"It used to be a dream:" A conversation with Chris Barnes

"It used to be a dream:" A conversation with Chris Barnes

I recently caught up with Chris Barnes, the national sales manager for José Pastor Selections, to talk about the wines coming out of Spain today. The wines that excite us — wines made by people reclaiming traditional methods, rediscovering regional styles, and rescuing vineyards and indigenous varieties. These wines are sometimes referred to as the wines of “the New Spain.” Think of producers like Envínate, Ramiro Ibañéz of Cota 45, Goyo Garcia Viadero, and Pedro Rodriguez of Guimaro. 

Chris is an incredible resource when it comes to Spanish wines, especially this subset of them. Before he linked up with José nine years ago, he was working at Chambers Street Wine in New York, advocating for many of the same wines that form Josés portfolio: wines farmed organically or biodynamically, fermented with native yeast, and treated with minimal sulfur. Not only does Chris have extensive knowledge of Spanish wine, but an understanding and appreciation of Spanish culture and history. This intersection gives him insights into how significant the wines we’re talking about, the wines imported by José Pastor, are in the context of that history.

We toss around the phrase “the New Spain” pretty lightly — not for no reason, it’s the title of a book that came out almost twenty years ago that reshaped how we think about Spanish wine — but the movement of winemakers that label refers to isn’t light. It’s heavy. It’s magnificent. Not even 50 years ago, Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator hellbent on stamping out diversity and dissent, and traditional wine along with it. For me, the granddaughter of someone whose family was forced to escape Spain during the civil war, the existence of wines that showcase Spain’s recovery from that regime and its ramifications are powerful.

Yes, it’s personal. It’s political. But that’s what wine is, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Wine isn’t something we can take out of context and dress up in cute marketing terminology. (Well, we can. Many do.) Wine has context, and when we choose to try to witness that context, we are better able to appreciate this stuff that we all enjoy so much.

This interview took place on February 10 and March 8, 2022, between Chris Barnes, Brittany Galbraith, and Sadie Williams. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sadie:  When you hear New Spain, new Spanish wines, what does that mean to you? 

Chris Barnes: The New Spain [used to mean] Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, [and] Merlot being planted throughout Catalonia and the warmer climates of Spain. The old New Spain used to be about new oak, and being trained in Bordeaux in extraction, and making the [Robert] Parker-style wine that was very prevalent in Spain.

I think the real New Spain, the new New Spain, is a reaction to that style of wine... When I first started this job, José and I used to like dream about… “What if they made orange wines in amphoras, “[or] like “What if they did this thing with this grape, or if they start using chestnut in Galicia again,” and now all those things are happening and more. Spain is being discovered all the time, and I think it's one of the only old-world countries that you can say that.

I think we're probably 10 years behind Italy, and at least 20 years behind France. But we have a different history in Spain than they do in France, for instance. I think partially why natural wine emerged in France in the 1980s, and the way it’s progressed, is because France has had more or less — they had the French Revolution and some little bumps in the road in the 19th century — but their history is very continuous history. Spain is much more fractured culturally. There are independent movements in the Basque country in Galicia, Catalonia, even in other parts of Spain.

We had, I call it, the triple whammy: Phylloxera, civil war, and then…

Sadie: Franco.

Chris: Dictatorship. Spain had 40 years of fascism, more or less, and during that time, Franco believed that Spain could be a great bulk wine country. So what happened was a lot of the indigenous wine culture of Spain vanished because there was a movement towards cooperatives during the Franco era, and large bodegas essentially were allowed to exist, right? Rioja most definitely existed during Franco era. Jerez definitely existed, Vegas Cecilia existed. But you can't name other wineries so much, maybe one in Galicia. But a lot of it was cooperatives. And so the wine culture in Spain is very it's very much behind in terms of fine wine, right?

So, what happened was Franco died, Spain became a free country. And around that time, in the late '70s, early '80s Spain became part of the EU and a lot of money came into Spain for private wineries to be built. Just so happens around this time, Robert Parker became a very prominent critic in the country. He gave I think 99 points to an unknown wine in a new denomination called Ribera del Duero and the wine was Pesquera. And so [with] the rise of Parker, what some opportunistic importers realized is that within that cooperative system, the infrastructure that was already there, [and] they could go into these cooperatives and dictate how people made wine and select wines that were very consumer-friendly and very inexpensive.

So that's kind of like how we ended up with the wine culture from Spain when Spain used to be lumped in with Australia back when I first started in the wine business, in the early 2000s.

Brittany Galbraith: Is there a stigma now against the revival of these oxidative wines and wines of this style now, with this new second wave? 

Chris: I think what the growers are trying to do now is find freshness in the character of the vineyards. Searching for that tension. I view terroirs as kind of this idea of tension, right? Tension between soils. Soil, wind, sunlight, rain. What creates wine is all the tension between all these parts, right? And I think, especially in the warmer parts of Spain, it's easy to ripen grapes during certain times of the year. But it's not easy to show ripeness with soil expression and the tension, like the actual climate itself, right? I think producers in Spain have become much more knowledgeable about what sandy soils do, what limestone does, what granite does. There are a lot more conversations about that. 

