Literary Inspiration for A Traveller in Wines

"Here," cried Don Quixote, "here, brother Sancho Panza, we shall be able to dip our hands up to the elbows, in what is called adventure. . ." – Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes


"People talk of the glorious dreams of opium-smokers, the frenzied exhilaration that hashish can give, but I, who have studied both, assure you that neither can for a moment compare with the delirious joy of fifty or sixty Spaniards applauding a dancer in the upper room of a café in Seville!" – From Paris to Cádiz, Alexandre Dumas pere


"Of one thing the reader may be assured, – that dear will be to him, as is now to us, the remembrance of those wild and weary rides through tawny Spain. . ." – Gatherings From Spain, Richard Ford.


"The traveller in wines, finding these topics a little beyond his comprehension, remarked loudly that Sénécal was forgetting a lot of scandals." – Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert, whose work was greatly influenced by Cervantes's Don Quixote.


Gerry Dawes at Marisquería Rafa in Madrid.
Photo by John Sconzo, Docsconz: Musings on Food & Life



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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Traveller in Wines (A Work-In-Progress) - Prologue: Monterey, California to Southern Spain


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Roberto (l) from La Alameda de Hercules and his army buddies (and my wine drinking and flamenco buddies) on the train from Sevilla to El Puerto de Santa Maria (my stop) and San Fernando (their stop).  Photo by Gerry Dawes 1969.
 
Before I was stationed in Spain in the United States Navy, my experience with wine—except for plying girlfriends back in Illinois with the occasional bottle of pink “Champagne”—came in California in the mid-1960s. On weekends on the mystical white beach at Carmel, with my buddies—all of us students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey—and I shared the jugs of cheap California wines, along with bread and cheese from the Mediterranean Market in the village. 

One night under Monterey’s decaying old wharf, I helped two others polish off a gallon jug of Mountain Red—with miserable results. And once in a while on a payday weekend, I would splurge on abalone and a bottle of Almaden Emerald Riesling or some such at a restaurant on Monterey’s then-not-so-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or have spaghetti and a wicker-wrapped, aptly-named fiasco of Chianti on Cannery Row, which at that time still had vestiges and whiffs of John Steinbeck’s time.

And, one August weekend in 1967, surrounded by a bristling, rifle-armed, weekend warriors of soon-to-be-sent-home National Guard Troop (for a rock concert?), we watched and listened in wine-soaked reverie at the Monterey Pop Festival as Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat and Otis Redding became international stars right before our mesmerized eyes and passed into legend.

At Southern Illinois University I had sporadically pursued a journalism major until 1965, when the Lyndon Baines Johnson-led United States government—opting first, or course, for those “who had not worked continuously towards a degree”— decided that they needed even more carrion candidates for Vietnam. I volunteered for the Navy as soon as I felt the hot breath of my local draft board breathing down my neck. To avoid the possibility of two years of infantry duty and possible death (certain in my mind), I enlisted for four years of life in the Navy, astutely calculating that aircraft carriers didn’t normally invade Vietnamese rice paddies. 

Ironically, I damned near died from a bout with spinal meningitis that I contracted during basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station, where recruits were allowed some four hours sleep a night, which greatly contributed to a meningitis epidemic among them during that epoch. (In the middle of the night, we took turns guarding a laundry room, just in case, we surmised, the Viet Cong somehow managed to penetrate the heartland in the dead of a Lake Michigan winter to stage a surprise laundry raid). 
After a four-month stay in the hospital, on the telephone I pestered the Navy bureaucrats in Washington until they sent me to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, California, where I miraculously graduated as a poor-to-mediocre linguist. I left Monterey barely conversant in pidgin military Russian, but did learn to sing a transliterated version of “Dixie.”  

After graduation, we were transferred for several months to Defense Department’s Top Secret Security School in San Angelo, Texas, a training assignment made memorable by a monumentally ignorant Chief Botswain’s Mate, who lined up a mostly college-educated crew of linguists and threatened to charge us for mutiny for failing to show up for a useless meeting after an all-night class. He punctuated his blustering by proclaiming the “ignorance in Botswain’s Mates went out with the sailing ships,” which caused the incredulous officers watching this absurd, worthy-of-a-M.A.S.H.- episode performance to stifle guffaws. The mutiny squelched, we survived to graduate. Just before we graduated, one day in class when my field assignment was announced as Spain, someone blurted, “You lucky bastard!” As it turned out, life’s lottery had handed me a winning ticket. As soon as class was over, I went straight to the base library and checked out the few books I could find on Spain. 

Rota, January, 1969.  Photo by Gerry Dawes.

Because of the military’s infinite wisdom and logic-defying precision, I was assigned for two years to the Rota Naval Base in Andalucía, from which periodically I was sent out riding the plane captain’s seat of antiquated, 1950s’ vintage, un-armed airplanes, including the great swept-wing hog, the A-3 Skywarrior, a converted fighter-bomber. Staging out of Greece and West Germany, we flew on electronic eavesdropping missions off the coasts of Egypt, Libya, East Germany, Poland, and Russia. It was my job to listen on a radio receiver and tape Russian military conversations. The first time I heard a MIG on our tail pretending to lock on with a missile, which would have turned us to toast in just a few seconds, I momentarily longed even for a rice paddy. Nevertheless, during my two-year tour of duty in Rota, between flying missions, I had time to begin discovering Spain and I began to develop an afición, a passion, for the country that has continued to grow for more than 45 years. 


I was glad, deliriously glad, to be in Europe and not in Vietnam. By August of 1968, a year after that momentous Monterey Pop Festival, I found myself in a steamy second class train car rattling south through Andalucía towards El Puerto de Santa María with a group of Spanish conscripts, who would become my friends over the course of that summer as we traveled back-and-forth between our respective military assignments in Cádiz province and weekend R & R in their beautiful, mystical Sevilla, the quintessential city of southern Spain, which was rapidly becoming my adopted hometown. 


On that slow rocking train in southern Spain, Roberto, one of my new Spanish soldier friends—most of whom came from La Alameda de Hércules, a Sevilla working class barrio—taught me how to cut a V-shaped wedge out of either side of a cork pulled from the label-less bottles of coarse, ice-cold, red vino corriente that I would purchase at station when the train stopped in heat-baked Utrera, south of Sevilla. Roberto would shove the cork back in the bottle and pass the wine around for all to share bota-style, each in turn tilting up the bottle and allowing the wine to flow in a stream into the drinker’s mouth without allowing the bottle to touch his lips. During the summer of 1968, I nearly mastered the art of hitting my mouth with a stream of red wine while standing in the passageway at the end of the swaying train car, through whose open doors warm air gushed, considerably increasing the degree of difficulty.

 
Roberto


Wine-stained shirts and few bottles of wine were a small price to pay for many hours of the conviviality of these fun-loving Spanish soldiers. In addition to learning a modicum of unorthodox wine-drinking etiquette from Roberto and his friends, I picked up some Spanish by osmosis and was treated to impromptu flamenco singing accompanied by the staccato rhythms of my friends clapping palmas (which they also taught me). I was also given a share of Roberto's mother's superb tortillas españolas (Spain's classic potato omelettes that are sliced into wedges and eaten cold—then a traveller's staple in Spain). Each week, when we arrived in Sevilla, Roberto and his friends told me which train they would be taking back to their base in San Fernando. No matter what shape we were in after drinking multiple bottles of wine on the two-hour train ride, my new amigos always made sure I got off at El Puerto de Santa María, the great sherry town on the bay of Cádiz, where I would catch the shiny little local train to nearby Rota. There were big abrazos (embraces), waves, and good wishes from my new-found friends as I dis-embarked, then they were back to clapping and singing flamenco as their train creaked to life and rolled on to San Fernando, two stops down the line. 


