LOCO LÓPEZ OUTGUNS THE COMPETITION IN LOS ANGELES
by Richard Carleton Hacker / photos by Cal Bingham
His friendly demeanor, warm smile, and firm, self-assured handshake notwithstanding, Chilean wine expert Sebastian “Loco” López was a bit apprehensive as he entered the private upstairs dining room at the James Beard–awarded A.O.C. restaurant in West Hollywood, California.
This was understandable: After all, he was there to observe a blind tasting that would pit his newly introduced sangria—made from his grandmother’s secret recipe and named LocoLópez, after his family nickname—against four sangrias already on the market. The 12 Los Angeles–area men and women invited by The Tasting Panel to serve as judges were all experienced industry professionals; as mixologists, buyers, managers, and beverage directors, they’d been around and knew the ropes.
Complicating the issue was the fact that while sangria is the second fastest–growing wine category in the U.S. right after rosé, most consumers only know three things about it: It originated in Spain, is made with red wine and fruit, and should be served cold. As a result, López set out to explain exactly what sangria is and how his brand differed from others in terms of its recipe, taste, and texture.
However, no one in the room—not even López—knew which of the five sangria brands was his, as each judge sat before a tasting mat with five unmarked Riedel Cabernet Sauvignon glasses each filled with a different sangria. The contents were identified only by numbers one through five, and in true professional blind-tasting format, these sangrias would be tasted slightly chilled and without ice. The only hints to any of their differences were minutely varying shades of deep red, and in some cases, a few distinctive bouquets arising from the glasses. Yet there was much more to sangria than that, as López pointed out before the judging began.
“What is the best sangria?” he asked before providing an honest yet surprising answer. “It’s probably the one you make at home. Each one is so personal, so different. It’s a style that comes from a family’s tradition. And each has some key elements that together create the right combination. First, you need a simple but good red wine. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be good quality, so that when you taste the sangria, you taste the wine. The next important ingredient is fresh fruit, so that you taste them on your palate. And for the third key element, there are the spices. In my home when I was growing up, my abuela [grandmother] María would always say that spices are what make the signature of the sangria.”
These key elements held a special significance for López on this particular day, for the Loco López brand is produced using his late grandmother’s personal recipe. When they would make her sangria together in the family kitchen, no one else was allowed to enter, he recalled. Afterward, she would sit on the front porch and proudly offer glasses to the passing neighbors, who unanimously proclaimed it the best sangria in town.
So, for López, this was more than just a sangria judging: It was an opportunity to validate his grandmother’s family tradition on a global scale. “As a boy, I was the only member of my family who knew Abuela’s recipe,” López said, “and I was sworn to absolute secrecy. But after her passing, I wanted to share her incredible sangria with the world and keep her joyful spirit alive.”
The judges were given 20 minutes to evaluate the sangrias using a scoring sheet listing them in order, with each to be ranked on aromatics, freshness/texture, and taste. Scores earned in these three categories were then totaled up by each judge for a ranking of No. 1 through No. 5, with No. 1 eventually named as the best sangria. At the end of the judging period, the scoring cards were gathered and tabulated before Meridith May, Publisher and Editorial Director of The Tasting Panel, announced the results.
“And the winner,” she said, “was Sangria No. 4, with eight No. 1 choices and six No. 2 choices.” The identities of all five “mystery” sangrias were then revealed, with Loco López unveiled as the winner.
“I was so nervous,” López admitted as the judges applauded. “After all, my name is on the package. But now I know my grandmother would be proud. She was extremely opinionated and she would say, ‘Always use the best ingredients.’ In this spirit, I will tell you the secretof my grandmother’s recipe: She used mandarin oranges.” At that point an approving murmur went up among the judges. “She liked her sangria to be naturally sweet,” López continued, “and mandarin oranges provided the key element, along with some cinnamon. To bring this sangria to life, we used Syrah for the red wine, because Syrah brings a spiciness to the sangria that for me is so relevant, along with a deep color.
“And finally, we tried to do something unique with our packaging, something that had never been used before. We found Tetra Pak was more familiar to consumers, and makes our sangria easier to pour. But the other key difference in our packaging is the 1.5-liter size. After all, sangria is meant to be shared, so the Loco López container is large enough for everyone, at home or in a restaurant. And for off-premise, it is large enough and colorful enough to attract a consumer’s attention.” With a suggested retail price of $10, the sangria has an ABV of 8%, which complements today’s trend of low-alcohol cocktails.
López said his Chilean brand plans to soon release a rosé sangria, but for now, the Syrah-based expression—with its balanced and refreshing flavors of strawberries, citrus, and cherries; its affinity for mixing with soda or as an ingredient in Scotch-based cocktails; and its penchant for mint garnishes—was a clear winner among a team of very discerning judges.
The Tasting Panel has rarely rated Sangria. So, we recently gathered a group of top-selling sangrias for a panel that consisted of wine buyers and our editorial team. Here are our reviews:
La Catrina Red Sangria
Sweet pomegranate tends to be a bit cloying, with a candied edge. An underlying spice shows some heat. Orange peel and clove are tart on the finish. 85
BRONCO WINE COMPANY
Black Box Red Sangria
A hint of bright blueberry and cherry aromas lead to a full-body. Texturally supple, with ample tannins and a kiss of nutmeg on the juicy, lively finish. 89
CONSTELLATION WINES U.S.
Beso del Sol Red Sangria
Spicy and herbaceous, with earthy elements and over-ripe strawberry. Almost brandy-like on the palate, with a stewed fruit character, dense orange and cinnamon finish. 88
THE WINE GROUP
Loco López Sangria
Aromatics are vibrant, with red floral tones and delicately spiced fruit. The palate is fresh and clean, with notes of orange/tangerine, black cherry, mango and blueberry. A note of Delicious apple sweetness weaves through, tempered by an amaro-like range of herbs, offering a complexity to the lush mouthfeel. 92
Capriccio Bubbly Sangria
Jellied fruit aromas, with a zesty, spruce-like palate. The flavors for this effervescent liquid are reminiscent of fruit punch, with candied strawberry, pineapple and bright plum. 82