Although 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 label.

Veritas: How 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 a calling.

V: With 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.

V: Who 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.

V: Are 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.

V: Do 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, especially Tempranillo.

V: Beyond 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.

V: Speaking 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 changes. Inevitably, 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.

V: Along 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.

V: Is 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.

V: Do 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.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 2000