Meet Martynas Pravilonis, Star Wine List’s Ambassador for Lithuania

Martynas Pravilonis.
Felicity Carter
By Felicity Carter
Published 05-April-2023
Interview / Lithuania

Lithuania has emerged as a country with a serious food and wine culture, which is why it’s time for a Star Wine List guide to Vilnius, the capital. We are proud to present our ambassador in Lithuania, top sommelier Martynas Pravilonis.

Martynas Pravilonis got into wine through an unusual route — his Uncle Albertas.

“He was working in a restaurant and was one of the first to start competing,” Martynas explains. “We’re a very young country in terms of wine and the culture of consumption. He was very interested and started bringing his passion to our family.”

Martynas was studying bioinformatics at the time, a discipline that uses computers to collect and store genetic information.

After one-and-a-half years, I saw that it was not for me. I dropped out

“We were the first group of bioinformatics students and didn’t know what we were getting into,” he says. “After one-and-a-half years, I saw that it was not for me. I dropped out.”

His parents told him he had to get a job. His uncle came to the rescue, and offered him a place in the restaurant, where Martynas worked as a morning shift waiter for the next half year.

“During that time, we had some events. I still remember an interesting wine tasting —Rieslings from Germany.”

He got to take some of the wines home and says they “blew my mind”.

A wine enthusiast is born

When he went back to university to study psychology, Martynas also began working in wine bars and wine shops, and “after I finished, I still thought of continuing to a Masters, but I got an invitation to join a wine bar.” In Lithuanian, ‘Burbulio vynine’ — the name of the bar — sounds a lot like ‘bubbles’, so it’s a play on words.

“But Burbulio is also the surname of the owner. He was one of the people who, with my uncle, really got me into wine even more, because he was very passionate about Italian wines.”

That was around 2011. After that came a stint working for a big wine importer. In 2014, Martynas signed up for his first sommelier competition. So did Uncle Albertas. Both got into the finals. “And I came one place above him!”

Burbulio Vyninė, Vilnius.

They kept competing, and Martynas made it into the Baltic competitions, where the three best competitors from each country compete. Martynas got into the finals, once again beating his uncle.

By now, you’d imagine, Uncle Albertas would be regretting introducing Martynas to wine.

“No, he was very proud. He is still one of my biggest supporters,” says Martynas.

He admits that his own skills needed work. “I was mostly working in wine shops, not hospitality,” so he had no experience in wine service. “During the finals, I almost put an ice bucket on the floor, because I had to present a sparkling wine. I picked up the ice bucket, but left the stand in place.”

After that, he was even more motivated to learn and study. One year later, he won the Baltics, and after that, “there was no looking back.”

Since then, Martynas has won the Lithuanian Sommelier Championship four times and the Best Sommelier of the Baltics twice, in total. In 2019, he finished in fourth place in the ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest. In February this year, Martynas went back to Paris for the 2023 ASI Best Sommelier of the World.

“It was a lot of fun,” he says. “Many international competitors were familiar to me. It was like a family reunion. Everyone shares their passion and hard work, so whenever we meet, it’s an amazing feeling. Like meeting some best friends from far away.”

The competition gets more challenging every time, he says, because the international level of knowledge is expanding very quickly.

Lithuania’s wine scene

“I’ve been in the wine scene from 2007, so 15 years now, and it’s changed dramatically,” he says. “When you think about what wines people were buying and drinking back then, and what we have now, it’s like we are really catching up with much older wine cultures in Europe.”

Previously, he says, Lithuanian wine shelves were dominated by big international brands.

“When I was working in the biggest wine supplier in the Baltics, and managing a wine shop in a big shopping mall, it was unthinkable to sell Pinot Noir,” he says, adding that customers thought French wine was acidic, bitter and difficult to understand. “Now, it would be impossible to find a proper wine store without a serious selection of Pinots from around the world.”

Now every supplier has one of the top Austrian winemakers

And, despite the widespread view that younger people aren’t embracing wine, Martynas says they are a key group in Lithuania. “They are jumping straight to natural wines, organic wines, and having a broader view of wine than slightly older customers,” he explains. “People in their 30s and early 40s are really open-minded, and they travel a lot and eat in top restaurants around the world.”

While older drinkers prefer classic regions, emerging wine lovers are choosing Piedmont, Germany and Austria. “Ten years ago, we had maybe one supplier who was more focused on Austrian wines and bringing in maybe five or six producers. Now every supplier has one of the top Austrian winemakers.”

As for Martynas himself, he’s immersed in building a new wine project that hasn’t yet been officially announced. He says it will be a major wine restaurant, with Asian-influenced food, “and a big emphasis on serious wines, on sake, on high-end cocktails. Two floors, with very talented people.”

And Uncle Albertas? He’s hung up his sommelier tastevin and now works for a wine importer. Where he’s probably inspiring even more people to learn about wine.

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