The sharp, metallic, chilled wine--which tasted far better with the good tortilla, Spanish olives, and rough country bread--was never more than poor to mediocre, but it was the camaraderie and conviviality of Roberto and his Sevillano friends sharing their food, songs, jokes, and stories with me that made those train trips so memorable and the ordinary wine and food a feast. On those wonderful “wild and weary” train rides through tawny summertime Spain, I also learned an indispensable rule about drinking vino—the most important thing about any bottle of wine is the people surrounding it. And in the process I developed a passion for Spain, Spaniards, and Spanish wine and food that has endured to this day. 

My experiences with those Spanish soldiers set the tone for the stories that follow.

Gerry Dawes©2016
gerrydawes@aol.com

Introduction to A Traveller in Wines

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From Cervantes's Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; the writings on Spain of Alexandre Dumas père; the marvelous English Murray Guides writer, Richard Ford; and the late Americans, James A. Michener, and Donn Pohren, a little-known, but important, American expert on things Spanish, I learned to approach Spain and its wines, food, history, and culture with an adventurous and inquisitive spirit.

In 1972, Pohren, who lived in Spain for decades and is one of the world’s greatest flamenco experts, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain. Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula exploring some of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest wine acreage of any country in the world, and tasting wines. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On several occasions, Pohren would find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another showed up at the bar with his wines to prove to this foreigner that his vino was the best in the village.

In Adventures in Taste, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making good country wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days. Although Pohren was relatively unsophisticated as a gourmet, he chronicled his food adventures as well, ferreting out great regional restaurants, back-country inns and taverns, and tapas bars all over the country. He wrote about the best places for great roast lamb in Castile; the superb mountain hams from acorn-fed, free-range Iberian pata negra pigs of southern and western Spain; great fish and shellfish along both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts; garlic chicken in Madrid; and such esoteric specialties as baby goat livers in lemon sauce in the mountains of Malaga, and. Pohren not only wrote about the food, wine, customs, and fiestas, each year he ran several specialized tours, in which he introduced a handful of privileged travellers to his secret places in back country Spain.

During the eight years I lived in Spain, I traveled with Pohren’s book and with James A. Michener’s Iberia (my copy of Iberia is signed by more than 20 of the characters about which Michener wrote). I often drove many kilometers out of my way to find Pohren’s culinary and wine treasures and to search out the people and places about which Michener had so persuasively written. While following in the footsteps of these predecessors, I naturally had my own adventures. I began to uncover exceptional wines, experience my own unique gastronomic epiphanies, meet unforgettable people, and discover places about which neither Michener nor Pohren had written.

The writings of Richard Ford, an Englishman, who covered much of Spain on horseback during the 1840s also inspired me. Ford wrote one of the most well-written and witty travel guides I have ever read, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Readers at Home (ironically republished by my home university’s Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois; ©Centaur Press, Ltd. 1966). Ford’s frontispiece further billed the book as “Describing the Country and Cities, the Natives and Their Manners; The Antiquities, Religion, Legends, Fine Arts, Literature, Sports, and Gastronomy with notices On Spanish History.”

Ford described his travels in Spain pithily, provided his readers with often humorous insights about Spaniards, many of which still hold true, and imbued his writing with a sense of adventure that has long inspired me to continue embarking on what he called, “those wild and weary rides through tawny Spain.”

Wine and food are the threads that will bind the tapestry of A Traveller in Wines: Forty Years of Adventures on the Food & Wine Roads of Spain, but I intend for the book to have a much broader appeal. Although I plan to concentrate on wine and gastronomy adventures, like Ford, Michener, and Pohren, I will draw from the broader spectrum of Spain’s rich heritage, history, and culture to make A Traveller in Wines a great read about the country, its people (and, like Michener, sometimes the foreigners who love it), its vineyards and wineries, its tapas bars and restaurants, and its winemakers and chefs.

I am fond of quoting two passages about Spain—one from Richard Ford and the other from Alexandre Dumas père—which are in the spirit of the approach I want to bring to my book. Ford’s passage is about the philosophy of travel and life; Dumas’s is evocative description.

In A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, Ford wrote his philosophy on traveling in Spain: “The search for the excellent is the high road to excellence . . . The refining effort and habit teaches the mind to think; from long pondering the beautiful world without, snatches are caught of the beautiful world within, and a glimpse is granted to the chosen few, of glories hidden from the vulgar many. They indeed have eyes, but see not . . .” It will be my task in A Traveller in Wines to share those glimpses with those who may not have been able to see Spain for themselves and provide deeper insights for those who have been to Spain.

Alexandre Dumas wrote some fine descriptive passages about his travels in Spain in From Paris to Cadiz, including this quote, which is one of my favorites, “People talk of the glorious dreams of opium-smokers, the frenzied exhilaration that hashish can give, but I, who have studied both, assure you that neither can for a moment compare with the delirious joy of fifty or sixty Spaniards applauding a dancer in the upper room of a café in Seville!” Dumas’s quote alludes to the duende that Lorca wrote about, a magical quality in the Spanish spirit that I have been lucky enough to encounter on numerous occasions in my travels.

Gerry Dawes©2010
gerrydawes@aol.com

www.gerrydawesspain.com/

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Late Great Donn Pohren and His Significance: "Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book."




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Madrid, Spain - American writer and well-known Flamencologist Donn Pohren died in Las Rozas [a Madrid suburb] on November 5, 2007. His wife, Luisa Maravillas provided a brief statement: "I regret to inform you all that Donn passed away the 5th of November, during the night. Sometime in the near future I intend to organize a gathering of friends and aficionados in Las Rozas."  - - Contributed by: WMC_News_Dept.  11/07/2007 08:35AM

Donn Pohren was regarded as one of the leading experts in Flamenco in the English language and wrote several influential books about the subject. 

"Donn Pohren's book was the first thing I bought when arriving in Andalucía, before I even knew how much my life would be involved with and changed by flamenco. It helped me understand a lot that was to come," says British expatriate Kate Edbrooke, who runs a recording studio in Granada and has produced several Flamenco recordings by local artists.


The Significance of Flamencologist Donn Pohren
and His Impact on Spanish Wine & Food
Que descansa en una juerga de “pura ma're” with a copita in front of him
and Diego del Gastor playing alongside him.

Copyright by Gerry Dawes 2017. 

In 1972, Donn Pohren, a Minneapolis-born American who lived in Spain for decades and was the world's greatest foreign expert on flamenco, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain

I was living in southern Spain when I first encountered Pohrens's book (privately printed in Spain) soon after it was published and it had a profound effect on me. In the early years, I never traveled without it. At first, I merely wanted to have some of the wine and food experiences that he had described. Soon, I was having new experiences of my own, experiences that would eventually lead to my becoming a widely published writer on Spanish wine and food and a recognized authority in the field.
  
My copy of Donn Pohren's Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain


Adventures in Taste, self-published by Pohren in 1972.


Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula in the 1960s exploring the nooks and crannies of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest acreage of any country in the world. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On many occasions, Pohren would soon find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another vied to show this foreigner that his wine was the best in the village. 

In his book, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making excellent wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days.


Pohren's Map of the Wine Regions of North Central
 (He did not cover Galicia!)


However, many of the wines Pohren described were wines whose charm in those days soon faded if anyone tried to transport them beyond the boundaries of their home region. 

The winemaking techniques were often primitive. In many places the grapes were still crushed by treading, then fermented in open stone or cement vats, and aged in less than meticulously cared for barrels. The result was a flawed wine, which often tasted good with the local food, but was simply not stable enough to "travel" and was not the stuff to thrill sophisticated wine connoisseurs. Still, Don Pohren swore by the inherent quality of many of these Spanish wines and he was right.

