María José Sevilla is probably the most attractive Spanish gentleman, or horseman, you are ever likely to come across. Diminutive with beautiful, thick dark hair, this 67-year-old belies her age in every way.
Of course the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino was nothing to do with just men or horses. It is an honour bestowed on anyone who has actively promoted the wines of Spain.
Sevilla has just retired after 25 years of promoting Spanish food and wine. She was the director of Foods & Wine from Spain at the Spanish Embassy Office of Economic and Commercial Affairs in London.
Between food and wine, Sevilla managed to research and write cookery books, consult and present. Oh, and she is married with a son. She is one of these people who appears to have more hours in the day than the rest of us.
So how did all this start? Well, she describes herself as a ‘Francophile’ who studied French for four years and loves Paris. But irrespective of that, she found herself in London in the 1970s. Obviously brought up as a good Spanish Catholic girl, she was beguiled by all the mini-skirts and long boots swirling around in swinging London.
“Things were very restrained back in Spain,” she says with a glint in her eye. “I love music, not just rock. I like Be-Bop Deluxe, Black Sabbath and The Who. But I’m a little bit of a contradiction as I also like Charles Aznavour. I still go to see Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall.
“My life in Madrid would not have allowed me to do such things,” she adds.
Moving on to more serious matters, the UK wine trade has changed massively in the past 20 years. The major multiple retailers, such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have seen to that. Gone are the days when it was dominated by tall, upper and middle-class men in Jermyn Street shirts and pin-striped suits, who still bestride the St James’s area of London (I was there the other day).
Sevilla, neither tall nor male, has obviously had her fair share of male chauvinism.
Asked what she likes and dislikes about the wine trade, she replies tersely: “I admire the knowledge, enthusiasm and the opportunity to share a passion for wine. In the past, chauvinism blocked out much female talent. Thankfully, that has largely changed.”
Allan Cheesman, one of the pioneers of supermarket (Sainsbury’s) wines – and not a man who scatters compliments like confetti – says of Sevilla: “María José Sevilla has been at the centre of food and wine from Spain for as long as I care to remember.
“Her 100% enthusiasm for all things Spain – the emerging wine DO’s, the established wine DO’s and, of course, the fabulous cornucopia of Spanish cuisine across this fantastic country – is without parallel.