Miguel Torres is undoubtedly the driving force behind the modernisation of Spanish wine. JOHN STIMPFIG interviews the inspirational winemaker, Decanter's Man of the Year 2002.
There are many descriptors that naturally attach themselves to Miguel Torres, the new Decanter Man of the Year. Words like visionary, maverick or ambassador. How else could you describe someone who has changed the taste of Spanish wine, transformed Penedès into a globally renowned fine wine region and inspired a new generation of Hispanic winemakers to follow his quest for quality?And yet this image seemed somewhat at odds with the quietly spoken, smartly suited 60-year-old I was about to interview. For a moment, as I pressed ‘record’, I wondered how this courteous Catalan gentleman had single-handedly moved so many mountains.Until, that is, Miguel Torres began to unfurl his life story; the trials, tribulations and triumphs of over 40 years’ devotion to family, work and wine. Three hours and four sides of tape later, I was more profoundly convinced than ever that Decanter had got its man.
I’m not the only one to be won over by Torres’ charm and talents. People who know him well have sung his praises for years. Hugh Johnson recently compared the Catalan family’s global empire in Spain, Chile, California and China with that of the Mondavis. Having tasted Torres’ top Pago (single vineyard) wines, Johnson also pointed out that he, ‘couldn’t think of any other company capable of such stylistic originality and variety at such a high level’.Proof that this is no recent phenomenon comes from the Gault Millau wine Olympics competition of 1979, the year that Torres’ 1970 Gran Coronas Reserva Cabernet (now re-branded as Mas La Plana) struck gold, leaving the 1970 Latour and other cru classé clarets trailing behind. This earth-shattering victory put Torres and Penedès firmly on the fine wine map. And they’ve been there ever since.
Torres’ winemaking successes haven’t been confined to the fine wine market. Indeed, most wine drinkers would be more familiar with his popular branded perennials such as the benchmark Viña Sol, Sangre de Toro and Viña Esmeralda, not to mention the more premium Reserva range. The current figures show sales of 32 million bottles to more than 120 countries, making Torres Spain’s most profitable wine exporter. Miguel Torres can’t take all the credit for this, having been born into a wealthy dynastic wine business dating back to the 19th century. And it was his ebullient father Miguel Torres Carbo, whose brilliant global salesmanship built up the business from the 1940s and 1950s.The young Torres only had one career path in mind. ‘Since I was a kid, I was exposed to vineyards, listening to stories and tasting wine at family lunches.’ So when his father finally gave him permission to quit his chemistry degree at Barcelona to study oenology at Dijon, he packed his bags without a moment’s thought.
He returned to Penedès in 1962 to start work in production, bursting with ideas. Thus began five decades of maverick experimentation and creative innovation. He was one of the first Iberian growers to plant non-Spanish varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. He also led the way in vinifying in stainless steel tanks and, in the 1970s, bolted on the revolutionary technique of temperature control. The dramatic results virtually reinvented the taste of Spanish wine. Instead of yellow whites and maderised reds, Torres’ wines were fruity, fresh and vibrant.
‘People loved them. It was an overnight success,’ he acknowledges.
Even now, Miguel Torres won’t let up on creativity or research. ‘We’re experimenting more today than ever, and it’s incredibly exciting.’ Interestingly though, his current pet project is to re-establish Catalonia’s long-forgotten indigenous grape varieties such as Samso and Garro, as in Torres’ extraordinary single-vineyard red, Grans Muralles. ‘It is a wine which is very close to my heart,’ he adds.
In addition to expanding the family’s Spanish vineyard fiefdom, Torres was also busily building the firm’s overseas empire in Chile, California and China. Although his sister Marimar runs the Californian satellite, Torres masterminded operations in Chile and China. He was one of the very first foreign vintners into Chile in 1979. He made an immediate impact, revolutionising the country’s winemaking.As if all this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Miguel has managed to pen several heavyweight wine books and articles during his prolific career. His first tome, Vines and Wines, was published in 1977 and has since been translated into seven languages and run to six Spanish editions.But Torres is most proud of his second book, Spanish Wines – an Uncertain Future, which he published privately. In it, he was (and is) pro brands and vociferously critical about aspects of Spanish and European appellations. ‘I know some people think brands are dangerous. But I believe they are our future because they guarantee quality to consumers in ways appellations never can. Unless Europe develops large wine companies capable of producing quality brands, it may have a difficult time against the might of the New World,’ he warns.
