superstar sommeliers are somewhat of a rarity in this
country, few would dispute that Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S.
easily makes the cut. With a background degree in viticulture
and oenology from the Davis campus of the University
of California, Emmanuel is one of only five candidates
ever to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam on
his first attempt in 1989. Winner of numerous accolades,
including the 1989 California Restaurant Writers Association "Sommelier
of the Year" award, Kemiji is recognized and respected
by his peers as one of the leading lights in the wine
community. Emmanuel was formerly director of wine and
spirits for The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, whose restaurant,
The Dining Room, is consistently rated among the city's
finest. Since last fall, he has been devoting his full
efforts to producing his own wine under the Miura Vineyards
did you get started on your remarkable career?
Kemiji: A little bit of blood and a
little bit of luck. I grew up in Madrid, where I had
an uncle who was a big wine aficionado. Even after I
moved back to the States, we remained very close, and
I used to visit him during the summer. In 1979, when
I was a sophomore in college, I recall him guiding me
through a tasting of old Riojas mostly from '64 and '70.
I was particularly fascinated by the history of the vineyards,
and by the different philosophies of the winemakers who
tried to make statements with their wine. Well, by a
remarkable coincidence, I was then attending UC Davis,
so when I returned to school in the fall, I knew I had
your background in Spanish wines, it must be very gratifying
to see what's happening in Spain?
K: I think Spain is doing some of the most exciting
work out there right now. Just before going to Armagnac, last
month - where I enjoyed some great time with Pierre and Nicolas
Laberdolive - I spent a week in Ribera del Duero, Toro and La
Rioja. I visited some of the new estates there and was amazed
by the work going on, especially at places like Abadia Retuerta,
where the famous French oenologist, Pascal Delbeck, has set up
one of the world's most sophisticated winemaking facilities.
else is generating the most excitement in Spain now?
K: Well, the standouts would have to
include Telmo Rodriguez, Alvaro Palacios, and Alejandro
Fernandez; and a new guy, Fernando Remirez de Ganuza,
who is producing unbelievable Rioja in a much newer style
out of a spectacular showcase facility. But there really
are a lot of young guys out there doing great work. And
the new stuff they're producing is quite amazing.
these young Turks departing much from the traditional Spanish
winemaking so esteemed by your uncle?
K: The techniques that they are adopting are
definitely non-traditional. Two major changes have been dramatically
reduced yields and the use of far less new oak, which, in any
event, tends increasingly to be French and not American. The
winemaking facilities, themselves, resemble more closely French
than either Spanish or Italian facilities. Of course, this could
be the influence of the French consultants, like Pascal Delbeck
at Abadia Retuerta. In any event, the Spaniards recognize that
they need to compete in a global market, and that the old-style,
oxidized, overly wooded wines just won't work any longer.
you see any retreat from Tempranillo?
K: Fortunately, no. Well, of course,
Vega-Sicilia pioneered the use of other varietals, and
Abadia Retuerta uses quite a bit of Cabernet and other
non-traditional varietals. Otherwise, however, Tempranillo
continues to be the dominant grape of choice in La Rioja.
And, even now, as the cutting edge winemakers are moving
into Toro, they're planting Tempranillo and other traditional
varietals. It's an interesting contrast with the Italians,
who are changing not only their winemaking techniques
but also their cépage. In Italy, they're tearing
out their mature, even old-vine Sangiovese; in Spain,
they're planting new acreage with the traditional grapes,
Spain, who is impressing you most in the Old World?
K: What immediately comes to my mind,
in terms of wines I personally most enjoy, are Emmanuel
Rouget in Burgundy and Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux.
of Cheval Blanc, do you fear that the acquisitions there
and at d'Yquem are going to affect quality?
K: Acquisitions always make an impact.
Probably in the short term, there won't be any significant
however, it's hard to believe that the bean counters won't prevail
over the grape growers. A conflict will develop between short-term
profit and high standards, for example, when the maître
de chai wants to declassify a vintage and the gérant,
who is a marketing guy from Louis Vuitton, becomes apoplectic.
Ultimately, I think, the outcome will be all too predictable.
the same lines, we often hear the fear expressed that the
bean counters are leading the trend toward the New "International
Style" red wines: deeply colored, highly extracted,
fruit forward. Do you agree that this trend threatens to
obscure the distinctive geographic characteristics of wine?
K: Absolutely. When we do blind tasting of Cabernets
from all around the world, it's getting harder to distinguish
Bordeaux, from California, from Australia and, recently, from
Spain. It's certainly getting a lot easier to be embarrassed.
Even more troublesome to me, however, than the stylistic convergence,
is the trend toward a standardization of varietals. I am more
concerned that regional grapes of ancient and honorable lineage
are being replaced by the Gang of Three: Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot and Chardonnay. I particularly see that problem in Tuscany
where the regional identity is under assault. The place should
be dominated by Sangiovese, but it's being superceded, at the
very top echelon, by Cabernet. This process really tends to depreciate
wine. First, from an aesthetic sense in that the distinctive
regional qualities disappear. And, secondly, because as the regional
differences blur, the varietal wines become, in effect, commodities
as to which the governing difference will be price.
this part of the trend away from the subtle pleasures of
fully mature wine?
K: Absolutely. I was at a tasting yesterday
at which each of the participants was to bring a bottle of his
favorite old California wine. Some were 10 years old, some were
40 years old. Most people preferred the younger stuff even when,
by any objective standard, the older ones were superior. We have
become so habituated to drinking young wines that when we do
have an opportunity at older wines, we have lost the ability
to appreciate them. Tragically, too many people lack the capacity
to understand and appreciate the characteristics and relative
merits of mature wine.
you regard part of the role of the sommelier as helping
people discover those tastes?
K: I certainly think the role of a sommelier
includes helping people understand the differences in wine as
it matures. On the other hand, as a general rule, older vintages
are just not available to the average restaurant patron. Whether
by way of cause or consequence, therefore, most people are going
to drink younger wines. Too few will ever appreciate the virtues
of older vintages.