Uruguayan Sommelier Charlie Arturaola was picked as Wine and Spirits Communicator of the Year in 2012 and stars in wine film El Camino del Vino among other TV appearances. He’s renowned for his bubbly personality and for having one of the top palates in the industry.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
I used to see a wine taster! I feel like the Robin Hood of wine these days. My mission until the day I die is that I need to bring better quality wine to young palates to open their senses and find out that you don’t need to spend $200 on a wine or buy a Grand Cru to say it’s a good wine. There’s a lot of good wine out there for $5 to $10.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
My childhood was hard. My wife tells me not to say that… but my mother died very young. I didn’t end up in an orphanage, my father was such a great person in terms of trying to keep us together that he sent me to my Aunt’s house, which was very rigid and regimented!
My sister did a PHD in Biology and I got really into fermentation and bacteria, I was always into photosynthesis as a kid. My grandmother was great in the garden. I would escape from my Aunt to go with my grandmother to plant the garden! We’d plant tomatoes, parsley, lemon trees… you name it!
I suffered for not having my mother, but it pays back because after hours of British school, I learnt my languages and French. I lived in a very multi-cultural neighbourhood in Uruguay.
It was very limited in terms of coming from working class in the very hard times of Uruguay in the 70s or 80s… The only thing you want to do is survive and so I went to Europe when I was 19 and that changed my life – it opened my eyes.
You said you were fascinated by photosynthesis as a child, what was it that drew you to wine?
The people: the ones behind the scenes. I was able to travel and because of my languages [he speaks 5], I’d wake up in the morning and talk to oenologists while they were smoking their morning cigarette and drinking coffee, and they’d be breaking down vinification in Italian in ways no book could ever tell you.
I was a maître d’, I wanted to be the best server. But as an Italian said to me one day, “you’re more wine than food, Charlie”. Every time you pull out a recipe you end up talking about the wine. In 1986 my boss of the cruise liner, said “come with me to Venice”. I was training to be a supervisor of other maître d’s but I went down to my cabin and I didn’t think twice. I said, “I’m ready to go”.
For five years I became wine steward and I had the time of my life. I went deep in history and went to all those islands in Greece and was able to research the Roman-Greco Empire where all the wine was coming from. At school in Bordeaux they told me winemaking started in Saint Émilion, I told them that was bullshit. I’d been to Lebanon, to Gaza… I’d been everywhere where the wine was made 2000 years ago.
How did you discover you have a good palate?
I worked with demijohns as a kid and I had to smell the wines and put them in the bottles. My father would take home one litre of wine for him, and one litre of wine mixed with Orange Crush or 7Up for the rest of the family. In my bottles, I would put less Orange Crush or 7Up because – even at 7 years old – the smell of wine was captivating my nose.