As much as I absolutely love all the paperwork, inventory, ordering, and data entry that comes with my job, one of my favorite things about being a beverage manager and sommelier is, of course, tasting the wine and meeting the people who make it. It’s why we do what we do. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because we get to drink for free in the afternoon and say, “I’m working!”... although that is pretty cool… but, no! It’s because we get the opportunity to be in the presence of the people that crafted these wines and get a sense of the passion and the love that went into making each and every bottle. And yes, I was completely lying about the paperwork. I hate it! But when you sit and have lunch with a passionate winemaker and taste their wine as you listen to their stories, it makes it all worthwhile.
Having said that, I don’t go to many winemaker luncheons. One, because I’m so busy, and two, because I don’t get much done the rest of the afternoon after tasting wine and eating for two hours. But I jumped when I got the chance to sit down for lunch with Marimar Torres. If there is such a thing as wine royalty, then Marimar would be a queen, and I was so exited to meet her.
We were meeting for lunch at noon on Wednesday at Carlito’s Gardel, an amazing little Argentinean restaurant just west of Fairfax on Melrose in Hollywood. I had decided to dress up a little in a black suit, no tie -- just a shirt. I figured I would be overdressed because no one dresses up in LA anymore, but I wanted to be respectful. It was 11:30 in the morning, and I was driving over Laurel Canyon and started to think about the rich history this woman came from.
Marimar’s family has been making wine since the 17th century. Jaime Torres established a winery close to Barcelona in the Northeast of Spain in 1780. Since then, the business has been handed down from father to son for four generations. But it was Don Miguel Torres, Marimar’s father, who propelled the family business to world prominence. The original winery was badly damaged during the Spanish Revolution. Don Miguel and his wife Doña Margarita began reconstructing a more modern winery in 1940, which was finished in 1942. Over the 60 years Don Miguel ran the business, it became a massive enterprise. In 1979, Marimar's brother Miguel Torres opened a new winery in Chile and has become known as a pioneer in the wine industry. In 1991, the patriarch of the Torres family passed away, leaving his son in charge of running the family business in Spain as well as his own in Chile and collaborating with Marimar here in the United States.
I arrived at the restaurant a little early and found a place to park. The meter was broken, and some nice person had placed a bag over it with the word “Broken” written on both sides. I checked it just to make sure, and it was. Yes! When I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by Marco, my wine rep. from the San Antonio Winery here in LA. This winery is also owned by a wine family with a rich history, but that’s another story for another day.
When I met Marimar, I shook her hand, and it was indeed like meeting royalty; not because of any false airs or graces, but because when you meet this incredibly classy woman, you get a sense of that rich family history. There is warmth and strength in her smile and a real connection to where she comes from, very much like her wines.
Marimar was never meant to be a wine maker. She was a little girl who grew up in Spanish society. The wine world was a man’s world. Young society girls where meant to play tennis and marry rich lawyers, not work in the vineyards with their brothers. “When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she explains in the introduction of her cookbook The Catalan Country Kitchen, "I would reply, much to my mother's chagrin, ‘A cook or a ballerina.’ But even the kitchen was no place for a properly raised ‘aristocratic’ young lady."
Since then, Marimar has become an authority on Spanish cuisine and is the accomplished writer of two cookbooks: The Spanish Table, featuring the cuisine and wine of Spain, and The Catalan Country Kitchen, focusing on food and wine from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. She is fluent in six languages and has studied at the University of Barcelona, Stanford, and UC Davis, where she received her training in enology and viticulture. She is now the president of Torres Wines North America and The Marimar Torres Winery in California.
I had to ask, "How did that happen?"
“Well… I guess I’m a nonconformist," she answered. I smiled. I liked this woman. We got a chance to chat for a few hours over some delicious food and her amazing wine.
First, I had a simple salad of mixed greens with the 2006 “Acero” Chardonnay, an un-oaked Chard, very crisp and clean with lovely floral notes. Then I had Matambre de Pollo, rolled chicken stuffed with ham, egg, cheese, and bell peppers served with an Argentinean style potato salad. (Which was really delicious by the way.) I tried it with both the 2006 Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay, very lush with well integrated oak, citrus and tropical fruit, and also the 2006 Dobles Lias Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay, which I have to say I loved. It’s called Dobles Lias because of extended time on the lees. Without getting too technical, the lees are the dead yeast cells, and they add to the creaminess of the wine.
"Not many people use this process," Marimar explained, "but I’ve got to tell you, it gives the wine a long creamy finish that is to die for."
Marimar's philosophy is that good wine comes from good grapes, so both of the vineyards, the “Don Miguel” (named after her father) and the “Doña Margarita” (after her Mother) at Marimar Torres Estate, are certified organic.
"Going organic is very costly, but we are not doing it to prove anything," Marimar said. "It’s just better for the land and the vines, and it makes better wine with a real sense of where it comes from." I found this even more evident in the Pinot Noirs. The Don Miguel vineyard Pinots give you more of that cherry rich Russian River Valley fruit, where the Doña Margarita Pinot gives you more Burgundian classic mushroom, forest floor flavors. Both went extremely well with the Chorizo, grilled Argentine sausage, served with tomatoes and onions, and the Beef Empanada Argentina.
Marimar said she moved to San Francisco in 1975 for love. She married an American wine and food critic. Although her marriage did not work out, she loved California and dreamed of building a winery and making wine here. With the help of her brother, she persuaded her father to allow her to give it a shot. I can only imagine the pressure she felt being a woman, coming to the USA from a very successful and very male-dominated, world-renowned wine dynasty to make her first wine.
In 1991, a month before her father passed away, her first Chardonnay was released with some critical acclaim. "I went back home to visit my father," she said. "He was bed ridden at the time. I went into his room and nervously presented him with my Chardonnay."
I sat mesmerized at the table and watched her face fill with pride as she described how her father smelled the wine and held it up into the light. "Then he tasted it," she said. "He waited a moment, and then he looked at me and said, ‘Marimar, this is the best Chardonnay I have ever tasted!’”
Later, he told his wife, Doña Margarita, that they must build a winery in California. After he passed away, Marimar reminded her mother of what her father had said that day, and the rest is history.
As I said earlier, Marimar Torres is a woman with an incredible connection to where she comes from, and her wines reflect the woman and her passion.