Miguel Ángel Benito is the sommelier at the restaurant El Chaflán, in the Hotel Aristos in Madrid. He entered the restaurant industry almost serendipitously, working at his residence hall while at school for extra money. When I asked him how he first got interested in wine, he said: "My interest in wine began casually, accidentally; I developed some curiosity, my curiosity became an interest, and the interest turned itself into a challenge: discover, discover, discover." This led him eventually to El Chaflán, where he has been guiding and aiding his guests' wine choices for fourteen years.
Benito works closely with chef Juan Pablo Felipe on making sure their winelist works well with the chef's creations, "not only to prepare the winelist, as you'd expect, since no one but he knows the ins-and-outs of the flavors of his creations, but also for the management and inclusion of the wines in the cellar." During his time at El Chaflan, he has seen his guests take new strides in their appreciation of wine, moving forward into unexplored territory. As he tells it, "It was only a short time ago that there was no wine culture; in today's boom our guests now have a much wider viticultural knowledge and their minds are not as limited as they were in years past. They are more open, risky, and adventurous in their tastes."
Benito's predecessor at the restaurant was from Cadiz, and Benito feels that his former colleague passed opened his eyes to that region's native tipple: sherry. "My personal friendship with him led to an exchange of many ideas about sherry." Sherries occupy a special place on the restaurant's list of about 600 bottles. The cellar includes a great many other Spanish wines as well, along with a selection of wines from around the world. Aside from the wines of his native country, he says he is particularly interested in Italian wines at the moment - "They are evolving in a way similar to those of Spain" - and he sees some parallels in the developments in each nation's wine industry. "Regions and places that have not traditionally made good wines are now doing just that, with the consequent range of possibilities and nuances."
When not at El Chaflán Benito spends time with his wife Delia and his two children, Patricia and Miguel Ángel. He is also a devotee of soccer and, as you might expect, a big supporter of his city's world-class team Real Madrid. No couch potato, however, he has also indulged a passion for long-distance running, especially marathons: "I've completed eight of them, and each year my goal is to improve on my previous time. My record at the moment is two hours and 56 minutes. I dream of running in the New York Marathon one November."
He also pushes himself in his work, and continues to receive recognition for his skills: he was the Official Sommelier of the Madrid Chamber of Commerce in 2000, and his winelist has won national and international awards. Benito remains at the front of the pack in the "boom" of Spanish wine culture, driven by his own challenge to himself: "discover discover, discover."