His experiences have always been in the back of my mind and have served me well on numerous occasions, such as an encounter on my first trip to then unknown Priorat in 1988. Firmly in Pohren's shoes, I entered an old-fashioned, untidy cellar, where I was given a flawed wine to taste, but the underlying base wine was clearly very good. I judged the prospects for this region to be so promising that I came back wrote the first major article about the potential of Priorat. 


Alvaro Palacios and crew arrived in Priorat the next year and began to make history.  In Ribeira Sacra, 15 years ago I encountered some flawed wines (less with every pasing year), just as a did in Priorat nearly 15 years earlier.  Tasting "underneath" the sometimes inexperienced wine making techniques, I found enormous potential.  I know Donn would have as well.

What Pohren tasted in those wines while researching his book forty years ago was the materia prima (raw material; grapes, soil and climate), the exceptional juice from grapes which often came from old vines, whose average yield of wine per acre of vines was less than half that allowed by the best appellations of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  


Even backward winemaking techniques couldn't keep the underlying quality from showing through; Pohren's Spanish wines were diamonds in the rough.

In the years since Donn Pohren wrote his book, exciting things have happened which promise an incredible future for both Spain's traditional wines and those of emerging wine regions.  


Spain's four decade-old democracy has been the catalyst for a modern renaissance in fashion, art, literature, cinema, and gastronomy and it has ushered in a technological revolution in wine making as well. A key element in this was Spain's acceptance in 1992 as a member of the European Economic Community, the Common Market (now the European Union), which posed a special challenge to Spanish wine producers: compete on a quality level with the other wines of Europe or enter the over-saturated European wine "lake," and be lost in the crowd.

Fortunately, Spain opted for quality. Many forward looking people in the Spanish wine trade began to see Spain's entry into the European Union as both a new challenge and a new opportunity for their wines. These challenges and opportunities would require a reassessment of their positions in both the domestic and export markets, an upgrading of their winemaking technology, and consistent quality in their wines. Emile Peynaud, Alexis Lichine, and other consultants were brought in from France to advise winemakers in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rueda. 


The best eonologists from Rioja, Penedes, and Navarra traveled to other regions share their expertise. Young Spanish winemakers trained in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and at the University of California - Davis. Miguel Torres Riera, the maestro of Catalan winemaking, and Jose Peñin, Spain's foremost wine authority, wrote important books about Spain's future in the wine world. New wine books, periodicals, and gourmet journals proliferated. Seminars, international wine symposiums, and wine competitions began to be conducted on a regular basis. And, importantly, wine clubs and societies were formed as an increasingly affluent and growing middle class in Spain began to appreciate the wines of its own country.

During the past three decades, investments in new wine making technology (especially in the area of fermentation control), better barrels (although accompanied by a lot of oak abuse!), experiments with new grape varietals, and the replanting of vineyards in some areas have begun to have a geometric effect on the overall quality level of Spanish wines. This progress in winemaking technique in Spain would not in itself account for such a dramatic effect–in fact, it is now often a detriment to authenticity--if it were not for the fact that Spain is a splendid natural vineyard endowed with many areas whose grape varietals have become perfectly acclimated over centuries to the micro-climate and soil in which they grow. 

All that was needed in many cases were winemakers dedicated to quality and the technology to achieve it. The grapes produced in the best wine areas of Spain–Rioja, Jerez, Cataluña, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Rueda, Ribera Sacra, Valdeorras and in many up and coming regions–have shown they are capable of producing wines which can stand alongside the best of France, Italy, and California. The Tempranillo of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, for example, is coming to be recognized as a grape which can produce wines to rival those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.  And the Galician white wine variety Godello in Valdeorras and red wine grape Mencía in Ribeira Sacra, especially, make astoundingly good, world-class wines.

The established, classic wine regions of Spain like Rioja and Jerez, while refining the techniques and polishing the skills which made them famous, also created exciting new areas of interest with small estates like Remelluri and Contino in Rioja and the emergence of such high-quality wines as the almacenista sherries of Emilio Lustau and the late harvest Navarra moscatels from Julián Chivite, Ochoa and Viña Aliaga. Other areas whose wines were once underground legends in Spain, like those described by Donn Pohren, but whose viticulture was based on tiny artisan producers and ill-equipped cooperatives, began to realize their potential for making great wines.

Ribera del Duero, home of Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Mauro, and Viña Pedrosa; Navarra, the producer of perhaps the world's finest rosés (from the Spanish native grape Garnacha); Priorato (Cataluña) and Toro (Castilla-León), whose rich, concentrated, blockbuster red wines have drawn international attention (but are too alcoholic for my tastes); Rueda, a surprising white wine region producing the native Verdejo and foreign Sauvignon Blanc; and Rías Baixas, whose Albariños now count the U.S. as its most important export market, are just the most visible of the emerging wine regions capable of making first rate wine from native grapes. There are many more to come. 

Previously unknown regions–some of which unknown to Donn Pohren–such as Bierzo, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei, along with Jumilla and many others–have either jumped onto the world wine stage or are just in the wings awaiting their call to stardom. P roducers like Miguel Torres in Penedes, Julián Chivite in Navarra, Carlos Falcó at Dominio de Valdepusa and Codorniu's Raimat estate, just to name a few examples, have achieved new heights with foreign varietals, though even the best examples often fall short of the intriguing, delicious, uniquely Spanish wines made from indigenous varieties–the kinds of wines that Donn Pohren loved.

Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book. Following his example, I still ferret out little known producers and drive many kilometers out-of-the-way just to eat a dish in a little-known regional restaurant and, like Don, look beyond rusticity (or fancy trappings in some places) to find the core of something that is undeniably wonderful and unique to Spain. Only adventurers and indefatigable travelers can do what Donn Pohren did.  I can attest to how indefatigable and adventurous he was from averaging six trips a year to Spain for a six year period (and eight per year for five years).

Without Don Pohren’s book (and to a great degree, James A. Michener’s Iberia) I may have never caught the spirit of the Spanish road that has sustained me now for more than 40 years.  


For that I owe Donn a now un-redeemable debt of gratitude and so do people such as Steve Metzler, who built a great and exemplary Spanish wine importing company, Classical Wines, based on his Pohren-inspired wine travels. Because of Donn, Metzler was inspired to find not only Pesquera and make Alejandro Fernandez's wine world famous, he even met his wife, Almudena. 

Neither of us saw Don Pohren as much as we would have liked to over the years, but fortunately several years ago in Madrid, I had an opportunity to let Donn know just how much his work meant to me and to the many who carry Spain in their hearts.


Pohren visited my late former wife Diana and I for lunch at our house in Mijas (Málaga) in 1974.  
Donn autographed Adventures in Taste to us.


I will miss the fact that Donn is no longer with us in body, but he will never die in the spirits and hearts of those who followed his incredible Quixotesque passion for Spain, flamenco, Spanish wine and traditional food and all things Spanish. (Quixote may have been a dreamer, but not a madman; those windmills he was tilting at were brought from the low countries and represented the domination of the foreign House of Austria, a powerful, inquisition wielding force that crushed those who dissented like Don Quixote after his encounter with the windmill sails.)

Donn Pohren was a dreamer and he may have seemed like a madman when he lived his life like a candle in the wind during his awesome flamenco juerga years, but to me Donn Pohren was a profound inspiration and he always will be. 

Vaya con Dios, Don Donn. I will raise a copita to you often in my journeys. I can see the angels lining up now for a juerga--a Spanish wine, food and flamenco party--the likes of which even heaven hasn’t seen.

The End

Gerry Dawes©2017
gerrydawes@aol.com

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

La Rioja: R. López de Heredia, The Wines of Yesterday


* * * * *

From A Traveller in Wines 
(A work-in-progress.)
by Gerry Dawes

“The 1947 Bosconia is the best red wine I have ever drunk.”

