Juan Luis Pérez de Eulate: "One can’t understand that if they force you to close down, they don't offer you any aid"
Interview with the wine distributor and owner of La Vinoteca, in Palma de Mallorca
Javier Luengo (@JavierGuiaPenin)
Today we would like to bring you the testimony of one of Spain's leading wine distributors. He is Juan Luis Pérez de Eulate, a man from Pamplona who in 1992 decided to leave the IT sector to devote himself to his passion: wine. He started with a shop, La Vinoteca, where he focused on selling by means of spreading wine culture, something not very common at the time. As he recalls, he started working in wine with the sale of the first vintage of Priorat, that of 1989. He started his project at a time when Spain was enjoying a wave of new and interesting projects such as Artadi, Fillaboa, Agustí Torelló, and it was these very producers who encouraged him to start distributing.
Perhaps his name is not famous in the rest of Spain and that is because he decided to focus his work in Mallorca, where he runs an elegant wine shop and serves the island's restaurants and hotels. If he had been a distributor in Madrid or Barcelona, he would surely be one of the biggest distributors in Spain today. He has a quiet and calm character and has always known how to be at the right time, being a pioneer in the venture of producing wine as a distributor, something that many others have followed in his wake.
Q.- How has wine distribution changed in recent years?
A.- A lot, although I only have the experience here in Mallorca. At the time it was more popular to buy in quantity and set prices than to have wine lists with a wider range of references and styles of wine. We arrived at the right time because just when we started distribution we began to sell by the bottle. This was in 1994 and it was practically unheard of. We had a great acceptance because we went from restaurants that had a large stock but only one or two references in order to get a good price, to a situation where we kept the stock ourselves and supplied them daily in Palma. This was a radical change. The change in the world of wine since the 1990s has also been spectacular. Here in Mallorca, for example, at that time there were not even 10 wineries and now there are 100. Before, wineries were businesses in every aspect, large facilities, and now they have become a way of life, and not so much brick and structure, but more heart and soul.
“We are here to help restaurants and the best way to help is with training and education”
Q.- Is the old distribution dead?
A.- We are here, in a way, to help restaurants and the best way to help is with training and education. At the end of the day we are a link between the winery and the restaurant and what we do is to provide information to their workers, training them so that they can sell these products with quality and expertise. The sales approach has changed completely. When I started, people were looking to buy large quantities at a lower price, and now they are buying a customised service, quality advice, and what's more, the service is practically immediate. This makes it much easier to rotate wine, to change wine lists, to have a wide range of wines. The biggest change since then has been the training and the ability to promote wines that we have today.
Q.- Are the big digital platforms endangering traditional wine distribution?
A.- I think what we have to do is try to focus more and more on customised sales. The relationship with a restaurant is based on much more than price and speed of delivery. Price and speed are very important, yes, but there are many, many factors that have an influence, such as the understanding of the restaurant to be able to advise them, the training of the staff, as well as the training and information that we give to the restaurant on each product. These are elements and services that disappear in these large platforms.
Q.- The pandemic must have been a blow to distribution, where have you been focusing your efforts?
A.- With the restaurant closures, part of our business has come to a standstill, so we have had to focus more on in-store and online sales, which was the only way forward. We know what the restaurant industry is enduring. We ourselves had been completely closed for a month and a half, until the 2nd of March, when the terraces were opened to 50% of their capacity. However, half of the restaurants or more do not have terraces, which means they are still closed.
Q.- Have you noticed an upturn in sales to the general public?
A.- Of course, there wasn't much left here. If people can't go to restaurants, if they can't go out because there´s a curfew, if the terraces of the restaurants close at 6 p.m. and up until now they have been closed, then yes, there is an upturn in retail sales. People are consuming more and more and taking food and wine home.
“People are more open to trying new things, and there is also support for local produce”
Q.- Now that there are fewer tourists and consumption is more local, what consumption trends have changed?
A.- With people consuming wine at home and having to select wines in shops or on the web, people are more open to trying new things, and there is also support for local produce, both from the customers who demand it and from us, who recommend and encourage it. In this way we are supporting all the wineries we have here on the island that are also suffering, like everyone else, from the lack of tourism we have.
Q.- What wines do tourists look for on the island?
