize them, and not a scientific calculation.
— ¿Does another member of the team participate in your ratings?
— ¿We understand that the tasting and rating of wines for The Wine Advocate is carried out with the label on show, rather than a blind-tasting. Is that true? Does the fact of not tasting blind help or hinder you when it comes to being objective? Will two critics, one who knows the wine (not just the name) and another one who does not know which wine they are tasting, give a similar opinion?
—With the huge quantity of wines I have to taste and the help I have (none!), it is much better to try the wines knowing full well what they are and writing my tasting notes in English. Otherwise, I simply could not manage to get through them all without this help. Blind tasting has pros and cons. I believe that experience is extremely important when evaluating a wine. That is why we sign our ratings with our names, instead of publishing them as anonymous opinions from a person or group. I put my name to all of my reviews.
«Blind tasting has pros and cons. Experience is extremely important when evaluating a wine»
— ¿Some wines have truly original names and labels. Does the name and design influence your evaluation of a wine?
— ¿When do you blind taste a wine?
—To confirm what I think of a wine by putting it into the context of other wines.
— ¿Do you ever think you have been too generous or too cautious with your opinion, after your rating has been published?
—Yes, several times. We are not machines, this is not a precise science and sometimes a wine can evolve in an unexpected way.
— ¿What separates a 99 rating from a 100?
—Very little. A feeling or a hunch.
— ¿There are men and women in Parker’s team. Do you think we all judge wines in the same way?
—It simply depends on each person, their experience and knowledge. It has nothing to do with their gender, religion, nationality or the colour of their hair.
— ¿Some wineries are keen to get good ratings for their wines whereas others prefer to go unnoticed as an unexpectedly high rating can complicate the running of the winery. How do you cope with any of the preferences, interests and pressure they may put on you?
—My job is tricky enough without having to worry about these elements too. Above all I try to remain coherent to my ideas.
— ¿What is The Wine Advocate for? How would you convince a wine-lover to subscribe to the robertparker.com website?
—It is a wine guide for consumers. If you are quite interested in wine and more or less agree with my opinions, you can read about 4000 wines I have tasted as you do not have the time to.
Luis Gutiérrez, wine expert
Winegrowing, landscape and climate change
— ¿How does climate change affect winegrowing or vice versa?
—It is worrying. I think it is probably essential that we go back to organic agricultural methods.
— ¿Do you think the world of winemaking has a role to play in the fight against climate change?
—I think we all do and in all sectors.
— ¿Do you think the promotion of winemaking can help prevent the depopulation of some regions of Spain?
—Completely organic wines must fulfil a complex process of requirements to obtain the organic certificate, whereas those produced with the use of industrial pesticides and herbicides do not have to indicate this on their labels, whatever amount is involved. Should there be a scale of certifications for all wines? What do you think? —It is a complicated issue. I think many products should be banned but we also need to be realistic. I also think we should pay more for organic products.
—What proportions of a bottle of wine are made up of nature, culture, landscape or the work of people…? And what would be the best combination, in your opinion? —There should be a good amount of everything but the work of people shouldn’t be noticeable, it is there to highlight the other aspects.
«The work of people [...], to highlight other aspects»
—Technology. An essential tool for …?
—Many things. I come from the world of technology. Like most tools, it all depends on how it is used.
Wine consumption in Spain
—Spain is a large producer of wine but has relatively low rates of consumption compared to other European countries. Why?
—That is the big question. I think it is the result of our history and socio-cultural situation. Another very difficult issue to analyze.
—The wine list in a Spanish restaurant: what proportion of wines should be from the local region and what other parts of the world are also essential?
—There should be a good representation of regional wines but without tending to provincialism. And rather than thinking of regions of the world, they should offer the styles of wines which go with the kind of cooking they offer. Wine forms part of gastronomy.
«Wine forms part of gastronomy»
—For most wines, their commercialization date seldom coincides with the best moment recommended for drinking them. They should be kept until that time but few people do this. They are usually opened and consumed straight away. Do you think this is for economic reasons or cultural ones?
—Mainly economic reasons.