La Rioja: The Wines of Yesterday, the 19th Century bodega of R. López de Heredia 
in Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja Alta.   
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com




R. López de Heredia Slideshow
Double click on the slide show, then when the Google album comes up, 
click on slideshow link to the right and go to a full screen view.

During the 1970s when I lived in southern Spain, the northern wine district of Rioja came to represent an oasis to me during the hot, rainless summers of Andalucia, my spiritual home. By early July, the heat settles in over a large portion of Spain. The sun bears down relentlessly, especially in the Mediterranean portions of the country, driving millions of Spaniards to the beaches and cool mountain resorts. Coinciding with this time of year was our annual, much anticipated trek to Pamplona, where Hemingway's inveterate lost souls come from all over the world to see the sun rise on yet another Fiesta de San Fermín, which he immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. Since my former wife Diana and I counted ourselves among the admirers of the venerable Don Ernesto's fiesta, we too joined the migration each year.

We always set out at least a week before the commencement of festivities at Pamplona, so we could explore the Spanish countryside along the way. On one of these trips, we discovered the Rioja and it became our favorite place to pass some quiet time before surrendering to the wild, week-long festivities at Pamplona, where peace, tranquillity, and sleep are rare commodities and not even particularly desirable ones at that. We looked forward to the Rioja country, where we could taste fine wines in cool bodegas, sample superb country cuisine, and enjoy the scenery, history, and milder climate of this high mountain valley.

These were the days long before modern super highways were built across Spain and before most cars, including our magnificent Volkswagen sedan, Rocinante, had air-conditioning, so to avoid some of the scorching road heat of summertime Spain, in late afternoon we would leave Mijas, our pueblo on a mountain overlooking the Costa del Sol. We would drive into the wee hours of morning to escape the steady daytime flow of North African workers and their families, who once released on their month-long holiday from Northern European factories, maniacally pushed their lumbering, overloaded cars and vans down through Spain, hell-bent on reaching the beaches and homeward-bound ferries of the southern coast. Apart from diminishing our chances of being maimed by a Peugeot or a Mercedes van, the night offered some relief from being stuck behind the long queues of laboring Spanish trucks belching noxious black exhaust.

After stopping for a brief sleep at a Valdepeñas pensión, we would drive on through Madrid in the early morning hours to reach the ancient Castilian capital of Burgos–the city of El Cid–by midday. There we headed East towards the Rioja. In less than an hour, as the road climbed, the vegetation became increasingly verdant, the air fresher and cooler. The greener landscape, now showing some vineyards, soothes the soul as well as the body as the heavy layers of oppressive road heat peel away. The promise of a thundershower bringing the cool, night breezes of the Rioja would soon put the dust of the southern summer behind us.

We had arranged for two old friends, Alice Hall, the dowager empress of American bullfight aficionados of Milledgeville, Georgia and Carolyn Moyer of Davis, California to join us in a tour of the Rioja on our way to Pamplona. On this occasion, in 1973, we had written the firm of R. López de Heredia at Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja Alta, letting them know that we again wished to visit their bodega. The reply had come in the charming, graceful Spanish of a more genteel age. It went something like, "...We cannot tell you what joy the news of your imminent visit has produced in our bodega. It would be our great pleasure to receive you." 


By 10:00 on the morning of our visit, after a breakfast of rolls and café con leche, the four of us were down in the bodegas of R. López de Heredia for our "second breakfast" - - a wine tasting. Here, in surroundings as incredible as any I have known in the world of wine, Sr. Anastasio Gútierrez Angulo, the firm's export manager, let us taste some of his twenty-year old reservas–wines made in the style of a different era–wines of yesterday.


The 19th Century bodega of R. López de Heredia 
in Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja Alta.   
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com

The bodega had all the trappings of a nineteenth-century operation patterned on the chais of Bordeaux (and in 2008, still does). The winery workers even wear blue coveralls as many of the staff at French chateaux still do. In time-honored fashion, barrels are still crafted in the winery's own cooperage. We saw workers cracking eggs from the firm's chicken farm to get fresh egg whites for fining the wines. Other employees laboriously filled bottles with reserva wines by hand and corked them with a hand-operated corking device. 

The cooperage at the 19th Century bodega (f. 1877) of R. López de Heredia.
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com

Anastasio led us through a man-made maze of cool, barrel-filled limestone caves to the deepest part of the bodega - the room known at R. Lopez de Heredia as the cementerio - the cemetery. The cementerio is the resting place of the old vintage reservas dating from the founding of the firm in 1877. This cellar gets its name from the storage bins lining its walls, which very much resemble the burial niches in the Roman-plan cemeteries of Spain. Bin after bin is filled with dusty bottles from the greatest vintages of the past. At one end of the room is a large round wooden table whose centerpiece is a huge, gnarled, cobweb-covered old grapevine surrounded by bottles of wine. 

Barrel being rolled to another location at the 19th Century bodega (f. 1877) of R. López de Heredia. 

Our host, Anastasio, had selected two gran reservas from the fine 1954 vintage for us to taste. The first was Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva, a lovely, elegant Bordeaux-style wine of breed and complexity. The second wine was a more intense, dark ruby wine in a burgundy bottle, Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva, which was showing signs of evolving into a big, warm, rich wine - aterciopelado (velvety), as the Spaniards call it. The Viña Bosconia had a particularly beautiful nose, one which reminded me of a wonderful phrase that Michael Wigram, a wealthy Englishman who lives in Madrid and is and one of the world’s foremost bullfight aficionados, had used to describe another 1954 reserva at a luncheon during the Feria de Sevilla in 1973, "Gets a nice bloom on it after nineteen years, don't you think?"

These wines did indeed have "a nice bloom" on them. They were wines to be enjoyed, not merely tasted and spit on the floor of the bodega, so we sipped them while Anastasio gave us the most charming description of Rioja winemaking I have ever heard. First he described the normal processes of vinification, barrel aging, bottling, and so forth for the bodega's "bread and butter" - the table wines made to sell in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the vintage. Then, when he came to the subject of gran reservas, the classic Rioja reservas from exceptional vintages, he began to speak of the wine as a living thing. In this place called the cemetery, he brought his wines to life. Speaking softly, but with passion in his beautifully enunciated Castilian Spanish, he described the wine's "education."

"You see," he began, "in the beginning, a gran reserva is like a young man. Here in the bodega, he gets a proper `education,' then is bottled and becomes a young caballero. At about 25 years he reaches the peak of his youth, then he mellows out to about the age of, say, 35-40, when he gradually begins to tail off. However, some of these fellows do well even after fifty. A few years ago the owners allowed three bottles of the 1914s to be opened for a celebration. The second bottle was in fine condition."

It would be a day to remember - Anastasio's wonderful analogy and his beautiful wines were just the beginning. We were four good friends glowing with wine and in the mood for fiesta. At Merendero Toni in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, we lingered over one of those wonderful Spanish lunches: a simple salad of garden-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, and onions at the peak of their flavor, succulent baby lamb chops al sarmiento (grilled over grapevine prunings), crisp fried potatoes, and lots of vino tinto de la Rioja.

After lunch, with a tape playing jotas, the folk songs of Navarra, La Rioja and Aragón, we took the breathtaking drive up to the Balcon de la Rioja for splendid views of the entire Rioja valley. Diana and Alice, euphoric from the wine, the food, and the splendor of the day, danced the jota on the mountain as a Spanish family stared incredulously at two foreigners–Alice a septuagenarian at that–performing the lively regional dance of northern Spain in their own private fiesta.

Over the years, I drank many bottles of López de Heredia’s wines including the 1942 Viña Bosconia and 1947 Viña Bosconia, which at the time I thought were two of the greatest red wine I had ever drunk. I also visited López de Heredia several times and became friends with Anastasio Gútierrez and Pepe Osses, who succeeded him. 


