Producer profile: Torres

  • Monday 21 February 2011

It’s the most famous name in Spanish wine. But with its head, Miguel Torres, retiring this year, speculation is mounting as to who will succeed him, and where the producer will go from there.

My interview with Miguel and Mireia Torres began badly. We were in Bordeaux where father and daughter had been speaking at the Master of Wine Symposium about parents handing over the businessto their children. I ordered our drinks at a seedylooking café. With all of us in suits, requesting soft drinks we looked more like a temperance group than the wine trade at leisure. It was then, as I was wanting to charm my guests into revealing their innermost
thoughts about succession – that I found I had no cash. Instead, I was forced to ask the most famous name in Spanish wine to bail me out. Immediately, the serious, measured Miguel was transformed into the most hospitable of hosts, insisting a gentleman should always pay for a lady. ‘A lady!’. I liked him already...

Miguel Torres is one of the most famous Miguels in the world. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – his generosity in footing the drinks bill, it feels far too familiar and unbusiness-like to call him anything other than Señor Torres. Respect for his successes, his awards, even his advancing years, demands it. Yet all the world refers to him as Miguel (and it
certainly aids this article). Mireia will have to get used to being on first-name terms with strangers, while her brother is already addressed as Miguel Jr.

Luckily, Miguel Sr had some cash. I knew he would – in my experience he is a perfectionist, ready for anything. I noticed it the first time I met him, in a London hotel. The wine served was 2°C too warm. He waited calmly but firmly until the sommelier got it right. On another occasion, at a new boutique hotel, the basement room assigned for the tasting smelled of rubbery new carpet. Miguel Sr appeared and a new room was promptly requested. Everything was rushed upstairs by the novice hotel team. We flung open the windows and started again – Miguel totally unflustered by the delay in pursuit of the best.

The dynasty

Miguel is not the first, but the fourth of that name. Leadership of the family business has always passed from father to son. The original Miguel was brother to Jaime Torres Vendrell, an entrepreneur with whom he founded the business in 1870 with their father. To symbolise the trio, they created the logo of three towers (torres means towers) which persists to this day. The clan has the ability to respect tradition – there is the similar persistence of the little plastic bull on the bottles of Sangre de Toro – but generally, Torres is a company that is ready to reinvent itself.

The business survived phylloxera, and the third generation – Miguel Torres Carbó – survived the destruction wreaked by the Civil War. He bounced back (another quality of this enterprising family) to transform the company into an exporter of bottled wines, creating brands that still survive: Sangre de Toro, Viña Sol and Corona (today Coronas). When Miguel, the hero of our tale – he was, after all, the 2002 Decanter Man of the Year – joined the business
fresh from wine school, he started working on the ideas that have remained with him today: new varieties, terroir research and the environment.

On the surface, Miguel’s career looks like a series of lucky chances. Spend some time in the company of this lively, enquiring mind, and you realise – like the golfer Gary Player, who famously quipped that ‘the more I practise, the luckier I get’ – it’s no coincidence that he’s been so lucky. He made his first investment in Chile back in 1979. He began, quietly, to develop single-vineyard properties in the 1980s. When, by the new millennium, critics were demanding such wines, Grans Muralles, Milmanda, Mas Borràs and Fransola were ready and waiting. And as the world turned towards indigenous grapes, Miguel already had Samsó and Garró to hand, the
stars of a trial of 45 local discoveries.

Issue of succession

In 1991, the patriarch, Don Miguel, died. Like many patriarchs, he had stubbornly refused to hand over to his son. Remarkably, Miguel stayed loyal, rather than departing and setting up on his own. It’s a story that is rare in business, but it undoubtedly saved the company. When finally in charge, Miguel went off like a gunshot. In the past two decades he has set up joint ventures in China and India, created a major tourist destination at the Penedès winery, expanded
into Toro, Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Rueda, with its internationally appealing crunchy whites, is the obvious candidate to be the next, and the rumours (if not the family) suggest so. His long-standing interest and investment in the environment has won extensive international praise in the business press. Torres also returns 95% of its profit to the company, something you feel only a family business can achieve.

