The Journey of Natural Wine with Fabio Bartolomei

Fabio Bartolomei (@vinosambiz) is the winemaker behind Vinos Ambiz in the Gredos region of Spain, just outside of Madrid. I’m super excited for this episode because it was my first in-person interview. Fabio and I met up while I was in Madrid last weekend and he took me to the only natural wine shop in the city called Wine Attack, then the next day we drove out to his winery about an hour northwest of Madrid in a small town called El Tiemblo.

He took me around two of his vineyards, which are both planted with 40-year-old Garnacha bush vines. Then we went to the winery in the center of the town, which is an old co-op winery that he and another winemaker, Daniel Ramos, took over about four years ago. Fabio let me taste a bunch of his wines, both in bottle and out of the barrel, tank, and amphorae. It was a wonderful experience and I encourage you to go visit Fabio at his winery the next time you are in Madrid.

In this episode, Fabio and I talk about his story, how we started making wine, and the journey of how he got to where he is now. We also talk about the development of natural wine, not only the winemaking aspects of it, but also the culture around it, how consumers perceive it, and if there will ever be a clear definition and the affects that could have on producers like himself.

Before we get into the show, have you subscribed to the podcast yet and left us a review? If not, please do so. It helps other passionate wine lovers like you find it! It’s also super simple to do. Just go on to your podcasting app on your phone, find the podcast and click subscribe. There will be another button to leave a review as well. Thanks for doing that! I really appreciate it!


Transcript of the interview

Fabio: My name is Fabio Bartolomei which is an Italian name, as you can see. I was born in Scotland from Italian parents who emigrated there before I was born, so I was brought up in Scotland. And I went to school there and studied there but unfortunately, I studied Accountancy and Economics, which I didn’t really like. So, I managed to get a degree in the end, which is a piece of paper, but I’ve never worked in the field at all.

I eventually, by chance, fell into wine making. I emigrated from Scotland myself and ended up in Spain and I ended up, by chance, making wine. That’s what I do now.

Chappy: So why wine? What got you into that?

F: Again, it was a bit by chance. I’ve always liked wine because being an Italian family, we always had wine for meals. And my father, in the village in Italy, actually made wine himself, not commercially. He made a hundred couple liters just for himself and just for consumption.

When I was little, I remember, I have these nostalgic memories of working in the vineyard, helping pick the grapes and crush the grapes in a tub with feet, which is very nostalgic now that I am older. I remember thinking also when I was little, I wanted to play football with my pals in the village but I had to do this. And I am very glad I did that because the memories are nice.

C: Formative experience.

F: Yeah, nice.

So here, living in Madrid, working as a translator, I was bored. I was fed up. Life was good and kind of boring after a while. So I felt this need to do something, like a hobby or something interesting.

I was actually a member of a farmer’s market coop at that time, for vegetables. And through this coop, I got to know this vineyard owner who’s kind of old. He was retired. I proposed to let me work his vineyards, to make wine, as a hobby. So he did. He let me have a small corner of the vineyard because he obviously didn’t trust me to deal with the whole vineyard. Until the first year, he helped me. He taught me everything, to prune, to all sorts of other stuff you need to know. Until the first year as a hobby, I made 200 bottles of Argant and I just enjoyed the experience so much that the next year, I did it again. That wine was beautiful as well. It was surprising! So, me and my friends and family, we drank most of it ourselves.

And so as the years went by, he eventually let me have the whole vineyard which produced about 2000 kilos of Airen and about a thousand kilos of Temperanillo. So I ended up making about 3000 to 4000 boxes of wine which I could have sold casually through the coop, to farmer market groups. One thing just grew into another. It was just a great experience, from pruning to looking after vineyards to actually making the wine itself.

C: So was the first vineyard in Madrid or just outside Madrid.