One day Anastasio and I were touring the bodega. We had just come out of the firm’s picturesque cooper’s shop, which has always reminded me of Diego Velasquez’s Vulcan’s Forge in the Prado. Suddenly, there in front of us was an old man in a wheelchair. He wore a black beret, wore a sweater and had a terribly swollen, bare foot that looked like a encrusted stump.

“¿Ya sabes quien es (you know who this is)?” Anastasio asked me. It was Don Rafael López de Heredia–the son and namesake of the bodega’s founder of the bodega–who, from the looks of his foot, was in the twilight of his life. He still made the rounds of the bodega every day though, coming down from his office in the winery‘s marvelous red-trimmed, landmark arte nouveau tower via the elevator that had been built especially for him. 


 
Rafael López de Heredia, founder of the bodega. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com


Anastasio introduced me to him and we shook hands. I was excited to finally meet a family member after half a dozen visits to the winery. I asked him if he minded if I photographed him. He didn’t and I took several color slides. When I put the camera aside, he asked me, “Well, if you took my photograph, you surely won’t mind if I take yours.” He pulled out a camera that he always carried with him and took my picture. I was astounded that this bright, but dying, old man loved photography as much as I did.

Before the encounter with Don Rafael, Anastasio and I had been tasting several of López de Heredia’s wonderful wines in the cementerio and, as I described on my first visit, they were not wines to spit on the floor, nor did I. Perhaps that led to my confusing the two cameras that I was carrying. Don Rafael left and, since the roll in one camera was finished, I rewound it. As I was talking to Anastasio, I started to reload the camera. To my horror, I opened the camera in which the roll was not finished, the one with the photographs of Don Rafael on it. I soon as I saw what I had done, I snapped the back shut and rewound the film. When I returned to New York, I had the film developed. There was the image of Don Rafael, clear and bright, but with rays from the light flashing on the film all around. They were strange pictures, ruined for publication, but I kept them, perhaps to use if I ever needed to describe him in detail. Later I would discover that those photographs were the last ones ever taken of Don Rafael. Shortly after my visit, he died.

Years later, I visited Anastasio at the bodega again and took several photographs of him. It was clear that he was near retirement. In the late 1980s, I was visiting López de Heredia in the company of Pepe Osses and I asked him about Anastasio. Pepe told me that Anastasio had retired and had been ill, but he had told him I was coming and that I wanted to see him. I telephoned Anastasio from the bodega to let him know that I had arrived and he said he would come down. “I have something for you.”

Pepe and I were tasting a fine old vintage of Viña Tondonia when Anastasio arrived. We embraced and I felt how frail he was. I had know him almost fifteen years by then. He had a folder with him and he pulled a photograph from it. “I thought you might want this,” he said, and handed me a photograph of myself, taken by Don Rafael López de Heredia during that chance encounter several years earlier. Tears came to my eyes. I was overwhelmed. I hugged Anastasio again and thanked him, then raised my glass of Tondonia and toasted him, “Mil gracias, mí viejo amigo, mil gracias.” It was a fabulous and thoughtful present from an old friend.

It was the last time I ever saw Anastasio. He died shortly after my visit, but I still visit , because it is one of the world’s most wonderful, picturesque, and traditional bodegas. Now I stop in to see my old friend, Pepe Osses; the current director, Pedro López de Heredia; Pedro’s thirty-something daughters Maria Jésus and Mercedes; and son-in-law, Carlos, all of whom help carry on the tradition.


María Jésus López de Heredia in El Cementerio
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com

During a visit in 2002, just a year short of the 20th anniversary of my first visit to López de Heredia, I was invited to dinner at the winery with some thirty other Spanish and foreign wine writers who were attending a three-day tasting session of Rioja wines called Los Grandes de la Rioja. Formal dining tables were set up inside one of the most spectacular naves of the bodega. We were surrounded by huge 50,000-liter wooden vats that have been used to ferment and store wines here for more than a century. The subdued lighting, from old style, low-wattage and flickering candles created a fantastic ambience. I was seated next to María Jésus López de Heredia, with whom I had become friends in recent years. As we were chatting during dinner, I told her about my experiences with the 1947 Viña Bosconia in the mid-1870s and told her that I still believed after more than 30 years of drinking Spanish wines and 20 years selling the best wines of France, Italia and the United States to the top restaurants in New York, the 1947 Bosconia was still the best red wine I had ever drunk.

“Have you tasted it recently?” I asked.

“No, but, if you think it is that good, there we are going to taste it now. Just don’t tell anyone else,” she answered.

Maria Jésus called a bodega worker over and had a brief discreet discussion. The man left the room and ten minutes later returned with two bottles from the cementerio, one of which he opened on an empty station table between two of the wine vats, the other was a backup bottle in case the first bottle was flawed. It was the 1947 Bosconia, now 57 years old. It had been one of Anastasio’s young lads of 27 when I last drank it in 1974. Now, even with another 29 years tacked on, the wine was still magnificent. I was gratified to find that it every bit as stupendous as had I imagined it to be all these years. It was easily a 100-point wine, even coming on the heels of the great 1964 Viña Tondonia and 1964 Viña Bosconia–itself a 98-point maravilla– that we had drunk earlier at the dinner. No fading rose, the 1947 Bosconia still had a deep black ruby color and fabulous deep, ripe nose. The great acidity was in perfect balance with delicious fruit and still firm tannins, which needed food to soften them up. 



 
R. López de Heredia, Barro de la Estacion, Haro (La Rioja). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes, copyright 2008 / gerrydawes@aol.com

Even though Maria Jésus had sworn us the secrecy, the wine caused quite a stir at our table. We attracted the attention of her sister, Mercedes, who upon quizzing Maria Jésus, demanded that the other bottle of 1947 Bosconia be opened for her table. I called Paul White, an American wine writer who lives in New Zealand, aside and shared some of my glass with him. He, too, was astounded by the quality of this nearly 60-year old perfectly preserved museum piece that has stood the test of time and represents the pinnacle of quality that La Rioja is capable of obtaining–wines that do indeed still have a beautiful “bloom” to them even decades after the wines were made.

During the early part of the millenium, denigrating the traditional wine houses of La Rioja became a significant national pastime among Spanish wine writers, many of whom would have us believe that truly great wines must be dark as ink, overripe, above 14% alcohol and infused with enough new oak flavor to evoke visions of a sawmill.  The time-honored house of R. López de Heredia, who has been making fine wines for more than 125 years came under attack as colorless, flavorless wines made by antiquated methods. I feared that they would have to dramatically change their philosophy and the style of their wines to survive. It has been heartening in the past few years to see young sommeliers from the United States and other countries embrace these wines for what they are: the unique, finely crafted, wonderfully drinkable wines of another era.  I call them the wines of yesterday.

– The End –

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
About Gerry Dawes
 

Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés, The James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef in America 2011

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts


 Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Tale of The Alhambra: Moonlight, The Moorish Baths & A Cigarette Lighter



 * * * * *


 
by Gerry Dawes ©2013

In the depths of La Alhambra, Robert struck the flint wheel of the Zippo lighter his uncle had given him when he left for his Navy tour-of-duty in Spain. In the lighter's flame, the walls of the old Moorish baths were bathed in a warm glow and the water in the bathing basins reflected the flickering yellow light. With the glow of the light, Robert, Julia, and Paul Andrews, a Baltimore doctor touring Spain, momentarily lost the spooky sensations they had been feeling as they stood in darkness, which was pierced only by the filtered light of the full moon as it passed through the glass covering the small eight-pointed star-shaped skylights of the 14th-Century baths.

