Ferran Centelles is one of those people who have wine in their DNA. He’s passionate about it, and that passion comes through in every response. He speaks well of all those who have set a standard for him along the way, primarily from his time at El Bulli. Perseverance, a gift for people, and a service vocation are some of the terms he most identifies with.
What was your first contact with wine?
My first memory of it is my grandfathers’ wine. My grandfather Tino had some vineyards in Castelló, planted with a hybrid they called “señorito.” He used to take the grapes to the town cooperative. Those vines were included in the grubbing-up plan proposed by the EU; we don’t have them anymore. My other grandfather, Sotero, always had some wine on the table; he mixed it with soda and would drink it in a short, sturdy glass at every meal.
Tell us how you ended up at El Bulli…
When I got there, elBulli was already “elBulli,” a shrine of gastronomy. Three years earlier, during my vocational training, the Catalan teacher had us comment on a text called “What do they cook at elBulli?” I didn’t understand much. Then, at the CETT School of Hospitality, I got a place through an internship agreement with the restaurant: Three of us students could spend the summer there. It was a very intense, exciting year. We were young and wanting to learn everything. We grew up and learned a lot, we got faster and more accurate in the dining room… and even to this day.
What’s it been like to work alongside a genius like Ferran Adrià?
It’s clear that Ferran is a genius, but apart from his creative talent, which is extraordinary, he also has this capacity for work and for effort, to be the first to arrive and the last to leave, to keep pressing forward and wanting more. He’s a demanding person, and I guess part of his success lies in that passionate quest for excellence.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from him?
From Ferran, you learn not to be afraid, that the outcome is a consequence of the effort, that you have to work day by day, like ants, without stopping. That it has to happen every day, no matter what, every day, with no excuses. Tomorrow is for improving, but today it has to happen.
By Ferran’s side was Juli Soler. Was he also important to you?
Fundamental. An absolute genius who I learned a lot from. He was a gastronomic father and he made me change my way of seeing and behaving in the restaurant dining room and also in life. I must say that the list of geniuses from elBulli doesn’t end there: Lluís Garcia, Lluís Biosca, David Seijas, Xus González, and a handful of other people I had the honor of sharing many hours with.
When your time at El Bulli ended, you got a call from Jancis Robinson – another gold standard of the wine world. What’s it like to work with her and what have you learned?
It’s another dream come true. What wine student hasn’t spent hours and hours poring over her books? You learn a lot from Jancis’ entire team: accuracy, reliability in the texts, that when it comes to defining a wine, sometimes “less is more.” It’s allowed me to visit many wine regions and do very extensive reports. She’s also a demanding person, and not only her but also Julia Harding MW, who is her right-hand woman. It’s a very strong team and, on a personal level, it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. Whenever I can, I try to do blind tastings and give the wines their time. I try to be as objective as possible in some way when assessing a wine.
What can you tell us about the wine Bullipedia? What’s it been like to put together this work with Ferran Adrià?
With Ferran and with an incredible and diverse team. Some wonderful people have taken part in putting it together, such as the scientist Rubén López Cortés, the humanist and sommelier Bruno Tannino, the journalist and sommelier Sílvia Culell, to name a few. We’ve also had help from some notable people with impeccable résumés, such as Pedro Ballesteros MW, Antonio Palacios, Fernando Martínez de Toda, and David Rubert Boher. I think everyone’s doing a great job; it’s a work we hope will become a benchmark and that will help new generations to be better professionals. I think we should all be a little proud of it; it’s a joint effort, for everyone. It’s amazing that Ferran, elBullifoundation with support from Vila Viniteca have “gifted” us this opportunity and this material to the whole world of wine.
Tell us what the fourth volume will have in it.
It will talk about the figure of the sommelier and it will be more up to date and groundbreaking thanks to applying the Sapiens method to a discipline, sommelier, that will be enriched with the more multifaceted Bullipedia perspective. In this new volume, we’ll also be joined by nine of the world’s best sommeliers, such as “Pitu” Roca, Arvid Rosengren, and Enrico Bernardo. What more could we ask for?
What are the qualities you think a good sommelier must have?
We’ve divided the book into eight main activities that a sommelier is responsible for in a restaurant. For four of them, it’s very important to have a deep understanding of wine. For example, it’s impossible to make a sincere recommendation without understanding the bottle you have in your hands. However, there are four that have little or nothing to do with wine.
Let me explain. I prefer a sommelier who’s a very good host, who treats the customers with respect and tact, who knows how to work out which wine is right for each occasion, over a sommelier who’s very wise but lacking in the other aspects. It’s precisely the sommelier’s abilities and qualities that have less to do with the orthodox understanding of the subject that are of the most interest to me.
So, what characteristics should they have?
They have to have a certain perceptive talent, they have to know how to taste, but most importantly, they have to have empathy and a way with words. Also, they have to be pretty on the ball to be able to handle the pace and activity during service.
How do you learn to be a good sommelier?