F: It was just outside Madrid in a village called Catalonia which is on the road to Valencia, it’s to the southeast of Madrid, about 50 kilometers. I was there for about ten years and then about four years ago, I moved to Sierra de Grados region, where I am now, which is awesome! It’s a total wine country. From where I was before, there were a few vineyards but it was kind of flat like almost La Mancha. There wasn’t much going on, wine-wise. There were very few vineyards, whereas here, in Grados, it’s a historical wine country. Garnacha is the insignia grape here, the red grape. And the Albillo, which is the white grape. And apart from those two main ones, there are a lot of small grape varieties which are not vinified. The locales don’t use them, which I do.

C: So people are listing, currently sitting in your winery, this place is massive! Tell us the story of how you came to here.

F: So I was down in Carvania, I didn’t have a proper winery. Last year, I was sharing an actual winery. I had a corner of the winery, which wasn’t really optimal. Before that was even worse. I was working of a house, of a cave, one of these house cave type things which were excavated into the side of the mountain. So I had two proper rooms that look like a hobbit house. I had two rooms but deep in the mountain, it wasn’t very convenient. It didn’t have access for the road, for a start. For the last year, I was looking, seeking a place and by chance, I was looking with another winemaker called Daniel Ramos, who’s from Grados and he’s in the same kind of situation. So, we both decided to live together to see if we can share the costs. So we lived around and saw quite a few places but none very good.

By sure chance, one day, we we’re driving through El Tiemblo and we saw the cooperative winery which we knew was abandoned and had gone bankrupt about two years before that. So we decided just to chance it and see if it is possible. So we looked up the board of directors and we talked to them about it and they were willing to rent it. It had been abandoned for about two years so we had to fix up. We signed the contract with them and we became responsible for fixing it because the electricity had been cut off, water had been cut off, the roof is broken. We were responsible for fixing up, which we did. We’ve been here for four years now and its awesome.

C: Yeah, it’s great! This place is big too! How many of big concrete tanks are there?

F: There’s about 70 or 80 big concrete tanks, each one 16,000 liters so the bodegas got the capacity of over million liters. Each tank is 16,000 liters and my total production dozen 16,000 liters. I make 10,000 liters of ten different wines. So, I don’t really use the tanks. I use them for storage, for putting stuff inside.

C: But the potential is there...

F: The potential is there. It’s totally underutilized at the moment, I have to admit.

C: So, do you think that can those memories of making wine with your dad in Italy influences your wine-making style now?

F: No, I don’t think so because I was too young at that time. I don’t know what I was doing. I’m stomping grapes and desperate to play football. But it’s got a kind of nostalgic thing about it. So that was part why I started and another part is boredom because here I was, living in Madrid. Its great city to live in but once you’ve done it for many years, you’re looking for something else. So it was a combination of nostalgia and boredom. That’s how I got into it.

C: So when you were first kind of searching for a place to make wine, were you exploring wine bars around Madrid to see what was out there or you just…?

F: No, no. Like I said, it was just a hobby. It was totally personal. It was for me and my friends and family. And then later as the owner let me have the whole vineyard through the coop, I was selling a bit more, informally, through groups, consumption groups. I had no idea what was actually out there in the wine world.

And what happened was, one day, I got this phone call from an American gentleman who said that, “Who wants to come out to see my winery and taste my wine.”

I thought that, “Oh, this is strange.” But still, I thought that he was doing wine tourism. I took him out and took him to the vineyard, to my winery, which is actually an old cow shed, an awful disgusting place. The very thought makes me cringe and shiver to think about it. So, we were in this cow shed, he was tasting my wine and he said, “Wow! This is nice wine. How much have you got of this?”

And I looked into the tank and it was about 500 liters. And he said, “Okay. I’m going to buy that.”

And I said, “What?! You’re going to buy by the whole lot. The all of it? Or just a bottle or two?”

And he said, “No, no. I’m going to take the whole lot.”

And so it turns out that he wasn’t a tourist. He was actually an importer and called Jose Pastor and he specializes in natural wines from Spain. So, starting from that chance meeting, I started selling it to him each year and I took on more vineyards , different styles of wine. Because of that, I actually went online and found out what natural wine was. I had no idea I had been making it for seven years, just for myself and the coop. And I discovered that there was a whole world of natural wine, a whole history of it, starting from the Gang of Four in Bordeaux in the 1980s. And like New York, London, and Tokyo, all of these places, all these producers, you know. Making this type of wine was a total revelation to me. Based on that, I cleaned up my act a bit and started living for a proper winery and being a bit more correct.

