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Nov 14 2017

Josep Roca, The Wine Interpreter

What follows below is merely a pale reflection of the thoughts of a "waiter" that has forever metamorphosed the relationship between wine, food and diner. Of a philosophy that has driven wine-pairing to madness. Of a demiurge that plays cosmic dice with corks…   

Text: Xavier Agulló / Club de Gourmets magazine

Photo by: El Celler de Can Roca restaurant

Maybe, Josep, some of the most extraordinary wine-pairings ever seen are those you thought up for "Somni", the unimaginable multisensorial opera of El Celler de Can Roca…

Approximations to life, like the Miraflores Pago for sherry, with a 200-year history. A hymn to birth, innocence, the sea as origin... it's served with seafood. And that drop of Valdespino Coliseo amontillado, that's like a "howl", the pain of birth…

You also interpreted death…

From the entrails of a bota bag, a stab in the throat, pain and life. A 200-year old Barbadillo palo cortado (bota bag memento), the essence of a hardened wine, of overwhelming concentration, the end of a cycle and a return to stillness... To what point is there life in a wine? What are the limits of death? In any case, this is followed by transformation, reincarnation…

You were also capable of giving a liquid form to the human condition and its slaveries. To greediness…

Yes; with a Cariñena from Capmany, a wine I personally created using the vineyards burnt during the great fire in Empordà in 2012. The vineyards, sacrificially charred to make a firewall, resulted in a smoked wine that I used as a metaphor for human avarice, for humankind as a destroyer and for nature as the generous savior. Despite the fire, the grapes gave wine. 

Your understanding of wine, then, goes way beyond a simple organoleptic experience...

Of course. Wine is life, intellectuality, dialog, convergence with nature, thought, definition of the landscape, explanation of what's human.

Of what's human?

Wines are like people, they are a reflection of winemakers: exaggerated, proud, engaging, honest, simple, aristocratic, misunderstood. And there's more: some wines are truths and others are trendy; some hide lies and others are austere, naked...

Terroir or people?

Ah, this is the crux of the matter… Is it the terrain or the interaction between man and terrain? The “terroir” can be searched for through different actions: to do or not to do. Here we have the producer in Georgia who makes wines in amphorae with the same technique since 8,000 years ago and the vintner in California who's in a hurry. All of these search for the terrain, but from very different paths.


One reaches the destination from the anthropological perspective and the other through science. The first creates through the ancestral and the other wants to make history in a country without history. Different “feelings”, different “tempos”. 

So, where do you stand?

The challenge of “ambassadors”, like me, is to define criteria for explaining all of those philosophies, because wine has more to do with philosophy than with taste.

Where the hell are you from, Josep?

(Laughter). When I was five I already drank wine from a siphon bottle... I was the one, at the Can Roca restaurant, the one that belonged to my parents, responsible for filling the wine bottles in the cellar. And that aroma impregnated me, still impregnates me...

Go on, don't stop…

When, as an adolescent, the bar at the family restaurant for me was the United Nations, a trip to each liquor's country... One detail: my favorite bar in Girona, where I'd meet up with my friends, was called The Wine Museum.

It's destiny…

When at school they'd tell me that I had to choose between Science or Humanities... I chose cooking school.


When I was 12, please understand me, on Saturdays we'd go fishing with my uncle and I'd look forward to that day to drink wine from Calonge…

I get it. Nevertheless, you consider yourself more of a waiter than a sommelier.

And I vindicate this. The same way that a chef is acknowledged, the waiter must be acknowledged. Receiving, serving, it's the paradigm of hospitality and generosity. And joy (since I was a young boy). The trade must be given the position it deserves. The dining room is a worksite where sociology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and management of emotions all come together.

Let's return to the wines, to wine-pairing. How did that come about?

When we inaugurated El Celler, we naturally created a menu and a wine list. Very few people know that, for six years (Joan was teaching at the university), I was responsible for the mise en place, for the bakery. Little by little, I'd suggest wine (my passion) for the dishes: the tartare, the paté from Campagne…And wine in the dishes themselves, right? Imprints of aromas… What do pine trees smell like? In 1998 we prepared foie–gras with roses and lychee and Gewürztraminer sorbet.

Yes, you were the first.

In creating a dish based on a wine.

And since then…

El Celler forever after was a linear performance including salty, sweet and liquid.

Then Jordi joined you.

Edible perfumes, transgressions, distillations and essences of wine.

From the academic to the singular in a mind-blowing trip.

Already in 2002, with oysters with Chablis, wine as the dish's leitmotif.

And given all of this, the cellar at El Celler de Can Roca.

It's the physical symbol of my passion for wine.

And a “trip”…

Yes, a trip: wines are tasted, smelled, listened to, felt.

Put it in figures.

60,000 bottles. 3,360 references.


It's not because we have a surplus of money; it's because we're crazy.

The idea?

Music, words, images and the sense of touch. Explaining the wine… To draw others into my world of passion and respect for wine. And to a spell cast by nature. And to history. And to culture. And to their own humanity. What's behind a bottle?

People can think that all of this is excessive, Pitu.

It's devoid of ostentation or anything like that... It's a hymn to sentiment, even to austerity. To show that there's thought and life behind a wine.

And your metaphysical interpretation…

My personality, yes. Spaces for Champagne, Räuschling, Burgundy, Priorat and Jerez. A summary of what I like the most. The clients' visit to the cellar is, however, much more than this: to understand what a wine hides; sharing; sentiment.

And afterward, its pairing with your cuisine.

From a variety of synergetic parameters: physiology; chemistry; traditions; anthropology; landscaping; psychology; emotions… The last two define my style. And then there's the saliva, which has to do with the dish's textures, in which I also intervene, together with my brothers.

And beyond that, personalization, right?

It is always paired with the dish, not with the person. But I change the pairing, depending on the persons.

But, that's impossible!

It's possible! The person is more important than the dish... To begin with, a white Salon or Cariñena?

You're crazy, Josep…

Let's take a dish: suckling pig with pomegranate (the pomegranate was an insertion of mine to be able to work the pairing –in this case, Garnacha–, because that's how we function, as a trio). Depending on the persons, of the story you fell when you see them, when knowing, when feeling: Las umbrías 2012 (Gredos); L’espectacle 2011 (Montsant); Domaine de Marcoux 2007 (Chateauneuf du Pape) or Eric Pffeferlin Pierres Chaudes (Tavel). Why? For their origin, for the feeling, for who they are, for the conversation… The person is at the heart of the pairing.


Yes, yes. When I change a wine, depending on the table or on a person, it changes the pairing entirely, because the pairing is a story told throughout the entire menu.

Does the team keep up with you?

Of course. And there's more: I've just established a new dynamic in which all of the waiters can be sommeliers for a week, to eliminate differences between waiter and sommelier (which is cooler). At El Celler, everyone can be “cool”.

How do you manage to do away with the overbearing sommelier?

I show them and observe all of the tables. And I tell them: sometimes you must take a step back and sometimes you have to be racing. I teach them to interpret whether they want to listen to you or not. And the pace: sometimes you must explain a wine before, and sometimes after. The other day a wine guru came with a lover and I told them... serve it and that's all. The human component is in charge.

Article originally published in the Club de Gourmets magazine (Spanish). Translation by Lionbridge /@ICEX.

Josep. Jordi and Joan Roca. Photo by: El Celler de Can Roca restaurant
Josep. Jordi and Joan Roca. Photo by: El Celler de Can Roca restaurant
Photo by: El Celler de Can Roca restaurant

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