To be a good sommelier, you have to be transparent and a good communicator; you have to speak with certainty and humility in equal measures. What a nice word: humility. It comes from humus, which means “ground.” Humility is having your feet on the ground, knowing how to recognize that the sommelier’s main duty is to make sure that others have a nice time, that the sommelier isn’t the main event, and that the customer is in the middle of the board in the gastronomic game. Sommeliers need practice, experience, and training to be able to excel at the professional level. But you can’t just do a course (although that too); it’s about ongoing training, being curious, tasting, doing refresher courses, and tasting some more.
Do you know how many wines you’ve tasted?
I have no idea; for Jancis Robinson, I taste and assess around 700 per year, but that’s just part of what I end up tasting.
Do you remember the wine that impressed you most and why?
For now, the only wine that I’ve given a 20/20, the highest score from the website www.jancisrobinson.com, was the 1964 Fondillón from Bodegas Brotons. A vintage Monastrell Fondillón, a wine that isn’t fortified, but since its alcohol content is above 16%, it can age for decades in a fairly oxidative way. The result is spectacular: toasted, deep, elemental, and with an exceptional integration of the warm sensations from the alcohol. Truly impressive.
What does wine mean to you? And gastronomy? Is it possible to talk about one without the other?
Gastronomy is the art of eating and drinking. You do gastronomy for nourishment, we agree with that, but, more importantly, you do gastronomy for sensory pleasure, to get excited, and to have an experience beyond the food. Wine is implicit in gastronomy because for over 8,000 years, since civilizations have existed, it’s been a social and gastronomic drink, a drink for pleasure. You can say that it’s a drink that nourishes the spirit.
What is the best pairing you’ve ever done?
The “Albarizas” that came from the inspired mind of Albert Adrià. I have great admiration for Albert; he’s a groundbreaking, very, very creative chef. His book Los postres de elBulli (“The Desserts of elBulli”) changed the rules of the game in sweet cuisine. His book Natura was also a real work of art of maximum sensitivity. Besides, he’s one of a kind as a creator of gastronomic concepts and thanks to him, Barcelona can be considered one of the world’s best gastronomic capitals. This concept arose from the artistic side of Albert and the quick thinking of David Seijas, with whom I shared many years of work at elBulli. The Albarizas dish imitated a sherry wine; it was “land” made from yogurt and cookie, with cacao and other ingredients like coconut. It was paired with a very old cream sherry. A dish that took you to that land, an “integral pairing” as Pitu Roca calls them.
What is the status of wine in our country? How do you see the future?
In terms of quality, we’re at an excellent level, and I say this with total conviction. But promotion and the vision we project to the outside is another thing. I think that we have a lot of opportunities, that we should move beyond our borders with help from our chefs, and that we should work with promotion strategies more at country level, more cross-cutting strategies. The future is promising, but we have to work on promotion. I like to see companies leading the innovation sector, doing research. Through research, we’ll be able to move forward and cope with future challenges such as climate change or production pressure from other competitor countries.
Do you think that in recent years, there’s been growing interest in the world of wine? There are more and more people who understand it, who like it, who do tastings…
Definitely! And the best news is the small increase in consumption that’s happened in recent years, after a long period of decline or stability. Wine, in general, is no longer a food product and is now a quality, gastronomic product. We’re drinking less, but we’re drinking better, and I like that.
What would you say to young people who are starting a career in the wine industry now?
I’d tell them to take an interest in science and art, not to leave general culture aside, that wine is richer if it is complemented with other knowledge. That with culture, we think better and we can fight cognitive bias, which can play tricks on us sometimes.
What do you mean?
I mean that in wine, as in politics or sports, we tend to think that our truth is the best, that if we like a wine then everyone must like it. With more culture, there’s better pleasure. Science also provides a deep and truthful perspective; science today is the closest thing to truth or to reality.
Tell us your plans for the short term…
To keep working very hard on Bullipedia, dedicating the energy to it that it deserves. It’s a project that will be really good for the entire country and for future generations. Also, to continue with the articles for Jancis and doing some classes. I’m having a really good time on a professional level, learning a lot and enjoying myself. Hopefully, I can keep this up for a few more years.
A little taste
The best time for having a glass of wine.
After work, that moment when things quiet down and your head is clear.
“Si lo que quieres es vivir cien años, no pruebes los licores del placer…” (“If you want to live 100 years, don’t try the liquors of pleasure”), which Sabina would say.
Somewhere you’d get lost.
What do you do in your spare time?
Padel, basketball, and a meal here and there always with a good bottle and conversation.
One flaw and one virtue.
Is it necessary to think things over and over so many times? This is the flaw. The virtue… I like to make people feel good; I guess that’s part of the service vocation.
What did you want to be when you were little? And now that you’re grown up?
I wanted to be a chef; I’m from the Le Petit chef generation. As a grown-up? I’d never dared to dream of doing what I do, so I don’t have any other ambition, if I may say that.