Adding to the escalofriante (spine-tingling) air of being down in this old place, at night, in the dark, was the fact that what they were doing was totally illegal and they were doing it in national monument in Generalisimo Franco's Spain. And they were lighting their way only by a cigarette lighter, which quickly got too hot to hold, and was running low on fluid. Robert gingerly flipped the top on the lighter and light went out. Juggling it in his hands he laid it on the edge of one of the baths to cool.

It might have been spooky down there, but, what an adventure they were having, clandestinely exploring sections of the Alhambra that were closed to the public at night! Along the way, before they had reached the baths, they had stood in the shadows, watching as a few people shuffled through the lighted sections that had been approved for the night tour.

It was a wonderful May night. The sky was clear and there was a full moon. The cool blue-white moonlight washed over the old Nasrid fortress, which takes up a whole ridge above the magical old city of Granada. Someone had told Paul that sometimes you could still hear nightingales singing in the Alhambra on nights of the full moon. "Maybe you will be lucky and hear them," the man had said, "they don't like pollution; it is believed that the exhaust from automobiles is driving them away."

Most of the tourists who visited La Alhambra during the day either didn't realize this was one of the two nights per week that the Alhambra was open or they simply did not want to trek back up the hill after touring all day. So, Robert, Julia, and Dr. Paul were sharing the grounds and palaces of this fantastic old Moorish stronghold with at most 20 other people and just a few guards who tended to move around as the main body of tourists moved through. 


At one point in the Hall of the Ambassadors, Robert, who was familiar with the layout of the Alhambra, noticed that they were the only people in that section. He looked around for the guards and saw no one. "Follow me," he whispered to the others and moved a short white wooden picket fence-like barrier that was the only thing blocking anyone from entering the closed off areas of this magical palace. "If anyone sees us, act lost and speak only in English," he told Julia and Paul. "Pretend to be grateful that they have found us."



They crept quietly, treading carefully, walking Indian-like along the passageways, keeping to the shadows when they spotted a tourist or a guard in the lighted sections across a courtyard, whose fountains still bubbled in the night, splashing and gurgling, making the same sounds they did when this remarkable place was inhabited by the Moors back in the 14th and 15th centuries. Always in these Moorish places, there was water, the most prized liquid in world to the desert-rooted Moor. They built man-made oasises into their palaces and the sound of water was an unbroken link to the past, like music from a bygone era. There were the fountains like the one in the Court of the Lions and there were long, deep pools for ornamentation--now with goldfish--and for bathing. The pools were surrounded with hedges and palm trees. This place must have been a paradise on earth for the Moorish ruling class.


And, now Robert, Julia, and Paul had it to themselves. Robert wished that just he and Julia were sharing this magical night. Had they been alone, perhaps, on one of the benches in the Moorish baths with just the shafts of moonlight shining on them, they could have--and probably would have. . .

The sound of footsteps brought Robert out of his momentary fantasy and they saw a the glow of a light coming from around the corner at the end of the passageway to the right. Someone, probably a security guard, was coming. "Let's get out of here," Robert whispered.

Now Robert hoped he could quickly find his way back to an area where they could casually stroll around a corner into a lighted area, blend in with some of the other people and drift on out of the Alhambra, having pulled off a spectacular romantic coup, a tale that with retelling would ripen into vintage nostalgia.

They felt their way along the tunnel-like corridors, sometimes in near darkness, sometimes in filtered moonlight. At one point, it was so dark that Robert reached for his lighter, but realized he no longer had it. He must have left it at the bath, when he put it down to cool.

"Damn it," he thought, "the only thing I can do is come back in the morning, get in line early, pay another admission, and see if I can get back to the baths to retrieve it before some one finds it."
At last, feeling their way along the wall, they came to some steps that they hoped would lead them back to a place where they could blend in again in the legal zones of palace.
At the top of the stairs, Robert, stopped. "Stop! Freeze!," he whispered in the direction of Julia and Paul. "Don't make a sound." 
They listened, but heard no footsteps and saw no light. Perhaps the guard had just been checking the baths, saw no one and went back the way he had come.

Then they all heard something else. They remained still and heard it again. It was the sweet song of the nightingale on a night of the full moon in the Alhambra of Granada and they had a truly magical element to add to the tale of their night in the old Moorish fortress.

At the top of the stairs was a place that Robert knew. He silently removed the little wooden barrier and they passed back into the legal areas. Robert put his hands in his pockets and they strolled through a filigree doorway and into a lighted, arabesque-adorned hall. A guard motioned for them to hurry, it was closing time. He ushered them along towards an exit to the public grounds outside. As they rounded the corner of Palacio de Carlos V, a big, square, blocky building that was as incongruous in this graceful place as a sumo wrestler dancing a Swan Lake ballet, a flashlight-toting guard came up behind them.
"Señores, perdonen," he said, "?Es de ustedes?" He asked, holding a Zippo lighter with Robert's initials on it.

"No," Robert said, "No fumo (I don't smoke)."

"Pues, nada," said the guard, and they walked away.

The guard flipped open the Zippo, lit a cigarette and inhaled a puff from the black Spanish Ducado cigarette and, grinning, watched Robert, Julia and Paul disappear into the night.
- The End -

Gerry Dawes©2017
gerrydawes@aol.com

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Homage to Patxaran (Pacharán): The Pretty Ruby-colored Macho Drink of Northern Spain


* * * * *



Patxaran (from the Basque paitar and aran ("sloe"), called pacharán in Castilian Spanish, the red sloeberry anís made by macerating arándanos, or endrinas, (sloeberries) from the blackthorn shrub in fine anisette spirits for several months (one part fresh sloeberries to three parts anisette).   Patxaran Navarro is controlled by an official denominación de origen, or D. O., like wine, and must contain no artificial flavorings or additives.  Sometimes a few coffee beans or cinnamon sticks are added to the patxaran casero housemade styles.   The maceration period can run from one to eight months.  Some homemade patxaran leave the berries in the anís.


Patxaran would seem to be the last drink on which to base macho memories, but in northern Spain everyone from Basque woodchoppers and daredevil bullrunners at Pamplona to the star chefs of El País Vasco’s great Michelin-rated restaurants drink this stuff - - often over ice. I first tasted Patxaran in 1971, when my old friend José Ramón Jorajurría, the “printer’s devil,” as I called him (he worked in a print shop), decided to make me only the second American to be invited into the Peña Anaitasuna (the other was the famous bullrunner Matt Carney, who was featured in James A. Michener’s Iberia; Joe Distler, the great bullrunner and my dear friend was the third). 

Anaitasuna is one of Pamplona’s legendary social and drinking peñas,or clubs. During the Fiestas de San Fermín, the peñas carouse all over town behind their raucous, but accomplished, band of musicians, drinking, singing and dancing the infectious northern folk dance, the jota, and generally raising Hell for eight days. The peñas all sit in the same section in the sun at the bullfights and drink, eat, sing, dance, throw flour and food all over one another, generally raising some more Hell. On the 11th of July, they have DIMASU (Día del Marido Suelto), which means Husband’s Day Out, an excuse to stay out for 24 hours straight, do even more drinking, singing, dancing, and, you guessed it, Hell raising. 

But, at midday on DIMASU, they retire to their clubhouse, which is like an Elk’s Club, only much bigger and with a health club, an Olympic swimming pool, plenty of rooms and facilities for family activities. There the men of Anaitasuna have a gargantuan lunch followed by cigars and heroic amounts of Patxaran.   Among the few things I remember about that day, aside from feeling supremely honored at having been invited, was that I didn’t like Patxaran. That was then, this is now. Like Scotch, drinking Patxaran is an acquired taste. Over the years I have acquired it; I love Patxaran. It’s nutty, sweet red fruit and anisette flavors are a great counterpoint for a good cigar.

