The Grape Escape

Catalonian native brings Spain to Michigan as an importer of niche wine from family-owned vineyards, sharing the stories of the winemakers she buys from
Photographs by Cybelle Codish

When Núria Garrote-i-Esteve came to Detroit, she thought she’d only be here for two years. That was in 2004. But after falling in love with the lifestyle and the people, she decided to stay.

However, after years away from home, the only daughter of a Catalonian family longed for Spain and began to devise a way to stay deeply connected with her culture while living in Detroit. Her solution: wine.

In 2011, Garrote-i-Esteve became one of a handful of female wine importers (not to be confused with wine distributors) in the United States. She formed VinoVi & Co., and decided to focus her efforts on selling niche wine from family-owned vineyards. But that presented a challenge.

“Customers are happy to buy cheap-quality wines from Chile and France,” Garrote-i-Esteve says. “Mass-produced wines from all over the world dominate the American market.”

Her approach: Import high-quality, site-specific wines and personalize them for the consumer by attaching a story about its region and vintner.

That strategy has proven to be a success, and in December, photographer Cybelle Codish and I hopped on a plane to Barcelona to learn firsthand about the group of trailblazing Spanish winemakers who inspire Garrote-i-Esteve’s stories.

After a long flight, Garrote-i-Esteve picked us up at the airport. We arrived late, but Garrote-i-Esteve insisted on taking us to a favorite Barcelona haunt called Quimet & Quimet for delicious tapas and wine before getting a tour of beautiful Barcelona by night.

A massive bullet-shaped skyscraper, Torre Agbar, lit by thousands of yellow, blue, pink, and red lights, jets up above the skyline. The city is full of narrow, winding streets and architecture from all eras, including work by the genius architect Antoni Gaudí, whose work looks like a fairy tale come to life.

Garrote-i-Esteve tells us that some neighborhoods here date back to the Roman age.

Our late-night tour led to laughter, and more wine on our hotel terrace. “Get some rest,” Garrote-i-Esteve said. “We’ll be leaving nice and early.”

It was 2 in the morning.

When Garrote-i-Esteve came to get us, I felt dehydrated and jet-lagged — and maybe just a tad hungover. Why couldn’t this be an afternoon drive?

But Spain is sunny in the winter, and the rays felt good hitting my skin as we hopped into Garrote-i-Esteve’s tiny car.

Our first stop was 45 minutes outside Barcelona to a region that’s called Penedès. Here we met cava maker Raimon Badell of the winery Celler Masia Can Tutusaus.

Badell and Garrote-i-Esteve hugged their hellos and began to ask about each other’s kids.

The 41-year-old Badell is untraditionally handsome. His face shows thick lashes and deep crow’s feet from working in the sun. His eyes smile when he talks.

Badell’s family has been in the wine business since 1729, but between him and his three siblings, he is the only one left who wants to continue working in the family tradition.

Badell and Garrote-i-Esteve share a deep appreciation of one another’s craft.

“Finding someone like Núria to sell your wine is like finding a gallery owner who understands your paintings and sells them with enthusiasm,” Badell says.

For Garrote-i-Esteve, Badell is a passionate artist. “He’s committed to his art form — making wine by traditions that are dying in Spain,” she says. “He’s a purist; he makes wine the way it was made in the 1950s and ’60s … no pesticides.”

On every trip, Garrote-i-Esteve stops in to see him. “It’s a way of keeping up with his evolution as a winemaker,” she says. “I’m not just selling wine, I’m selling him.”

Garrote-i-Esteve has been importing Badell’s sparkling wine called Valldolina Cava Reserva for six years. Cava is to Spain what Champagne is to France. The wine is her best-seller. “It’s balanced and fresh,” she says. “The mountainous soil and microclimate is unique to Penedès and produces … world-class, sparkling wine.”

After an incredible late lunch of botifarra and mongetes (grilled pork sausage and white beans) in the family’s 300-year-old villa, we say our goodbyes.

I tell Badell I want to write about wine and immigration. In an age of global anti-immigrant rhetoric, Spain’s wine industry still relies heavily on immigrant labor. “I’ll be here ready to talk, I can talk about wine all day,” he says. “Wine is my life.”

On our drive to the next vineyard I ask Garrote-i-Esteve that if selling niche wine is so hard why did she start doing this in the first place?

“I had to stay connected with my Catalonian culture,” she says. Much of the wine Garrote-i-Esteve sells is from the region where she grew up. “We drink wine almost every day in Spain; we celebrate life with wine,” she says. “Wine is a unique art form that encourages socializing and cultural conversations [and] I wanted to bring that to Michigan, my new home.”

As we pull into the mountain region of Priorat, we are greeted in the town square by winemaker Blai Ferré. We follow behind him in our car to get to the vineyards. The sun is starting to set and as we get closer to what used to be a barn turned weekend farmhouse, we see an utterly breathtaking terrain of steep terraces and folded hills. At that moment, I understand why Garrote-i-Esteve tries to get home to Spain as often as she can.

Priorat is considered one of the most progressive winemaking regions in Spain. After nearly being wiped out by a bug infestation in the late 1800s, and then a policy enacted by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco that forced farmers to grow food instead of grapes, Priorat struggled to survive as a wine-growing region by the mid-1970s.

“A producer by the name of René Barbier formed a gang of passionate viticulturists, winemakers, and advocates to create several site-specific wines in Priorat,” writes Madeline Puckette, author of Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine.

