This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Wine importer Eric Solomon (left) admits that the story of how he met his wife, winemaker Daphne Glorian (below) of Clos Erasmus in Priorat, 'sounds like something off a Hallmark card'. He admits happily, 'Short of being a Mormon, I will never have such an intimate relationship with a supplier.'
Although they are both now based in his native North Carolina, their wine stories began in London and Paris respectively. The son of clinical psychologists, he came to London in the mid 1970s as a rock drummer and some-time pupil of the London Symphony Orchestra percussionist. To make ends meet during his five years in Europe he worked in a London wine bar, Ruby's, whose owners let him taste the wine samples left by the sales reps and generally encouraged him to learn. As a result, he and I were probably doing a Wine & Spirit Education Trust course at exactly the same time, although I feel sure I would have remembered a rangy, impossibly youthful-looking American drummer.
He did the harvest in Burgundy, did a stage in Bordeaux, visited Tuscany and went back to the US more confident of making his mark in wine than music. He ended up in his late twenties the youngest-ever vice president of Heublein, an enormous drinks company then in its prime and busy building up its fine-wine division. Solomon had a ball. At Heublein's expense he toured the vineyards of Europe and educated his palate further. His job was to find off-beat wines such as Val Joanis in the Lubéron and Château Capion in the now-famous Languedoc village of Aniane. 'It's in what I call the golden triangle', he told me enthusiastically during the couple's recent return trip to London, 'just up the road from Mas de Daumas Gassac and Grange des Pères'.
With the money saved while travelling Europe on Heublein's dollar, he started his own company, European Cellars, in 1989 and has made a successful living sniffing out unusual wines for America's burgeoning army of open-minded wine lovers ever since. 'I had no employees for the first three years. The company wasn't just lean; it was anorexic. I used to do all the travelling myself so when I got back from a trip to my little office in Chelsea, there'd be a wall of hundreds of samples waiting for me. Although I'd specialised until then in French wines, in the early 1990s I tasted this Clos Erasmus from Priorat in Catalunya that just stopped me in my tracks. It gave me goose bumps. I fired off a telex - telex! - to Daphne, who had sent it in. She'd forgotten she'd sent it and had gone off travelling but eventually she realised I wanted to import her entire first vintage, the 1990 - all 100 cases.'
Even today annual production of Clos Erasmus is only about 3,000 cases a year but its maker and its American importer did finally meet each other, several years after they began their commercial relationship, and by 1997 they were married, after ceremonies at Château Capion and the Ethical Culture Society in Brooklyn. Today, Solomon is better known for his Spanish than for his French portfolio.
Daphne Glorian is Swiss German by birth ('I like to make lists of what needs to be done each day, and in Spain I'm happy if I manage a quarter of it'). She trained as a lawyer in Paris and in her early twenties was hired by the late British Master of Wine Kit Stevens to look after his sixth-floor walk-up office in Paris while he went off to New Zealand to get married. 'I didn't know anything about wine then so I was really thrown in at the deep end', she told me.
In the late 1980s she went to a wine fair and met René Barbier and Álvaro Palacios, both sons of established Spanish winemaking families keen to do their own thing. 'There was something crazy about René', she says dreamily now. 'It was all peace and love and naked in the vineyards. He wanted a commune really. He saw there were all these great grapes in Priorat, a historic wine region in the hinterland of Tarragona that was virtually unknown then, that were all being sold to the local co-op. So he was approaching friends like Álvaro and it ended up with five of us able to buy a small piece of land for not much.'
The rest really is wine history. The original investors were René Barbier at Clos Mogador, Daphne, who called her company Clos i Terrasses and her top wine Clos Erasmus, Costers del Siurana (Clos de l'Obac), Mas Martinet (Clos Martinet) and Álvaro Palacios, who went on to produce a wine called L'Ermita from his steepest, rockiest vineyards. From a standing start L'Ermita commanded some of the highest wine prices in Spain. The current, 2011 vintage is retailing at an average price of about £600 a bottle - which makes Daphne's Clos Erasmus 2010, unavailable in the UK unfortunately, look a relative snip at not much more than £100 a bottle. And her Laurel 2011, into which all the fruit that would have gone into Clos Erasmus had she thought the vintage better, look like a positive bargain.
I asked her how she felt about the stratospheric pricing of Álvaro Palacios's wine; it doesn't seem to go hand in hand with a commune in the vineyards. 'Álvaro is very marketing-minded', she corrected me, 'and he wanted to make a noise. He had had a difficult time with his family in Rioja and wanted to put the spotlight on Priorat as soon as possible. It was the German distributor who came up with the idea of making a very expensive wine.' Nowadays peace has broken out in the Palacios family with highly successful operations not just at the old base of Palacios Remondo in Rioja Baja with which Álvaro is once more involved but also, through various brothers and nephews, in Bierzo and Valdeorras in north-west Spain. But in the 1990s Spain was bubbling up an affluent wine culture and the timing was perfect for the emergence of trophy wines from a recuperated region that were very different from gentle, soft rioja long-aged in old American oak. Priorat is a super-concentrated wine typically made in new French barrels from seriously ancient Grenache and Carignan vines. It was then one of the few top Spanish reds in which Tempranillo has no hand.
Daphne still spends about four months a year in Priorat making her Clos Erasmus and second label Laurel, a reference to the meaning of her Greek first name. It contains some foreign interlopers, mainly Syrah and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon she can't quite bring herself to pull out. Isn't it difficult to make wine from across an ocean? She depends heavily on a lab in the southern Rhône that she trusts for absolute accuracy and, importantly, confidentiality. This, neatly, is the region that set her husband and European Cellars on a course for commercial success.
Solomon confided that his 'big discoveries' in the early day were Domaines de la Janasse and de Marcoux in Châteauneuf-du-Pape before that appellation commanded the prices it does today. He claims Janasse's special Chaupin bottling as his creation - another famous, and expensive, wine dependent on ancient Grenache vines.
SOME WORTHWHILE PRIORATS
Priorat today is suffering something of an identity crisis with wines available at a wide range of concentrations and price points. All stockists below are in London unless otherwise stated. Online retailer Christopher Keiller (finewineservices.co.uk) has one of the best ranges of Priorat in the UK, including those of Christopher Canaan's Clos Figueras.
Mas Martinet, Martinet Bru 2010
£12.50 in bond Justerini & Brooks
Álvaro Palacios, Camins del Priorat 2012
£13.95 The Wine Society (the region's bargain, and Palacios is making more and more of it at the expense of volumes of his iconic but fiendishly priced L'Ermita)
Torres, Salmos 2011
Clos i Terrasses, Laurel 2011
£27.50 Hacienda Co, £27.90 bottleapostle.co.uk, £29.99 R&H Fine Wines of Liverpool, £31 Theatre of Wine, £138 per 6 in bond Marc Fine Wines (This is a relative bargain since it contains all the wine that would have gone into Clos Erasmus if the grapes had not ripened so rapidly.)
Familia Nin-Ortiz, Selma de Nin white 2009
£44.10 Hedonism Wines
Familia Nin-Ortiz, Nit de Nin 2011
£50 The Sampler, £54.70 Hedonism Wines, £54.95 Vagabond Wines, £55 Hacienda Co
Clos i Terrasses, Clos Erasmus 2010 (widely available in the US but not, alas, the UK*) and 2001
£322.80 Hedonism Wines
* William King of Uckfield recommends Brits to buy it from 'Decantalo (a Barcelona online merchant) for €127. Decantalo provides a very strong range and excellent prices - it's cheaper to buy the Wine Society's Albarino from Decantalo than from The WS, freight included.'