—What would you recommend for a person with little or no experience of wines? What kind of wines are best to start with, and why?
—Start with simple wines, experiment and try as many as possible. Get to know their own palate and tastes.
«[I recommend they] get to know their own palate and tastes»
— ¿What would you say to someone who says they don’t like wine?
—That they have not tried enough.
—You started out in charge of rating wines from Chile, Spain and Argentina and soon after they put you in charge of Jura wines too. How did that come about?
—I volunteered to do it. Jura is more for pleasure than work.
—The first areas you visited were regions relatively unknown at that time: Bierzo, the Canary Islands, Monterrei, Ribeiro, Valdeorras... Why?
—Because they had been neglected, above all Jerez.
— ¿Which regions do you think will lead winemaking in Spain in the coming years?
—It is hard to talk about specific regions as many areas have possibilities for growth but there are people who can see this potential and are able to make the most of it. However, the classic regions are popular for a reason and logically they will have their say. For example, I think it is time that Rioja woke up.
«Many areas have possibilities and there are people who can see this potential and make the most of it.
[...] it’s time that Rioja woke up»
—If it was up to you, what changes would you make to how appellations (D.O.) are organized in Spain? For example, regarding the Vino de Pago or Denominación de Origen Calificada classifications, the new designations for village and single vineyars wines…?
—It is not easy to make rules for all the kinds of wines. I would try and have fewer restrictions while focusing on quality.
— ¿Will Garnachas de Gredos ever be accepted as a D.O. appellation?
—I’m afraid not. Maybe Sierra de Gredos, but I don’t think it will be accepted either…
—Jerez wines seemed to have been forgotten. But then you appeared on the scene in 2013 and a few months later in your first 100 we had three wines from Jerez and Montilla-Moriles. Generosity or justice?
—Justice. Low hanging fruit, just waiting to be picked.
— ¿How would you advise someone to enter the world of Jerez sherries?
—One step at a time.
—After you had rated the Castillo Ygay Blanco wine, you were annoyed when you saw the price they put it on sale for. Although you rated the wine highly, with 100 points, you thought it was overpriced. In recent years, new wines have appeared on the market at prices over 100 or even 200 euros. What is a suitable price for a wine?
—The Market sets the price. If it is too high, people won’t buy the wine. If it is too low, it is unsustainable. But, yes, there are arbitrary prices too. The simple solution - don’t buy these wines.
«The Market sets the price»
—With very few exceptions, Spanish wines tend to sell at the same price every year, independently of the quality of a particular harvest. However, prices can vary greatly from year to year for French wines, even with lower priced wines. Why?
—It is a question of supply and demand. There is more demand for better quality vintages and so the price goes up. If a vintage has a lower quality, I don’t think it is a bad idea that the price is adjusted accordingly.
Styles of wine
—In the English-speaking world it is still common to ask for a variety instead of a specific wine: for example, a glass or bottle of Pinot Noir, or a Chardonnay. What do you think?
—It is an easy and simple way to start in the world of wine. But eventually you will want to know more… or not.
— ¿How would you define a classic wine?
—One made following the local traditions in that region.
— ¿What about a natural wine, what does it mean?
—I am not sure. There are too many stereotypes and too much extremism related to the name.
—Some people still use the term “Parker wines” to refer to powerful wines with a lot of extraction. But your top wines are fresh, easy-to-drink ones and you also include many classic Riojas among your best ratings. Do wines change to adapt to the tastes of consumers or wine critics? Or do consumers and critics discover and learn to appreciate new styles, following winemakers’ initiatives?
—Everything changes very slowly and with feedback. Producers have to make the wines they like. But at the end of the day, winemaking is a business, not a charity, so they also have to find a balance. We are all constantly changing and evolving. It is part of the mystery of wine.
—Some critics still describe wines with an endless list of tasting notes including very specific aromas and flavours. Do you think this is useful for consumers?
—I find them boring.
A final question:
— ¿Do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on any aspect of your work or the world of wine in general, and that this may never be the same again?
—Yes, for sure. The pandemic is far from over. We don’t know how everything will end up but it’s clear things will be different from before.