C: So what wine are we drinking now?

F: This is a 2016 El Vio Real which is one of the insignia grapes here in Grados. It’s an orange wine because it’s got two days of skin maceration made in stainless steel. It’s not bottled yet. I just took this off the tank.

C: It’s delicious. This and the one that we had last night, El Vio, really remind me of the oxidativeness. Really reminds me of Jura Arbois and Chardonnays.

F: The oxidative part is kind of similar because I don’t seal my tanks thematically so there is contact with oxygen. And I do it on purpose. It’s not a fault or got it wrong. So I think we call it oxidative as opposed to oxidized. I do that on purpose because that is the style.

C: It’s really nice. So obviously, all your wines are natural but within the wine world, there is so much debate around natural wine. Like, what is natural wine? There is no definition.

F: There is no official definition, as yet. There is no legislation. So everyone, anyone, can legitimately have an opinion of what and what is not. Each opinion is more or less valid. It’s like Dodge City, there’s no law here. If someone says something about natural wine, you have to find out. Do a bit of diligence to find out about this person. What does he know? What right does he have to say this?

So some people, especially mainstream journalists, mainstream audience, they really don’t know. They’ve tasted a few natural wines, didn’t like them and then categorized the whole natural wine category as horrible or as faulty or tastes like cider or tastes like vinegar. It’s just one of these generalizations that people make. It’s like me saying for example, “I tasted the wine from county and it was horrible. All Italian wines are rubbish. I’ve tasted four of them and they’re all crap.” It’s a silly generalization.

The natural wine world is a bit like Dodge City because there’s everything. You can have all sorts of stuff, even of course, you got faulty ones, obviously. You got faulty French wines from Bordeaux, don’t you? Maybe not many but also, in the natural wine world that’s been going on since the 1980s. So the bad wine makers, the faulty wine makers, have been weeded out by the market already. Its very, very difficult to find a faulty natural wine. You just have to go to a big fair like the ones in London, France or Italy and find a faulty wine there. There’s hundreds and hundreds of wines that are not faulty. There might be a strange tasting because there’s a wider range of tastes that are permissible or allowable in the natural wine world, whereas in the conventional wines, the criteria is strict. If it’s out of the ballpark, it’s faulty. You can’t have that. We’re talking about brands, products, commodities, and if it’s out of the criteria then, it’s projected as faulty when it’s not.

C: Do you think, I guess for people who haven’t gotten into natural wine, who are your favorite producers and people you look up into natural wine?

F: Strangely enough, I don’t really get to taste a lot of natural wines because I’m stuck either in the vineyard or in the winery. On very limited occasions, I go to fair of course, it’s a good opportunity to take one would think. But I am usually so busy at the fair behind my table. It’s very difficult. Usually, I just get to taste my neighbors who happen to be beside me. I couldn’t, I don’t really want to mention any name in particular because I like in general, I’ve got liberal, open-minded taste. I don’t mind even drinking a very vinegary wine once in a while. It’s acceptable to me. I wouldn’t drink a whole bottle of it because I don’t like it or a bretty wine. It’s okay, it’s interesting to have a glass of it but I wouldn’t drink a whole bottle of it. Whereas some people do, some people like to.

Education is depending on occasion. When we’re caught in the summer and you’re tired and you’re really thirsty, the acidic wine is what you need, whereas if you’re in a formal dinner then, you wouldn’t want one of those for a formal dinner.

C: Yeah, it is really interesting how, like you said earlier, there is that range of what is acceptable within natural wine. A normal wine you would never use, it is essentially crap to the market. Nobody would buy it.

F: It will be unsaleable because it is a commodity and supermarkets don’t want variations.

So there’s that, the restricted range of acceptable values of acidity. Apart from these standard criteria, there’s also taste criteria which are not accepted in the conventional world because you can get natural wines that taste of strange things that are pleasant but are unknown.

