Alba Aponte is known for her work with the natural wine store Al Sur de Granada, which she took over when she was just 24. Having worked in many different parts of the wine industry, she carefully curates and selects wines for her shop and her list of private clients who expect unique wines and insights. So much so that Alba is now starting a private wine club, which is invitation only. We caught up with her to pick her brains on her experiences in natural wine.
Jonathan Soriano: Who are you?
Alba Aponte: I’m Alba Aponte and I started with Al Sur de Granada in 2008 when I was 24. I was living in Cuba, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I came back to Granada, where I knew Al Sur de Granada was for sale. And I bought it. It was a good deal and my parents lent me some money. Everything I know about natural wine is from the store. It changed my life and became my lifestyle.
JS: And real quick, just before we move on, you said you came from Cuba, but where are you from originally?
AA: I’m from Malaga.
JS: You are from Malaga and then?
AA: I lived in a small seaside town until I was 18. And then I came to Granada to study, during which I did one year in London. It changed my perspective on life, that one year; it shaped me. When I got into Al Sur de Granada, it was an explosion of knowledge. I had to learn 1,000 products in two weeks. I started visiting producers because at that time, there was only local wine in the store – most of them natural, and some conventional. When I started visiting the natural wine producers, I realized that I didn’t have any interest in the commercial wines. Barranco Oscurro was a huge influence for me. He was like a mentor, and I went to the winery a lot. I loved talking to him, and being inspired by everything he believed in. That was in 2008, and I continued growing, evolving and adapting the business. But in 2014, I needed a change, and decided to move back to London. I started the wine importing company Otros Vinos with my business partner at the time – Fernando Larry.
JS: Sorry, I need to interrupt you. It’s Otros Vinos in London?
AA: Oh yes, it was Otros Vinos in London.
JS: Yeah, that’s still exists. So that was you?
AA: That was me with Fernando.
AA: Otros Vinos really changed the picture for Spanish wines, and we used my contacts from Al Sur. I was with Otros for two years, and then Fernando continued on his own. I wanted to move on to focus and train.
JS: So, you were still running Al Sur?
AA: Actually, my dad was helping me quite a bit with Al Sur at that time. Normally, you inherit a business from your parents, but you could say my dad inherited the business temporarily from me. He is an amazing businessman and he did really well. I was still in London working as a general manager in big stores to keep learning about retail. It’s my passion, and it’s where I come from to this concierge service that I am about to launch. In 2018, I came back to Spain.
JS: You spent four years in London?
AA: Exactly. When I came back, the business really grew that year, from 2018 to the end of 2019. The growth was insane. I think we tripled sales.
JS: Was this local or online?
AA: It was local. We didn’t have a website. We used to have a website back in the days, but it was too soon. It didn’t really work. We closed it when I went to London because it was too much to manage. And I then reopened the website in the middle of the pandemic in March of 2020. And it was crazy. I applied everything I had learned in London. Before Covid, Al Sur was a wine bar with a store. But after we had to close down the bar, it never reopened. Instead we have a much better store with a table in the middle that fits eight people. Here, we do four wine tastings a day. People say it feels like coming to my house – we get to talk to and share more with everyone. People come from all over, and they stay customers for a long time.
JS: And this is generally local customers?
AA: No, they are normally from outside of Spain.
JS: So, it’s tourists who come to Granada and book tastings? And then they keep coming back to the online store?
AA: 50 percent of these repeating customers are from America. And it’s not cheap to ship, but it’s still worth it for them. Because it’s so expensive in America.
JS: That’s amazing. And yeah, it’s expensive to ship. But your store is beautiful, and the location. It’s incredible that you have somebody trans-Atlantic coming to the store and then they keep ordering even if it’s expensive and difficult. But I guess it’s also a way to keep hold of the memory of visiting your store. You travel a lot too?
AA: Yes, because I connect with people from all over. Especially from abroad. I can’t say why that is, but I do.
JS: I guess it makes sense. When you take London, the Metropol that it is, it has an array of people from all over the world. It is Alba globalized, if you know what I mean, because you’re great with people, you connect a lot.
AA: Yes, I connect with people who are different, who have traveled, and have a different mindset. Many locals haven’t really traveled much and can be a bit narrow minded. I don’t work well with rigidness.
JS: When you travel is it also about connecting with clients?
AA: A hundred percent. I’m launching this club in a few weeks, but I’ve been doing it for a couple of good years. And it was just a list of people, who I would curate with wines that normally are not even available in my shop. People, who were part of it, were normally big fans of wine, and they wanted a special service. We all want community.
JS: So, if I understand this right, you have a list of repeating customers that you connect with and who you help get those wines. And how long have you been doing this for?
AA: People were requesting it – asking me for a list of things that were not available.
JS: When did this start?
AA: Summer of 2020. People would place an order on some fancy wines, and they would ask if I had anything else from the same producer that they could get access to. People want the thing that no one else has.
JS: Who are these people? From the States?
AA: The list is mostly European, but some from the States, and some from Asia. It’s a very different business to Al Sur. It’s more like people buying wine directly from me, if it makes sense.
JS: It makes sense! And this list is becoming a club in a few weeks?
AA: Yes, it’s going to be called The Secret Natural Wine Club.
JS: And how is it going to work? You choose the members? Because you could be flooded, or is it you’re going to take it easy with the ones you have and just service those customers?
AA: It’s going to be invite-only. People will have to apply for it.
AA: I don’t want people who are super-rich coming into the club and just buying everything. That’s not how it works.
JS: So, this is the future, and Al Sur will just run as usual?
AA: Al Sur is going to continue, and it is going to become stronger online. We want to be the specialized natural wine supplier. There will always be some from other places, but we’re going to have a very strong position with Spanish wines. And for next year, we will have a stronger presence of wineries run by women. That’s something that is coming, because it’s been bugging me for a while. We need to give them more of a voice. The Secret Natural Wine Club is a separate project, it is not what Al Sur is becoming.
JS: Makes sense. This is very interesting.
AA: It is interesting because I really want to do it. I really enjoy it.
JS: You were just in New York – tell me what that was about?
AA: I did a pop up in New York with Skin Contact. It’s a very cool natural wine bar, and quite iconic, from the owner of Chamber Street Wines. And, we did it in support of Viniesta, which is a natural wine fair. It was the second edition of the fair with the previous edition in Spain. It’s organized by Selections de la Viña. I have a lot of customers in New York, so I really wanted to do it. The support was strong, and we sold out in a couple of days. I took six winemakers with me, which was really cool. Out of all the people who came to the pop up, I’d say for 90 per cent of the tables, someone had been to AL Sur.
JS: That’s incredible.
AA: Yeah, I didn’t expect that. I thought it would be maybe a couple of people.
JS: You must be doing something right.
AA: Yeah, I guess so. We connect with people, that’s what we do.
JS: Alba, the connector.
AA: I’ve got glue in my heart to share.