But with Miguel required by company regulation to retire in this, his 70th, year, what of succession? Two of his three children work in the business: Mireia, the technical director; and Miguel, formerly director of its Penedès estate Jean Leon, then marketing director of Torres, and now in the middleof a three-year term running the business in Chile.

To tackle the problem, the Torres family brought in consultants and developed a model that Britain’s own Royal Family might do well to consider. A family board (made up of fourth-generation members plus outsiders) drew up a succession protocol. It’s bold. As Miguel Sr explained, it requires that family members who want to join the business have a university degree and to have worked for three years outside the company. Furthermore, by the time the sixthgeneration (Mireia, Miguel Jr and their sister Ana, and their cousin Cristina in the US) – are in charge, only one family member per branch will be allowed back into the company. What’s more, in-laws are not welcome – except for Miguel Sr’s wife Waltraud, president of the Torres Foundation (created in 1986, to support the needy as well as environmental preservation). Protocol also specifies details such as how many bottles family members may have free
each year, and whether they can fly business class.

Life as a Torres is not easygoing. Like the senior Royals, the fourth generation don’t do ‘relaxed’ in public. But at least Miguel is tackling the issue. Whoever is chosen, he is determined to have the smooth transition he lacked. But the question nags: who will he choose? If they know, they’re not telling.

Heirs apparent

Mireia is delightfully warm and friendly but very good at being discreet. In her pale coloured business suit and neat heels, she looks as if she’d be much more relaxed in a lab coat. Not for her the bold, gold necklaces of Barcelona and Madrid, or the arm waving and huge handbags. From the winery in Penedès she has launched the Nerola range, and the innovative Natureo, a drinkable de-alcoholised Muscat. This is a wine that shows the real success of Torres, marrying clever winemaking and packaging (it looks like a grown-up bottle any wine-drinker could be proud of) with the trend to good health,and the desire to avoid the breathalyser.

Mireia is Miguel Jr’s elder by five years. She must surely be relishing the chance to become more involved in the business while her brother is in Chile. He does not come back to Europe often – getting the three of them in the same room for the photoshoot took a good deal of planning. Miguel Jr is the one with his father’s dark colouring and his
German mother’s infectious, open smile. Nevertheless he, too, shows an equally careful, thoughtful manner when he talks.

He emphasises impressively un-pushy parenting: ‘Something I appreciate about my father is that he never told me what to study or where to work’. But he does remember going to the winery as a child: ‘They would fill my empty bottle with sweet grape juice before the fermentation started,’ which must count as a strong influence. Miguel Sr has said he has had to allow his children to make their own way. So, did the new-generation Ribera del Duero and Rioja
wines need a little more thought before release? These wines have to carve a convincing profile for Torres in new regions, where they are latecomers. Salmos and Perpetual from Priorat scored 16 and 16.4 points respectively at this month’s panel tasting. Solid, certainly, but not outstanding.

Is it hard for Torres to launch a new wine like a Rioja or a Priorat? ‘We’ve worked very hard for 140 years to build this brand by producing quality wines. We’ve also made mistakes,’ says Miguel Jr. ‘But for us, the best advertising is still what is inside the bottle. Every wine and label has to have its own personality to reflect its origins. This is what we’ve
tried to do with these wines.’ Like his father, Miguel Jr takes the long view. ‘Before launching Natureo we experimented for three years to achieve a high-quality de-alcoholised wine. We waited 10 years before making Salmos, our Priorat wine, because we know young vines do not provide top-quality grapes.’ Is this the measured voice of the next guardian of the Torres flame? He, like his sister, sounds ready for the challenge. Sarah Jane Evans MW is the Decanter World Wine Awards joint Regional Chair for Spain

As I parted from Miguel Sr and Mireia and thanked them for the drinks, the words that were ringing in my ears were Miguel’s: ‘The best thing you can do is retire.’ I remembered them mainly because it’s impossible to imagine Miguel ever retiring. ‘I will still be involved on the board, but I will travel more.’ Watch out sommeliers and hoteliers – you have been warned. Be sure the wine is at its best, and the room is aired before Señor Torres comes to call

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