One year, while touring the Basque Country with Chef Mark Miller (who then had Coyote Cafes in Santa Fe, Austin, and Las Vegas and Red Sage and Raku in Washington), on a cool misty afternoon at Kaia, a fabulous seafood restaurant in the port of Getaria near San Sebastián, I ordered a Patxaran after a stunning meal that featuring fresh house-cured anchovies, grilled sardines, and a whole wood fire-grilled turbot. Our server poured, over ice into a large brandy snifter, a very generous portion of Baines ‘Etiqueta de Oro (gold label),’ the Aston Martin of Patxaranes. A fine Montecristo completed the picture and all was well with the world by the time we finished lunch - - at 6:00 p.m.! (Some other brands of Patxaran to look for are the easier-to-find regular bottling of Baines, Basarana, Etxeko, and the brands you are more likely to find in the United States, Atxa and Zoco).




 

Then there was the glorious afternoon of the 14th of July, 1998, I believe, when John Ewing and I brought two liters of patxaran that we had been given by the sisters at Restaurante Hartza.  I got the fine folks at Hotel Maissonnave in Pamplona to partially fill a garbage bag with ice, put the jug of patxaran in it and put that into a wine box.  Somewhere we procured a couple of dozen plastic copitas so we could share the patxaran with the whole tendido.  We took the box with us to our seats in Tendido 9 and after the merienda, we began distributing the iced-down, Hartza house-made patxaran to about 20 people around us.  We indeed, lit up the whole tendido.  After most of our tendido had cleared out Ewing and I lingered in our seats, telling stories and drinking more patxaran. 




    


Below us, Tom Gowen and "Australian George" Danick appeared in the bullring callejón in front of our tendido, so we gave them some, too.  One of them took the picture above--George, I believe.  It remains one of my favorite memories of San Fermín.






Remember the Sloe Gin Fizz? Patxaran, which once a homemade concoction, has become one of the most popular drinks in Spain, bit it has only a remote relationship with that American sloe gin sensation of decades past. Patxaran, a ruby-garnet colored, Navarrese-Basque destroyer of brave men and levitator of adventurous women, is made by macerating sloe berries (called endrinas, arandanos, or arañones in Spanish; patxarán in Basque) in a sweetened, anís-flavored aguardiente. Patxaran de Navarra (from Navarra) even has its own protected Denominación Específica (DE - - which refers to the method of production, whereas in wine, denominación de origen (DO) refers to the area). The endrina fruit grows wild throughout Europe, but 110 experimental hectares of sloe berries have been planted in Navarra to insure a continuous supply from within the denominación for some of the nearly eight million liters of Patxaran produced annually.
 



DE Patxaran de Navarra, which averages 25 to 30 percent alcohol by volume, is produced by infusing orujo (aguardiente or marc) or agricultural-based alcohols with the essence of anís oils, then macerating sloe berries in the anís-flavored alcohol for a minimum one month to a maximum of eight months for each liter of Patxaran produced. Old-timers back in the hills of Navarre say that eating the berries after they are macerated in the anís cause you to go loco or develop a permanent dislike of patxaran, the latter of which I personally do want to risk, so I don’t eat the sloe berries.

Only the commercial Patxaran brands Zoco (made by Larios), Atxa and a few others are presently available in the United States. The attractively packaged Etxeko and Las Endrinas brands, found in duty-free shops in Spain, are quite good. Top Spanish wine and licores shops, such as the Club de Gourmets shops in Spain’s El Corte Inglés department store chain, stock the superb Baines Patxaran de Arañon and the top-of-the-line Baines Etiqueta Oro (Gold Label) bottling.

Once looked down upon as a blue-collar regional drink from Navarra, patxaran is now popular with everyone from Pamplona bullrunners, Basque woodchoppers, and heirs apparent to Hemingway’s Lady Brett to discriminating Spanish winemakers. An incident at a private luncheon held in Madrid before a fútbol match a few years ago underscored the popularity of Patxaran. Mariano García, for 30 years the winemaker at Vega Sicilia and now a much sought-after enologist considered to be Spain’s top winemaker, invited me to lunch with a group of his friends at Mesón Txistu. They had come to the capital to root for the Valladolid soccer team, in what was thought to be a hopeless match with powerful Real Madrid (the game ended in a 2-2 tie, which under the influence of patxaran, I had correctly predicted).



After a long, laid-back luncheon that featured almost every wine García has a hand in (Mauro, Mauro Vendimia Seleccionada, Maurodos San Román, Leda, Luna Beberride), coffees were ordered and cigars were lit. The proprietor then suggested post prandials. I ordered Patxaran on the rocks in a brandy glass (as it is often served in Spanish restaurants after meals).  The owner was aghast. With a somewhat patronizing tone, suggesting that a foreigner should be properly instructed in what constitutes a proper drink to end a meal, he suggested that I couldn’t possibly want to drink Patxaran after having drunk Mariano Garcia’s superb wines, some of which are among the most expensive in Spain.

 


I held my ground, however, and asked him to pour my favorite, Baines Etiqueta Oro, if he had it. Garcia, who had been somewhat distracted in conversation during my exchange with the owner, chimed in, “Make that two.” Shaking his head, the poor man went off to get Patxaran for the foreigner and for Spain’s legendary winemaker.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________ 
About Gerry Dawes  


Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 


". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
 
Mr. Dawes is currently working on a reality television series 
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Donn Pohren, The Great Flamencologist Who Also Wrote The Trailblazing Book For Discovering Artisan Wines in Spain



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Madrid, Spain - American writer and well-known Flamencologist Donn Pohren died in Las Rozas [a Madrid suburb] on November 5, 2007. His wife, Luisa Maravillas provided a brief statement: "I regret to inform you all that Donn passed away the 5th of November, during the night. Sometime in the near future I intend to organize a gathering of friends and aficionados in Las Rozas."  - - Contributed by: WMC_News_Dept.  11/07/2007 08:35AM

Donn Pohren was regarded as one of the leading experts in Flamenco in the English language and wrote several influential books about the subject. "Donn Pohren's book was the first thing I bought when arriving in Andalucía, before I even knew how much my life would be involved with and changed by flamenco. It helped me understand a lot that was to come," says British expatriate Kate Edbrooke, who runs a recording studio in Granada and has produced several Flamenco recordings by local artists.


The Significance of Flamencologist Donn Pohren
and His Impact on Spanish Wine & Food
Que descansa en una juerga de “pura ma're” with a copita in front of him
and Diego del Gastor playing alongside him.

Copyright by Gerry Dawes 2017. 

In 1972, Donn Pohren, a Minneapolis-born American who lived in Spain for decades and was the world's greatest foreign expert on flamenco, published his idiosyncratic underground classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain. I was living in southern Spain when I first encountered Pohrens's book (privately printed in Spain) soon after it was published and it had a profound effect on me. In the early years, I never traveled without it. At first, I merely wanted to have some of the wine and food experiences that he had described. Soon, I was having new experiences of my own, experiences that would eventually lead to my becoming a widely published writer on Spanish wine and food and a recognized authority in the field.
  
Donn Pohren's Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain


Adventures in Taste, self-published by Pohren in 1972.


Pohren wandered around the Iberian Peninsula in the 1960s exploring the nooks and crannies of Spain's 4,000,000 acres of vineyard lands, the largest acreage of any country in the world. He would pop into a village bar, ask for a glass of the local vino, then casually ask who made the best wine in town. On many occasions, Pohren would soon find himself being offered several samples as one vintner after another vied to show this foreigner that his wine was the best in the village. In his book, Pohren described encounter after encounter with artisan winemakers who were making excellent wines, many of which were unknown to the outside world in those days.


Pohren's Map of the Wine Regions of North Central
 (He did not cover Galicia!)

