JUAN ANTONIO LO BELLO, WINE EDUCATOR AND EXPERIENCE CREATOR
I have never actually met Juan, in person that is. Our first meeting was a phone interview for an online workshop project that had nothing to do with wine. However, during the course of our conversation wine came up and I couldn’t help myself, I just had to ask. And I am glad I followed my instinct, because he shared his passion for that precious liquid he describes as the connecting tissue of human experiences.
I like to spend time with the people I interview; visiting their work spaces, asking lots of questions and documenting the experience. It wasn’t possible for me to do that this time, but as soon as international travel is ok, I’ll be heading to Alsace for some wine tasting ;-)
Here is to Juan and his wine truth. Salud!
What’s your first memory of wine?
My first memory of wine is playing outside in a stinky pile of pomace with my brother Diego at my grandfather’s vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, where I spent the first six years of my life.
I vividly recall the rotten smell of the wine pomace (made from the discarded skins, seeds and stalks) fermenting and drying in the sun. The smell of composting pomace is the smell of decay, earthy, slightly sour, and vinegary, but for a six year old these were great mountains to climb, and I thought this was great fun!
Now, fast forward to when I was a bit older and I wanted nothing to do with the wine business, because when you are young it’s just not cool to do what your family does. So, I didn’t really go into wine until much later in life.
Where did your professional career with wine start?
Well, of course being from Mendoza, one of the biggest wine producers in the world, I decided to start my professional wine career in Oxford, England ;-)
It was a sunny morning when I decided to walk into a wine shop in the old part of town asking for a job. At the time I wasn't happy where I was working, it was my first year in the UK and I didn't have a lot of money, and I had decided I needed a change. It was an old shop with a warm atmosphere and floor to ceiling wood shelves covered in wine bottles. I remember opening a red wood door, entering the store and asking in my broken English if they had a job for me. Turns out the woman I asked was the manager of the store and she said, “Yes, we might actually have something for you.”
My English was not very good, and I didn’t understand 100 percent what she was saying, but somehow we managed to communicate. She asked me a little bit about my background and I told her I was from Mendoza, Argentina, but I didn’t have any previous professional wine experience. I must have conveyed my enthusiasm about getting the job in a very approachable way, because she made me an offer right then and there. I just wanted to hug her! I remember the happiness I felt as I was cycling back to my home after I got the job. I was so excited.
It was a pivotal moment, and although at the time I didn’t know just how life altering this moment was going to be, I had the feeling that this was something big. Apart from discovering wine professionally, that moment led to a lot of positive things in my life.
What made that moment so special for you?
I feel like that moment was a window that had always been there for me, I just had to take the chance. I didn’t even know if they had any jobs available, but I guess whatever I transmitted in just a few minutes of conversation, was enough, and that's amazing. I felt like someone was taking a chance on me as a human being. I didn't need to bring my CV, I didn’t have to do any pre-interview and go through a lot of paperwork. It was just a very natural fluid moment; Here I am and this is what I want. Not having a CV and going through a whole process is important because it means that someone is valuing you in your “nakedness”. You are able to communicate something and in an instant a bond is formed, and that’s a very human interaction. The combination of a serendipitous moment and a human connection is just beautiful.That moment changed my life because it opened up many things in my life. I mean, I met my wife in that shop!
To get that moment, I needed to find the courage to take a chance, and open that door without knowing if it’s going to open. There was no sign saying “we need someone.” It was pure drive and a little bit of luck. This moment represents crossing a threshold and going into something new. I pushed myself out of the comfort zone and something amazing happened. So, you think to yourself, “This can happen again, all you have to do is open another door.”
Tell about some of the amazing wines you’ve tasted over the years. Anyone stand out?
I have tasted many wines. But sometimes, there’s something almost magical that happens when you taste something that creates a memory. This happens when there is a sense of harmony of all the structural parts of wine; when the fruit concentration, acidity, and tannins feel light and elegant and the wine feels both delicate and strong. When in the process of letting the wine inside the palate it feels light and persistent at the same time.
I remember I was teaching a group of five students, and we were doing a wine tasting. This was a wine from Sancerre, a Sauvignon Blanc from Loire. A wine so subtle and so fragile that it felt like it could disappear any moment, but at the same time it had the ability to remain in your palate for a long time. It’s that sort of ambivalence that I find exquisite! As I was tasting the wine, an image of a Japanese ballerina came to mind, and I feel that was the perfect visual to capture that sort of elegance and agility, that sort of bouncing delicacy.
Now, in that particular setting, you are expected to use a very descriptive way of talking about the wine. The WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) has something called the systematic approach to tasting, where we go about describing wine in a very analytical way, and that’s what we were supposed to do. But when the time came to share our tasting conclusions, I felt like the elegance of this wine deserved a different language... I just couldn’t deliver my tasting notes in a very systematic and analytical way. So I said “This wine is so elegant, it’s like a beautiful Japanese ballerina.”
What is it about that combination of characteristics that makes that wine so special?
It’s inspiring when you find that sort of fragility and vulnerability in a wine, while at the same time there is a concentration of fruit that lingers. That wine was exceptional in that sense, but not because it was robust, it was exceptional in its delicacy. I don't like wines that are in your face and very obvious. I really admire wines that have a sort of delicacy of flavor and intensity, with very integrated acidity and tannins. It's something that feels so elegant. It’s like if you ever had kobe beef. The moment you put it in your palate it simply melts. It's a savoriness that melts in a very delicate way.
While tasting that wine I realized that such a delicate balance in a wine is so rare that when it happens, it’s precious! It made me emotional because it's so rare and so difficult to achieve. I think about the amount of work and the amount of steps that wine had to go through from the moment it was harvested, vinnified, bottled and shipped, to the amount of time it sat in the winery, in the cellars of the distributor, and the shelves of the wine shop. So many things can go wrong for that wine not to arrive at that level of excellence.The wine itself could have flaws, maybe the vintage was not the best because it was a very warm year, or it could have been stored poorly, or handled badly in the winery. It’s short of a miracle when everything aligns to deliver such and exceptional experience.
What are the elements that need to align in order to create that moment of truth?
There are three energies that need to collide. There’s the energy of nature that produces the grapes, the energy of the human beings that harvested, vinnified and created this wine, and the energy of the person consuming the wine. When I was tasting that sauvignon blanc, I was also part of creating that moment. I could have been in a different mindset and I might have not been able to recognize the nuances of that wine or feel it the way I did. I guarantee you, that of the five people that were tasting that same wine that day, that wine didn't mean the same to all of us. So, my energy that’s part of this equation. The way I was perceiving things that day and my permeability to absorb and interpret the moment is what creates that lasting memory.
So many variables needed to collide and join forces, that it’s almost a serendipitous moment when they all align. When everything goes right and you can taste it, it’s like the wine is arriving at its moment of truth.
What does wine really mean to you?
When I am drinking that kind of wine, I feel connected, connected to something that is outside of me. It's almost like when you're standing in front of a painting in a museum and you feel emotional because you feel a connection with what the painter is trying to express and you relate. That’s what it was like when I was drinking that wine, I felt connected to the creation process and the history of that wine. I can see and appreciate what went into creating this wine, and I relate to that creation. Wine represents experiences of human connection. In those particular moments, wine represents a collection of decisions that helped the wine arrive at that moment of truth, and in those moments wine represents life.
Juan Antonio Lo Bello
Wine Educator and Experience Creator
Photography by Pramod Prasanth and Alexander Preobrajenski for Studio Clash