So I think there's more searching around that and I think the oxidative stuff... When I first started going to Spain, Lariano Suarez was making Rancio in his garage. And it was a topped-off Rancio wine. That's a traditional wine in Catalonia as it is in Spain, as it is in France on the other side. So I think there's still... It depends on the region. Where there's traditions around it, you're gonna see more of it. I think you're gonna see more explorations in oxidation and more exploration around flor. More wines made under flor in different parts of Spain, but I think it's really... People are searching more for that tension, the vineyard expression, and how to make a true wine of terroir. And then you're gonna see more of those kinds of experimentations. Also the market — it's tough for oxidative wine.

Sadie: When you started, were the wines in your book more classical? And was that just because you were trying to warm up the audience, or is that just because there were wines that you really wanted to carry, that you carry now, just didn't exist? 

Chris: Oh, the wines that we carry now just didn't exist. I mean, as a company, we've evolved along with Spanish wine. When we started 20 years ago, there were really three importers: It goes Classical Wines of Spain, who are more classical. They introduced Pesquera to the market and had a pretty fantastic book for the era of more classically styled Spanish wines.  And then European Cellars with Eric Solomon. 

And Jorge Ordónez, who at one time had every major producer of Spanish wine. And this is in the Parker era, when Parker was really reviewing Spain heavily. And Jorge and Robert Parker were very close, in terms of the styles of wines. And Jorge is a very charismatic personality, in that old school, macho kinda Spanish style, and like the big wines, the big high octane wines, with the big heavy bottle and the 200% new oak, that really was encouraged by the press and Jorge. 

But at the same time, he paved the way for us. If people didn't know about some of those wines, there would be no José Pastor. When we started we were very inspired by the Atlantic side. But we were doing a lot in Galicia. We were the first importers of Ribeira Sacra, and then we were the first importers of Canary Island wines. That was our claim to fame. And then the whole idea about natural wine that was in our heads, [it finally] happened. “Oh what if this wine was made in Toro,” or  “What if this kind of wine was made in Ribera del Duero,” we could see 'cause we understood that the terroir, the grapes. “What if a producer and that part of Catalonia did this thing?” Well, now it all happened. Now, it all exists. It used to be a dream.

Brittany: It's so interesting because even with this new wave of winemakers in other countries like France, you're starting to see people kind of dismiss the appellations so that they can make wines the way that they want to make them. And I think it allows for experimentation, but also resurrecting these old ways of making wine too, which is so fascinating. We were just in Colorado with our new team and tasting La Perdida's wine, and this is a producer that is using some unconventional grapes, using unconventional methods, resurrecting older methods, and kind of doing things in his own way. Do you think there'll be enough of this movement that the [appellations] will then change to something else? Do you think the little producers can change what the bigger producers have done? 

Chris: I think the bigger producers…there's so much money tied into this, into the way they do business, and capitalism sort of requires endless growth, which is problematic in my opinion. What they will try... What they may do is maybe make more organic... Maybe they'll go towards organic viticulture like a producer we work with, Goyo Garcia in Ribera del Duero.

He is one of the few people that actually has appellation for some of his wines, even though without added sulfites. He makes quite a bit of wine, but he also helps larger wineries transition to organic viticulture and shows them how to do that. He is an expert of how to work organically in that region.

Sadie: What are some of the things that if we looked back at this movement in 100 years, that we were going to say, "Wow, we're really thankful that the movement gave us this,” whether it's a rediscovered region, or a grape, or philosophy. Is there something that you think that stands out, that this movement of New Spain has given us? 

Chris: I'm very political.

Sadie: That's okay. Be political.

Chris: When you think of what fascism tries to do… It tries to develop a monolithic mentality that kills diversity. “Think like us or die.” And so many free-thinking Spanish, Spaniards were killed quite literally in the Franco era. 

And I think that's what is amazing about Spain is the creative thought, that very Mediterranean iconoclastic kind of personality came back. The real creativity and diversity…I think wine is a part of that. It's contributed a lot to the cultures and the cities and the country. I think that's what's really beautiful about natural wine is that it's a way to merge the social with the environmental and the agricultural. Especially in Catalonia — Barcelona has become this great hub of natural wine. Growers show such incredible solidarity with each other. It's not just out-and-out capitalism. When Oriol Artigas lost his entire vintage in 2020, all of his friends chipped in and made sure that he got grapes and that he could survive.

Sadie: That's incredible.

Chris: They were there for him. And that to me is more powerful, that idea of cooperation and collectivity and mutualistic kind of interactions is like bringing that back, 'cause very consciously, that those kinds of ways of living were intentionally tried to be killed.

Sadie: Do you think that Franco's dictatorship, what it did to Spain and to the people of Spain, has changed the tone of the winemakers there? And I'm thinking specifically of this story about Oriol Artigas and people coming together to help him in the harvest.

Chris: I don't know if the growers would say that.

Sadie: No? 

Chris: I don't know. I don't know. I have had this conversation with producers before, like where I've tried to sit, talk about the Franco era a little bit. And they're like, “Why do you wanna talk about this?” That kind of thing. Maybe I'm being overly sociological and projecting my own ideas. Partially why I got into Spain was being a very young lefty anti-fascist back in the nineties. So I have my own things about it, but I would say I don't think the growers think about it in such sociological terms.