One wonders what more Torres might have achieved had he taken over as company president earlier than 1991. During the 1970s and 1980s he fought a long battle with his ageing, obdurate father for control of the company. In 1982, relations were so bad that he left Vilafranca to take a refresher course in viticulture and oenology at Montpellier University. He hoped that on his return, his father would see sense and relinquish control. ‘It didn’t happen. Instead he was even more determined to continue,’ Torres says. ‘Yes, I thought about leaving, like Mondavi. But it would have split the company and hurt my family. Reluctantly, I decided to wait. It was a difficult decision, but the right one.’ By the late 1980s, his father’s health was declining and he finally began to hand over the reins to his son. Then in 1991, Torres senior died. The long apprenticeship was finally over.’ Looking back, we were products of our times, which accentuated our contrasting personalities,’ says Torres. ‘My father was an entrepreneur, autocrat and paternalist rolled into one. My father was a genius at selling, whereas I am more comfortable in the vineyard or the laboratory. I had to learn marketing and management.’
Which is why, at 50, he went to business school in Lausanne. There he proved a highly talented student and developed a keen interest in occupational psychology, of all things. But Torres can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Not only has he doubled the company’s vineyard holdings in the last 10 years, he’s also managed to double its sales in the last five. And all this while remaining a self-financed family company. So I don’t have to be Freud to work out that Torres’ relaxed and engaging ‘interview’ exterior masks a tough, confident core. It’s also no surprise that he’s a perfectionist. ‘I give 100% and expect it in return, which I know can occasionally make life difficult for people around me. However, I have learned to calm down a lot in the last few years,’ he says with a grin.
Moreover, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the wine world’s ‘good guys’, whose morality and integrity inspires loyalty among his 1,000 workers worldwide. For instance, Torres believes successful companies like his should give back more to society than taxes. His company therefore gives to a range of charitable projects, is ‘eco-friendly’ and amply rewards and motivates its employees.For example, when Torres first set up in Chile he promptly paid his new workers four times the going wage. How did he come to that figure? ‘We simply calculated the wages required to provide a healthy diet and human dignity for a family of four. The neighbours complained that we paid too much, but it wasn’t the case – as our people were more efficient and worked four times harder. Now, I’m glad to say, average wages have risen. But we still like to pay people better.’
Aged 60, Miguel remains extremely fit and healthy (he’s an exercise junkie) and has 10 more years as president at Torres. But, unlike his father, he will not continue into old age. Instead, he says he will soon start to slow down and will begin handing over power to the next generation, before retiring at the age of 70. ‘It won’t be easy for me to let go. I’m an incorrigible workaholic.’
I get the impression that this candid, humorous, likeable man has few regrets. He pays particular tribute to his family for their loyal support. His wife, brother, sister and two of his three children are all actively involved in the business.Torres also firmly believes that Spain’s time has come. ‘Right now, there is an energy and optimism among our wine producers. Every year we make better and better Spanish wines to compete on the world stage. I believe this award is a recognition of that.’ Indeed it is. But much more than that, it is a recognition of one man’s pioneering leadership, unstinting work and inordinate talent.
John Stimpfig is a contributing editor to Decanter.
DECANTER Hall of Fame
2001 Jean-Claude Rouzaud Champagne
2000 Paul Draper California
1999 Jancis Robinson MW London
1998 Angelo Gaja Piedmont
1997 Len Evans, OBE AO Australia
1996 Georg Riedel Austria
1995 Hugh Johnson London
1994 May-Eliane de
1993 Michael Broadbent London
1992 André Tchelistcheff California
1991 José Ignacio Domecq Jerez
1990 Prof Emile Peynaud Bordeaux
1989 Robert Mondavi California
1988 Max Schubert Australia
1987 Alexis Lichine Bordeaux
1986 Marchese Piero
1985 Laura and Corinne
1984 Serge Hochar Lebanon