So, a normal consumer of wine would be kind of shocked, “What is this?!”. They would be kind of shocked. There’s a lot of resistance because it’s human nature. Conservative human nature, you know what you like, you like what you know. And not everyone is willing to explore. They’re not willing to go and buy there. I never try to force my natural wine down one anyone’s throats. I just say it’s here and try it. Ask me any questions about it and I’ll answer it but you know, I’m not out there to preach the good word and say everyone should drink natural wine, no. People like what they like. That’s the way it is.

C: And it’s interesting, from a market standpoint that natural wine is big in New York, London, and San Francisco, in L.A., but in some other major cities like Madrid, there’s not anybody there selling it. We went to one bar and shop last night. And that’s it, in Madrid.

F: Pretty much! It’s kind of surprising actually. Madrid is a big city. It’s in Spain. You think that the people would be more open to trying and knowing. But like you said, there’s only one natural wine bar in Madrid which is called Wine Attack.

In Barcelona, there are five places. Of course Paris, Rome, London, there’s 20, 50, or even a hundred.

C: It’s really interesting. And I think, natural wine is catching on. I think the general consumers started to notice it which is really good.

F: it’s always going to be a niche, in my opinion. I don’t think the future of everyone drinking natural wine doesn’t exist. It’s like a fantasy. It’s always going to have a niche because people don’t care that much about wine like cheese or sausages. As long as they’re cheap and cheerful, then that’s fine for most people. But within the niche of people who are wine lovers, food lovers, who want and are looking for quality, looking for interest, looking for more than just a commodity, then yeah, the niche will be there. And I think that is growing a little bit, the growing tendency of this minority, like organic food and quality food. And I think the wine world is lagging behind the food world because I think the nature of the wine world is kind of conservative, slower to catch on. But I think it’s not a fad, a fashion that’s going to disappear in a couple of years because it has been growing in the last 20-30 years and it’s not getting any smaller. It’s going to be a niche.

C: I’ve spoken to a few people who are working in the wine industry, in L.A. for example. And they’ve said that it’s really interesting to talk to general consumers. They go to farmer’s market every week and they buy their organic produce, may be they go to whole foods or whatever and they buy their organic milk, eggs and everything else. But when it comes to wine, they’re buying $5-6 bottles of wine, a bottle of chemicals. And it’s just the economy that people just don’t understand what they’re buying when it comes to wine.

F: I think that’s right partly because the wine world is conservative. It hasn’t been promoted. Most natural wine producers are small. They don’t have a budget for promoting really, so they can’t do anything on that side.

C: Do you think natural wine could be done at a larger scale?

F: Yeah, but it’s very difficult because natural wine is an artisan hands-on product. If you do too much, I think you’re going to lose it. You’re going to lose the essence of natural wine. It’s a personal hands-on artisan thing and if you do too much, you going to lose control. I think it can be done but it has to be thought out carefully because otherwise, it’s just going to turn into a small industry. I think it can be done but I don’t have the answers yet. I’m working on it.

C: I think it would be interesting over the next five to ten years, I think we are now, to see natural wine being produced as a brand, for a brand standpoint.

F: Yeah, I think that will happen because the industry catching on total marketing sound byte. So I think eventually, legislation will be passed to define what natural wine is in the same way bio-dynamic wines are defined, organic wines are defined. And it’s going to be a loose definition to enable the industry to be able to sell the wine as natural wine. I think that’s what’s going to happen eventually. Basically, it’s just a question of words because we natural wine producers at the moment are going to have a name for what we do. We won’t be allowed to call it natural wine anymore once it has been legislated because we will get associated with the industry’s bandwagon jumpers. We have to find a new name for doing what we do.

C: It will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

F: Yeah, that’s already movements in France and Italy to start defining what natural wine is. I hope it gets defined properly where I can fit in and other small producers like myself can fit in comfortably. But if it gets defined as a catch hole that allows the industry to sell natural wine as well then, it’ll be sad.

