If you’re looking for the world’s best wines, you’ll find them at the new Laguarda Wine & Spirits
By Stephen Vargha
Ecuador’s biggest distributor and seller of wines has opened its first outlet in Cuenca.
“We have 43 percent of the market of wine in Ecuador,” said Cathy Amoroso. “We have 11 stores, with five in Quito, four in Guayaquil, one in Manta, and now one in Cuenca.”
Amoroso is the chief administrator of Laguarda Wine & Spirits, in Cuenca. The company was founded 11 years ago in Quito, and its parent company, CVL, has been around for 70 years.
The two largest cities in Ecuador are well-represented by the wine company so it branched out to Manta. “It is a big coastal city (Population: 279,064). Manta is an excellent market as many people have money,” said Amorosa.
With around 660,000 people in Cuenca the Quito wine company felt it was an untapped large market. Eighteen months ago, they started distributing wines to restaurants, bars, and supermarkets.
“The owners thought Cuenca is a big market and we had done pretty good with our wine sales to businesses, so they decided to open a store,” said Amoroso.”
With Cuenca being just over 27 square miles in size, an ideal store location had to be determined.
“Choosing a location was the hard part. At first, we looked at Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral, but that was too crowded, and it had too little room for parking,” said Amoroso. “We ended up picking El Vergel as it is growing, and it is a safe place.”
Generally speaking, El Vergel is everything east and southeast of Alejandro Serrano Stadium, and north of Ave. Diez de Agosto. Laguarda chose a corner at Roberto Crespo Toral and Calle Nicanor Aguilar.
“We bought a large house,” said Amoroso. “The Canadian tenants really wanted to stay, but we had bought the house to build our store.”
A new building was constructed that was based on Laguarda’s previous stores. “It was designed by a female architect and interior designer in Quito,” said Amoroso. “All of our stores are similar, but this one is our biggest.”
As soon as the store opened in February, it made an immediate impact. One of their first customers was ceramicist Eduardo Vega. “He came in and told us that it looked like a liquor museum,” said Amoroso with a laugh.
“We have a lot of people coming searching for wines,” said Mateo Ochoa. He is one of two people who helps guide customers to what they would like.
The 24-year-old Cuencano said the training he has received has made a difference for the customers. “Laguarda wanted a different type of a relationship with the customers,” said Ochoa. “So, they have taught me a lot about wines. We are always learning more about wines.”
He has learned a lot in the three months the store has been open. “I did not know anything about wines except red went with beef, and whites went with chicken and fish,” Ochoa said with a laugh.
On Monday, a French sommelier was brought in to teach the employees more about wines. It was the introductory course, which is the first of four for becoming a level four sommelier, otherwise known as a Master Sommelier.
There are only 273 Master Sommeliers since the designation was established in 1969. Usually, candidates will have at least 10 years’ experience as a sommelier. Reaching level four involves passing a sommelier exam which is called the most difficult in the world. Only 3-to-8 percent of candidates pass it.
Sommeliers are skilled in wine buying and wine tasting. They usually work in restaurants to meet the needs of customers. Their goal is to ensure the wines are paired well with the menu.
That is why every Laguarda store has a sommelier. Currently, Cuenca’s store does not as she moved to Argentina to help develop some wines for a winery.
Because of his intensive viticultural education, Ochoa has found a varietal he really likes. “My favorite grape is Bonarda,” said Ochoa. “It is a sweet wine that really has a good balance.”
Originating in Italy, Bonarda is now the second most planted Argentina. With 46,210 acres, this varietal is second only to Malbec with 103,785 acres.
Everything is laid out logically. And it is pleasing to the eyes. “Customers really like our displays,” said Amoroso. “There’s a room just for sparkling wines from five countries, a room for more common wines, a room for premium wines, and a room for our liquors.”
The premium wines room has something for every lover of wine. That includes a $1,100 bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico Tinto 2012 from Ribera del Duero, Spain. It has been described as “a concentrated, juicy, silky, and well-defined vintage.”
Making it easy for customers, there are three levels of wines on the shelves. “The bottom shelf is called “Young Wines.’ The middle is for the reserve wines, and the upper shelf are for the grand reserves,” said Amoroso.
Tags on the shelves are color coded. Yellow ones are wines Laguarda imports while the white ones are from other Ecuadorian importers.
“We try to have a wide variety of wines,” said Amoroso. “Our goal is to have more than what we import.”
This means higher quality wines are prevalent throughout the store.
“We are the exclusive importer of Concha Y Toro,” said Amoroso. The lowest level of Concha Y Toro is just for Supermaxi and Coral. We don’t sell it. The higher quality wines from that Chilean winery are sold at Laguarda.”
“We are not selling wines because of the price, but because of what we are offering,” said Ochoa. “We help our customers find what they like.”
Viña Concha Y Toro’s wines are a top seller because the customers are very familiar with it. The Australian Nineteen Crimes has been popular because of its marketing.
It takes its name from England’s practice of shipping convicts to penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868. Nineteen Crimes references specific crimes which meant automatic transportation to the penal colonies.
“California wines have been popular. People like the taste,” said Amoroso. “I think we are the only ones selling California wines. We have several from Napa Valley.”
Wines from California are limited due to no trade agreement between Ecuador and the United States. But wines and liquors from other countries have come down in price or could be soon.
“Since we have the trade agreement with the E.U., European wine prices have dropped,” said Amoroso. “I understand a trade agreement with Mexico is in the works, so our tequila prices will be going down.”
Laguarda is now negotiating an exclusive for Ecuador. “We are working on bringing Pinotage from South Africa to Cuenca by the end of the year,” said Amoroso. “We think Cuencanos and Ecuadorians will really like it.”
Currently, there is no Pinotage being sold in Ecuador. Pinotage is a distinctive red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature variety. It was cultivated there as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (the fourth most widely planted grape variety in France).
If you can’t make it to the store, you can order online and have it delivered to your front door. “You can use PedidosYa, Rappi, or Uber Eats,” said Amoroso. “We have a good score on the apps.”
Laguarda is proud of what they conduct upstairs. “What Cuencanos like about this place are our wine tastings,” said Amoroso. “Some restaurants have wine tastings, but we are the only store having them.”
One can schedule a party of eight to twelve people on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The tastings take just over two hours.
“Led by a sommelier, our wine tastings usually have four to five bottles,” said Ochoa. “The client chooses them with help from us.”
Since Laguarda opened, it has had 30 to 35 wine tastings. “Customers can ask us for advice as to what food to bring so it matches their wines,” said Ochoa. “We set up the plates and glasses.”
The store is constantly expanding and updating its inventory.
“A wine can be good for one person and not for another,” said Ochoa. “We will ask you the right questions to find your wine.”
Laguarda Wine & Spirits, Nicanor Aguilar 393 y Roberto Crespo Toral, Cuenca 010107, 099-809-3210, https://laguarda.com.ec/, Monday, Tuesday, Saturday: 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday: 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.