| Kaj Stromer
I was born in Sweden but raised in the US (New Orleans, New York and New Jersey). I received my BA in Economics from Rutgers University and joined the rat race. Always a lover of wine and food, it was only a matter of time before I shifted gears and turned my hobby into my career. My wine epiphany came while travelling through Burgundy in the mid 1990s. During a tour through the cellar of a domaine in Beaune, the cellar master spoke the words that ultimately brought me to my senses. When I asked him if he enjoyed his job, he responded, "I hope to someday die in this cellar". Waiter...check please! So, after a long and mostly unfulfilling career (except for the nice paychecks and occasional travel) in banking and telecommunications, I started anew in the wine business. In 1998 I loaded up the Honda, moved to Los Angeles, and started working in the retail wine business. At WHWC, I'm responsible for the inventory and the staff since I'm both a buyer and the GM. As a buyer, my regions include the western hemisphere, Spain and anywhere else our Wine Director (Kyle) lets me dabble. As GM, I get to work with a great staff and great ownership. While my love for wine covers the world wide, my approach to wine is as an "enthusiast", not a critic. I believe that the primary role for wine is to complement food and conversation. I'm Swedish after all - without a drink or two we can be very quiet. While I've been known to knock back some of the great wines of the world, I am foremost an avid fan of great wine values. As for the career change, looking back now, it was very much the right thing to do.
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I’ve had a fascination and fondness for Spanish wines over the last 15 years or so. What’s made the journey even that much more fascinating has been watching the monumental changes that have taken place over that time. I remember being introduced to the newest offerings from Spain in the late 1990’s. You could tell that something was afoot as the quality, style and variety were just exploding.
But, while many wineries modernized their production and vineyard techniques, there were a handful of properties that resisted the change and continued to make the most profound examples of what they call traditional wine. There are a handful of top traditional wineries in Spain and two of the most important are Lopez de Heredia and CUNE, both located in Rioja.
Last year I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon at Gjelina featuring the wines of Lopez de Heredia, presented by Maria José López de Heredia herself. We tasted reds and whites as far back as 1964. If you are a fan of Spanish wines, you know that they set the bar for traditional Rioja; a tasting of their wines will bear it out. They are nothing short of magnificent.
I’ve also been a fan of their next door neighbor, CUNE for many years. But I think I’ve underestimated just how great their wines can be. A few weeks back, I attended a luncheon at Spago with Victor Urratia, owner of CUNE. Along with all the current releases, we were able to taste the Reservas from ’85 and ’79. We tasted the Imperial Gran Reserva’s from ’95, ’90, ’80 and ’76. And finally the Vina Real Gran Reservas from ’87, ’81, ’78 and ’73.
My first smell of the ’85 Reserva nearly made me laugh out loud. It was that good. My notes for the ’87 Gran Reserva read, “Tremendous. Perfect.” I think I liked that one as well. The most interesting note raised by Victor was that great Rioja matures like Bordeaux but once they reach their plateau, they stay there for much longer. Considering how the ’73 Gran Reserva showed, I’d have to agree.
Some of these back vintages will be available for sale. Supposedly, the boat comes to shore in September. But more importantly is how inexpensive (comparatively) these wines are on release. For $40 you can lay down some of the current Imperial Gran Reservas. They’ll grace your cellar for another 25+ years.
Next up, I’m having lunch at Lucques to taste the wines from Bodegas Riojanas. I have much less experience with this traditional producer but hope to have another epiphany. If you’re not collecting these traditional Riojas, you may be making a big mistake. And I’d feel bad for not having warned you. If you’ve had a great old Rioja lately, let me know about it.