C: Let’s talk about terroir. There are Beaujolais, Burgundy and Bordeaux, they have a specific terroir, defined by that style of wine. Does Grados have something like that?

F: Not really. I think it used to a hundred years ago because they had a very good wine called Vino Precioso, which means precious wine or priceless wine. It a sweet wine made from avio that was very much appreciated in the royal family and the aristocrats, this expensive kind of wine. But no one makes that anymore, may be one or two producers. So, it’s gone but it’s got tradition and history. But the more recent tradition is cooperative wineries. They make millions of liters of table wine with garnacha.

It doesn’t really have a defined terroir taste for quality wines but Granados does have everything else. It’s got the geology, it’s got the soil which is granite with bits of slate here and there. It’s got the temperature ranges, massive temperature ranges from day to night, from winter to summer. It’s got rivers. It’s got north facing, south facing, it’s high altitudes, low altitudes. The physical part of what terroir is all there. Its got everything. The one thing lacks is that wine makers and along history of people tasting wine, talking about it, writing about it, defining the abstract part of what terroir is. As a region, it has everything going for it except the lack of wine makers. There’s only about 15-20 small producers here. Whereas in the similar-sized region, let’s say Barolo, Cantera or Bruxelles, any defined terroir region, there’s thousands of them, thousands of small wine makers. Each village has hundreds or tens, dozens, whereas here, there are probably 15-20 villages in the Grados area and only one winemaker in each one. The lack of the cultural abstract part or terroir is missing.

C: Has wine always been an aspect of the Grados culture?

F: Yes, absolutely. But, not wine. It’s always been cooperative. The grape growers, they grow grapes. They don’t make wine. What they do is they sell the grapes to the coops. And what the coops what? The coops want quantity, lots of sugar, so they can make alcohol so they can reduce it and make table wine.

So, all the grape growers actually make their own wine for their own consumption but, what do they do? They sell all their grapes to the coop except maybe for a hundred couple kilos which they keep for themselves but because the coop pays by quantity and by sugar level, the grapes that they can keep, they’re massively late harvested so they can be paid more by the degree of alcohol. The wines they are making, they are all 15°, 16°, 17° alcohol, the residual sugar is the kind of wines the locals drink because that’s what they make. And they make it because the coops pay according to quantity and according to degree of sugar.

C: That is interesting but going back, like several hundred years, because I think part of what wine in France and wine in Italy, they’re synonymous with daily culture. For Spain, it doesn’t associate as much.

F: Spain’s a Mediterranean country, just like Italy, it has an immense wine culture. The only difference I think is the cooperatives because Spain is 90% cooperatives whereas in Italy and France, there are cooperatives also but there’s also the culture of small producers producing quality wine which in Spain didn’t exist until Rioja got invented by the French and so why the French moved. Rioja is the only, the first region, that started quality wine in Spain, as far as I know. I’m not very apt with my history. I hope no one takes me off of this too much! Basically, I think that’s correct.

C: Yeah, I was just reading about that in Decanter. It was talking about how France saved Spanish Rioja.

F: The French saved themselves. Fula Sierra attacked France first until their vineyards got devastated first. So, they came down to Rioja because it hadn’t been affected yet by Fula Sierra. Thanks to the French culture of making wine, Rioja started. Of course, Fula Sierra started to hit there and it became a European wide disaster.

C: Do you think that a winemaker style can be considered in a terroir or maybe a micro-terroir?

F: Yeah, that’s part of what terroir is. Apart from the geology and the climate, and the great variety and everything else, you have to consider the style of the winemaker himself. What happens is that in regions that haven’t found terroir, the winemakers make it in the same style like a virtuous circle. You know what you’re aiming for. That’s what you do. You try and make it better and you have a direction you go in.

Whereas here in Grados, we don’t actually have a defined direction to go in so like the small 15 wine producers are all making wine in different styles. So, who’s to say which one’s going to become in 50 years or in a hundred years when, hopefully, Grados terroir will be defined. Who’s to say which one is going to be. We really do make styles and despite the geology being the same, the grape variety is the same, the climate is more or less the same, the hand of the winemaker is huge. It’s small part in terroir but huge influence in how fine a wine is.