The winemakers pooled their knowledge, and by the late 1990s, the Priorat region was internationally recognized for outstanding wines.

Around that time, Ferré decided to buy a small patch of land and make his own wine under the tutelage of Alvaro Palacios — considered one of the leading winemakers in the world.

Two things struck me about Ferré: the way he dotes lovingly on his family and the texture of his hands. They’re rugged and rough from working the vines and cultivating his hand-picked, hand-sorted organic harvest.

“The terraces on the sides of mountains make the cultivation laborious,” Ferré says. “One kilo of grapes comes at a huge cost.

“I have to be there working.”

On one of many wine trips to Spain before creating her VinoVi & Co. label and becoming an importer, Garrote-i-Esteve was at a bar in Barcelona and was served a wine made by Ferré. She loved it so much she contacted him right away.

“He wasn’t looking for an exporter,” says Garrote-i-Esteve. “His wine has status.”

Ferré crafts a variety of small-batch wines including 2,000 bottles of Ona Priorat, a flavorful blend of garnatxa, syrah, carinyena, and a splash of cabernet sauvignon.

Since their first meeting, Garrote-i-Esteve has purchased seven vintages and now buys half of the wine Ferré makes per year. He says his life’s work is to make small batches of high-quality wine rather than large productions.

“If I made more, I would have to enter a world I don’t like, the world of wine theater where there are events I don’t want to be at and dinners with people I don’t want to eat with,” Ferré says. “I prefer to work the land.”

Garrote-i-Esteve, on the other hand, loves the world of wine. The elitism doesn’t bother her; it’s a space where she comes alive. Wine events are how Garrote-i-Esteve came to meet two of her import clients and now friends, Irene Alemany and Laurent Corrio, makers of Principia Mathematica and Pas Curtei.

In 2010 Garrote-i-Esteve organized a master wine tasting in Barcelona. A friend brought Alemany. “As soon as we began talking, I could tell she knew wine,” says Alemany of Garrote-i-Esteve.

The two bonded over drinks and spoke about working in a male-dominated field and of having to have a full-time job in order to support their commitment to el arte del vino. Both married men who know an extraordinary amount about wine.

If there was ever a match made in wine heaven, it’s Alemany and Corrio. They met at the University of Burgundy in Dijon while studying viticulture. Alemany is from Spain and Corrio is French, and they worked together in wineries in Sonoma and Burgundy. Before settling into the rolling hills of the Penedès region to start their own label, they made a commitment to a core principle: to respect the land so deeply that they would not make changes to the soil or the vines.

They began with a study of the soil. “It’s important to understand what is in the earth that will produce the grapes,” Corrio says.

In order to make a distinct wine without a commercial profile, they would have to buck practices used by other winemakers.

“Ninety-nine percent of wineries use yeast created in laboratories; we use yeast from the vineyards,” says Alemany. “We won’t put pesticides on their vines or soil, and we don’t pull weeds; bees feed off of those weeds.”

It’s the third day into our trip and I’ve been enjoying a consistent flow of exemplary wine. But Principia Mathematica, the white wine made by Alemany i Corrio, gives me the greatest pause. It’s not just a yummy kind of delicious; it tasted like no other I’ve ever had. Principia Mathematica bursts with purity and freshness as it goes down your throat. The wine is so crisp and full of flavor that I closed my eyes like it was a beautiful breeze I hoped to soak in. The grape used to make Principia Mathematica is edible, giving the wine incredible taste and finish, unlike inedible grapes used to make merlot or cabernet.

It wasn’t just my novice palate. Principia Mathematica has been hailed by critics and made dozens of “best of” lists. It is also on the wine list of El Celler de Can Roca, a restaurant in Catalunya, Spain, ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2015 by the British magazine Restaurant.

As we left Barcelona, I reflect on Garrote-i-Esteve and how she has become one of a handful of female wine importers, and this small band of virtuoso wine farmers who work the fields and show the unglamorous side of making world-class, regionally specific wines. Their intense love of family and place and their commitment to their craft gave me a bit of envy. And it made me wonder if I was committed to anything in my life as much as they are committed to making wine.

Back in Detroit at a recent wine tasting at The Royce, I was able to see Garrote-i-Esteve in action. When she talks about wine, she turns into a different person; she’s focused and speaks softly, but with great intention.

“Spain has the greatest number of vines, more than any other country in the world,” she begins. “The study of cultivating grapes goes so far back that it was introduced by the Phoenicians 1,000 years before Christ.”

Before any wine is tasted, Garrote-i-Esteve pulls out a map and shows her guests the wine-producing regions in Spain. She explains the diverse agriculture, microclimates, and altitude and why each terrain produces a distinct wine. Her tastings aren’t as much about aromas or flavors, but about the history of wine in Spain and the stories of the winemakers she buys from.

Wine novice Gabriel Guerrero was there to taste that day. He says “to observe Garrote-i-Esteve discuss her wine can only be described as an intimate experience.

“You are witnessing a love affair between Garrote-i-Esteve and her beloved ‘liquid geography.’ ”

As for Garrote-i-Esteve, the exchange with the consumer is everything.

“Detroit is now my home,” she says. “Being part of the Spanish wine world allows me to bring Spain to Michigan.”

The great artist Wassily Kandinsky once said: “The artist must have something to say.”

The wines Garrote-i-Esteve imports from her select vintners/artists certainly do.