However, many of the wines Pohren described were wines whose charm soon faded if anyone tried to transport them beyond the boundaries of their home region. The winemaking techniques were often primitive. In many places the grapes were still crushed by treading, then fermented in open stone or cement vats, and aged in less than meticulously cared for barrels. The result was a flawed wine, which often tasted good with the local food, but was simply not stable enough to "travel" and was not the stuff to thrill sophisticated wine connoisseurs. Still, Don Pohren swore by the inherent quality of many of these Spanish wines and he was right.

His experiences have always been in the back of my mind and have served me well on numerous occasions, such as an encounter on my first trip to then unknown Priorat in 1988. Firmly in Pohren's shoes, I entered an old-fashioned, untidy cellar, where I was given a flawed wine to taste, but the underlying base wine was clearly very good. I judged the prospects for this region to be so promising that I came back wrote the first major article about the potential of Priorat. Alvaro Palacios and crew arrived the next year and began to make history. Recently, in Ribeira Sacra, I have run into some flawed wines (less so every year), just as a did in Priorat nearly twenty years earlier. Tasting "underneath" the sometimes inexperienced wine making techniques, I found enormous potential. I know Donn would have as well.

What Pohren tasted in those wines while researching his book forty years ago was the materia prima (raw material; grapes, soil and climate), the exceptional juice from grapes which often came from old vines, whose average yield of wine per acre of vines was less than half that allowed by the best appellations of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  Even backward winemaking techniques couldn't keep the underlying quality from showing through; Pohren's Spanish wines were diamonds in the rough.

In the years since Donn Pohren wrote his book, exciting things have happened which promise an incredible future for both Spain's traditional wines and those of emerging wine regions. Spain's nearly four decades-old democracy has been the catalyst for a modern renaissance in fashion, art, literature, cinema, and gastronomy and it has ushered in a technological revolution in wine making as well. A key element in this was Spain's acceptance in 1992 as a member of the European Economic Community, the Common Market (now the European Union), which posed a special challenge to Spanish wine producers: compete on a quality level with the other wines of Europe or enter the over-saturated European wine "lake," and be lost in the crowd.

Fortunately, Spain opted for quality. Many forward looking people in the Spanish wine trade began to see Spain's entry into the European Union as both a new challenge and a new opportunity for their wines. These challenges and opportunities would require a reassessment of their positions in both the domestic and export markets, an upgrading of their winemaking technology, and consistent quality in their wines. Emile Peynaud, Alexis Lichine, and other consultants were brought in from France to advise winemakers in the Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rueda. The best enologists from Rioja, Penedes, and Navarra traveled to other regions share their expertise. Young Spanish winemakers trained in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and at the University of California - Davis. Miguel Torres Riera, the maestro of Catalan winemaking, and Jose Peñin, Spain's foremost wine authority, wrote important books about Spain's future in the wine world. New wine books, periodicals, and gourmet journals proliferated. Seminars, international wine symposiums, and wine competitions began to be conducted on a regular basis. And, importantly, wine clubs and societies were formed as an increasingly affluent and growing middle class in Spain began to appreciate the wines of its own country.

During the past three decades, investments in new wine making technology (especially in the area of fermentation control), better barrels (although accompanying by a lot of oak abuse!), experiments with new grape varietals, and the replanting of vineyards in some areas have begun to have a geometric effect on the overall quality level of Spanish wines. This progress in winemaking technique in Spain would not in itself account for such a dramatic effect–in fact, it is now often a detriment to authenticity--if it were not for the fact that Spain is a splendid natural vineyard endowed with many areas whose grape varietals have become perfectly acclimated over centuries to the micro-climate and soil in which they grow. 

All that was needed in many cases were winemakers dedicated to quality and the technology to achieve it. The grapes produced in the best wine areas of Spain–Rioja, Jerez, Cataluna, Ribera del Duero, Navarra, Rueda, and in many up and coming regions–have shown they are capable of producing wines which can stand alongside the best of France, Italy, and California. The Tempranillo of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero, for example, is coming to be recognized as a grape which can produce wines to rival those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.

The established, classic wine regions of Spain like Rioja and Jerez, while refining the techniques and polishing the skills which made them famous, also created exciting new areas of interest with small estates like Remelluri and Contino in Rioja and the emergence of such high-quality wines as the almacenista sherries of Emilio Lustau and the late harvest Navarra moscatels from Julián Chivite, Ochoa and Viña Aliaga. Other areas whose wines were once underground legends in Spain, like those described by Donn Pohren, but whose viticulture was based on tiny artisan producers and ill-equipped cooperatives, began to realize their potential for making great wines.

Ribera del Duero, home of Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Mauro, and Viña Pedrosa; Navarra, the producer of perhaps the world's finest rosés; Priorato (Cataluna) and Toro (Castilla-Leon), whose rich, concentrated, blockbuster red wines have drawn international attention; Rueda, a surprising white wine region; and Rías Baixas, whose Albariños now count the U.S. as its most important export market, are just the most visible of the emerging wine regions capable of making first rate wine from native grapes. There are many more to come. 

Previously unknown regions–not many of which unknown to Donn Pohren–such as Bierzo, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras and Monterrei, along with Jumilla and many others–have either jumped onto the world wine stage or are just in the wings awaiting their call to stardom. Producers like Miguel Torres in Penedes, Julián Chivite in Navarra, Carlos Falcó at Dominio de Valdepusa and Codorniu's Raimat estate, just to name a few examples, have achieved new heights with foreign varietals, though even the best examples often fall short of the intriguing, delicious, uniquely Spanish wines made from indigenous varieties–the kinds of wines that Donn Pohren loved.

Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book. Following his example, I still ferret out little known producers and drive many kilometers out-of-the-way just to eat a dish in a little-known regional restaurant and, like Don, look beyond rusticity (or fancy trappings in some places) to find the core of something that is undeniably wonderful and unique to Spain. Only adventurers and indefatigable travelers can do what Donn Pohren did. I can attest to how indefatigable and adventurous he was from averaging six trips a year to Spain (eight per year in the past five years).

Without Don Pohren’s book (and to a great degree, James A. Michener’s Iberia) I may have never caught the spirit of the Spanish road that has sustained me now for more than 40 years. For that I owe Donn a now un-redeemable debt of gratitude and so do people such as Steve Metzler, who built a great and exemplary Spanish wine importing company, Classical Wines, based on his Pohren-inspired wine travels. Because of Donn, Metzler was inspired to find not only Pesquera and make Alejandro Fernandez's wine world famous, he even met his wife, Almudena. Neither of us saw Don Pohren as much as we would have liked to over the years, but fortunately several years ago in Madrid, I had an opportunity to let Donn know just how much his work meant to me and to the many who carry Spain in their hearts.


Pohren visited my late former wife Diana and I for lunch at our house in Mijas (Málaga) in 1974.  
Donn autographed Adventures in Taste to us.


I will miss the fact that Donn is no longer with us in body, but he will never die in the spirits and hearts of those who followed his incredible Quixotesque passion for Spain, flamenco, Spanish wine and traditional food and all things Spanish. (Quixote may have been a dreamer, but not a madman; those windmills he was tilting at were brought from the low countries and represented the domination of the foreign House of Austria, a powerful, inquisition wielding force that crushed those who dissented like Don Quixote after his encounter with the windmill sails.)

Donn Pohren was a dreamer and he may have seemed like a madman when he lived his life like a candle in the wind during his awesome flamenco juerga years, but to me Donn Pohren was a profound inspiration and he always will be. Vaya con Dios, Don Donn. I will raise a copita to you often in my journeys. I can see the angels lining up now for a juerga--a Spanish wine, food and flamenco party--the likes of which even heaven hasn’t seen.

The End

Gerry Dawes©2017
gerrydawes@gmail.com
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