C: Do you think more winemakers will start to come to Grados as like yourself and Daniel Ramos? All these other young winemakers, they’re starting to get popularity.

F: Yes, I hope so. I hope that they will come. I really don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball but I really hope so because it’s the only thing that will make Grados a great wine region because as I said before, its got everything already, except for the wine maker.

C: It’s interesting. And the wine’s really good!

F: It’s got good potential. It’s got huge potential because the climate’s beautiful, the grape varieties are here already. This is perfect. Everything’s perfect. The only thing that’s missing is the winemaker.

C: It’s sad. We’ve been talking about how a lot of people on the vineyards are reaching retirement age and you know, they’re 70-80, reaching 90, they can’t handle vineyards anymore. Their kids don’t want to deal with it because they’re working steady and they just want to get rid of it until they’re being uprooted and being sold off and just getting destroyed. What do you think could help eradicate that?

F: To stop that tendency is difficult. There is actually a group of winemakers who are in the process of making a deal, Appalachian, here in Grados. That’s going to be a big help as well because with the help of the coops that are existing. I know I was speaking a bit negatively about the coops before but the coops actually do a good job because they’re buying grapes, maybe not paying as much. But they’re buying the grapes and keeping the vineyards alive and going. So, if they make a deal with Appalachian then, that’ll be an enormous help because they can give the grape growers the opportunity to sell the grapes and hopefully increase the quality. That’s one thing that can be of great help.

C: I feel that there is a lot of potential here. Its just growing and more and more people are just going to want to come here, going to come here.

F: I actually wrote a post on my blog, just a couple of weeks ago about Grados as a wine region. And there was this movement, as I said, of creating the deal, but I don’t see lots of winemakers coming here. There is maybe one or two.

 There’s more written about it than what’s actually happening around, is the reality. I don’t see winemakers knocking at my door asking, “Hey, where can I find vineyards? Can I share your space?” No one’s ever come to that so, it might be a case of one of these memes propagated, “Oh, Grados is good.” But on the ground, I don’t see winemakers coming.

C: That’s interesting.

F: I wish they would.

C: And I think, shops and bars like Wine Attack are going to help with the marketing. Not only from a standpoint of people who live in Madrid. Their curiosity is going to peak and they might come here to visit but I feel like it’s a time thing. It just takes time.

F: Yes, you can’t build a terroir region in a couple of years. It took Burgundy centuries. Someone has started so maybe, this is the start. This is the prehistory of Grados as a region. I hope so.

C: We’re almost at time. So, what are you feeling grateful lately? I feel that its good to reflect on what you do because you get so bogged down on the day-to-day. It’s just so good to reflect.

F: I’m just grateful to lady luck for having found this awesome winery. It’s just got awesome space. Just the total opposite of what I’ve been doing before. So I’m grateful for that, for having found it. If you focus and you look for something, I believe you’ll get it. So, I’m grateful for that and for being here in this awesome region with all these grapes and this entire climate, variety, and it’s potential. I’m really glad to be here.

C: Yeah, we just went through some vineyards and its amazing how different each vineyard is and it’s just absolutely gorgeous too!

Where can people connect with you online and buy your wines as well?

F: On my blog, I’ve got my details there. I’m on Twitter. I’m on Facebook. I’m on Instagram. My blog, vinosambis.blogspot.com.

C: What is one wine, other than your own, that you’ve been excited about lately?

F: In Wine Attack, any wine you have in Wine Attack is going to be good. I don’t like to mention any name because it would be degrading the other ones which are just as good.

C: Wine Attack is definitely a good place to good.

F: It’s the only place to go in Madrid, actually. If you want to try natural wine, I’ve think Antonio said that he’s got 250 references there.

C: And those are from all over the world?

F: They’re mostly from Spain and he’s got a few from France, a few from Austria, a few from Solini and a few from Italy. But I think its 80% Spanish wines, all the regions all over Spain.