A.- What tourists look for on the island is Mallorcan wine, in the same way that if we go to Sicily we look for Sicilian wine. Here in Mallorca, better and better wines are being produced and when tourists come and taste them, they really like them and continue to taste them throughout their stay.
Q.- Is the message of Spanish wine easy for a tourist to assimilate?
A.- There have been many things that should have been done much earlier, starting with the DOs (appellations of origin), since all the wine made before them seemed to be acceptable. There has been little clarity, the DOs have not been restructured as they should have been. Although they have now started in areas such as Priorat and Bierzo, there has really been a lack of control and, above all, misinformation and lack of thoroughness in many DOs.
Q.- What has the pandemic meant for distribution, how were the first few months of confinement on an island so devoted to tourism?
A.- It was a real disconcerting experience, like being on a roller coaster. Every day you had a different feeling, at times you felt you couldn't breathe and at other times you were relieved because you thought it was finally going to be sorted out. As you didn't know anything, what at first seemed like it was going to be short was very long, and what seemed was going to be very long with the de-escalation was very brief. Here in Mallorca, you can imagine, the airport was closed, all the catering was closed... When the catering opened, the airport was not open yet. It has been a disaster, especially for the restaurants. At least we have been able to open the shop, but there are restaurants here that haven't opened since March. The hospitality industry is very badly affected. You can imagine the dimension if 16 million tourists come every year and this late 2020 I don't think we reached 3 million. Mallorca is an island equipped to absorb all these tourists and suddenly you are left with nothing, along with the businesses that are closing and without those tourists... The restaurant industry is suffering a lot.
Q.- And distribution, have any distributors had to close?
A.- Fortunately not. All the ones we know are holding up under this strong pressure.
“What a restaurant has to do is provide meals, take-away is another business”
Q.- Have the hospitality and distribution sectors united to make their voices heard?
A.- I don't know about associations as I don't belong to any of them. But in terms of networking, yes. We have talked to restaurants and we have seen ways of trying to cooperate, of looking for formulas... The thing is that reinventing oneself in formats such as take-away in the case of restaurants is not the best solution either. It is clear that we have to look for alternatives, but what a restaurant has to do is provide meals, take-away is another business.
Q.- What aid do you expect from the sector to cover all the losses you have already suffered?
A.- The restaurants have complied with all the regulations. I have no idea what health regulations have to be applied, I trust what the health experts say. One can't understand that if they force you to close down, they don't offer you any aid. It is incomprehensible that restaurants that have been forced to close have had no or very little support and have had to continue to pay for everything. Unfortunately, in other countries they are providing help and here in Spain things are a bit up in the air, because sometimes the aid is a loan to be paid back and that complicates things.
Q.- Is Easter being written off?
A.- Completely. There will not be much tourism here this Easter, that's for sure. We are currently working to salvage the Summer.
“I have seen that there are many things that can be enhanced both in retail and in wholesale”
Q.- Is there anything positive to take from the pandemic?
A.- Yes, I think there are positive things out of so many negative ones. Having the time to think is great. Even having the time to not think, to relax, to read, I think the mind is much more receptive to other things this way. Having so much time also allows you to analyse all the stages of your distribution or your retail shop. As a result, you are finally able to tackle many things that you have never had time to think about, or that you have thought about but haven't had time to develop. During this time, I have seen that there are many things that can be enhanced both in retail and in wholesale, an infinite number of small details that make you improve in quality or that grant you potential exposure. All of this has been very good. We have also been able to discard things that you had continued with because you hadn't had time to think them through, when they were not only not contributing, but they were also weighing you down because you didn't have time to think about other things.
Q.- Our last interviewee, chef Dani García left you a question, if you like cooking, which sherry wine would you cook with?
A.- I love olorosos, they are fantastic wines. Luckily, in this confinement I have had time to enjoy Jerez. One of the things that I have found enjoyed from March to May, when we opened the shop and were locked down, was that the aperitif we had was always with a sherry wine. We have tasted an endless number of things that we have enjoyed very much. The world of Jerez always captures your imagination, but you rarely have the opportunity to have an aperitif with a different Jerez sherry wine practically every day. Among the pleasant memories I have of this pandemic, one of them is the aperitif we used to have.