It wasn't too long ago that traditional riojas and sherries were the only wines associated with Spain. And while the crazy popularity of Spanish cuisine has definitely bolstered appreciation for the country's wines in America, Katrin Naelapaa, executive director of Wines From Spain, makes it her business to ensure Spanish grapes get just as much love as their Italian and French counterparts. Naelapaa, who's been with the company since 1992, tells us how she helped build the once-fledgling industry into a $2 billion export business.
How has the perception of Spanish wines changed over the years? It's night and day compared to what it was in the early 1990s. There were only a handful of wineries actively selling their wine in the United States then. Packaging design was generally poor and the overall quality and variety was nowhere close to where it is today.
What do you think needed to be done? I felt strongly that Spain needed to elevate its image and align itself with the changing culinary landscape in major U.S. cities. Thankfully, at this time many tremendously positive changes were happening in the Spanish wine industry, so it became increasingly possible to capture the attention of the wine critics, sommeliers and the wine trade.
You work in a very male-dominated industry. What have you learned about making yourself stand out and succeed? Over the course of my tenure with Wines From Spain, women have gained so much ground in the industry that I no longer think of it as a male-dominated industry. On the winemaking side in Spain, more women are enrolled in winemaking career programs today than men, and in certain regions such as Rias Baixas, there are more female winemakers than male. On the marketing side, many women are in the top positions of their companies as well. Certainly the same could be said about the wine industry in this country.
What advice would you give to winemakers in lesser-known markets today? The U.S. wine consumer is generally curious, restless and always looking for something new. High quality wines combined with clear packaging design, a flavor profile that is approachable, and a compelling story (which so many wineries have), can go a long way in helping sell wine.
What do you think the "hot" new Spanish wine will be? Americans are becoming familiar with the indigenous Spanish grape varietals—Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albariño and Verdejo—and the names of the top regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rias Baixas. Seemingly every year, there is a new "hot" region or grape that critics and wine lovers embrace, like Priorat, Bierzo or Txakoli. Now, I think there is a lot of interest in individual parcels of land—wines produced from a single lot or vineyard that communicate the high quality and sense of place that Spanish wines offer.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1