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.

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

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.


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

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heavenly Nights in Old Castile: Adventures with Ambrosio Molinos, Maestro Cheesemaker and Subject of Michael Paterniti's "The Telling Room"

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 By Gerry Dawes©2013

Ambrosio Molinos with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings. 
Photo: Gerry Dawes©20004 /

A new book based on Ambrosio Molinos, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain, was released 30, July 2013.  Mike Paterniti recounts and credits my description in this chapter about “rotten pot” stew.  Paterniti, whom I met in Spain, told me recently that he has read this piece half a dozen times.

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Unlike many Spanish cities and coastal resort areas, which have lost much of their unique Spanish flavor to modern developers, the back country towns of the Duero River valley and the upland region of Burgos province known as the Cradle of Castile still smack of old Spain, the Castilian Spain of evocative landscapes, ancient castles, old monasteries, and brick baker’s ovens redolent of lambs roasting. For a period of almost ten years, when I was exploring the Ribera del Duero to write about its unique local wines, a few of which can hold their own with the world's finest, I came to know the area as well as any place in Spain.

Early on during my travels in the Ribera del Duero, I met Ambrosio Molinos, an aficionado of great regional food, a gourmand of repute, and one of the great artisan cheese makers of Castile. He, his wife Asunción, and their three children lived in Roa de Duero, a village with a rocky history, which stands on a high cliff overlooking the Duero.

Ambrosio Molinos and his wife, Asunción, with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings, Gúzman (Burgos province). Photo: Gerry Dawes©2004 /

It was the Pérez Pascuas brothers, the exceptional wine making family of the nearby village of Pedrosa, who introduced me to the stout, jovial Ambrosio, who came over to Pedrosa to eat wild boar with us and brought his guitar and one of his wonderful Burgos cheeses with him. Ambrosio has a quick and easy laugh, an incredible sense of humor, and always seemed to be in good spirits. We soon become fast friends because of a common interest in wine, regional cuisine, and his penchant for scandalous jokes. He began to join me on my explorations of the Ribera del Duero, sometimes driving me in his Land Rover, sometimes guiding me, often following, as I introduced him to things and people in his home region that even he didn’t know. Except for my propensity to gain weight when I spent time in the company of him and his robust appetite, I suppose I could travel with him for weeks on end, for I have know few more amiable companions.


Ribera del Duero. At a lunch that I arranged for a Commonwealth Club of California tour at Pérez Pascuas winery in Pedrosa de Duero. Ambrosio Molinos entertains with his guitar and his voice. No one wanted to leave. It was a magical afternoon. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2006 / /

Ambrosio loves to eat as much as anyone I have ever met. He relishes the intellectual aspects of gastronomy as well and can talk for hours about the art of eating, then on occasion after dinner, can spend another hilarious hour on the scatological joys of eliminating what he eats. He is a hefty man. One hot summer day, when I stopped by his home in Roa on a surprise visit when I was following Fran Rivera around Spain with a New York-based writer,I encountered Ambrosio shirtless, having a casual lunch with his family. When I kidded him about putting on weight, he clutched a roll of fat at his midsection, and told me, "That’s not me, that’s my shirt."

   Ambrosio Molinos in Roa de Duero. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

On several occasions, Ambrosio Molinos had told me about the Colegiata of Covarrubias and its famous polychrome wood triptych of the Epiphany, but on previous trips, it had been closed when I arrived, so this June day, I made arrangements to meet Ambrosio for lunch at a new Covarrubias restaurant, De Galo, and visit the Colegiata after lunch. It was to be another memorable day in Castile.

I arrived at a small parking area just outside the 16th-century gate that is the northern entrance to town just as Ambrosio was arriving in his Land Rover. As usual, we were both hungry, so lunch was the first order of business. It was three p.m., a civilized hour for two old friends and aficionados of good food to begin a serious lunch. However, on past trips, I had had little luck with the food in Covarrubias. I had distinctly bad memories from my first encounter years ago at the Parador de Arlanza across the Plaza Do a Urraca and the other restaurant on the square, Galín, was known for its middling comida casera ("home cooked" food), including olla podrida, literally, rotten pot stew, an undeservedly famous Castilian dish that Ambrosio had introduced me to a couple of years earlier.

One day over lunch at Julián de Tolosa, a trencherman’s Basque restaurant in Madrid, Ambrosio carefully related the recipe for a great rotten pot stew into my tape recorder, thus preserving for posterity the secret Castilian formula for mainlining pork: "First, an olla podrida should be made with alubias de Ibeas, the little black-red beans that come from around the village of Ibeas east of Burgos and are the best beans in Spain. That is most important. Then, in a clay stove top casserole, you slowly cook the beans with a special adobado (marinaded) pig foot, a marinaded pig’s ear, and pork ribs. The adobo marinade is made with salted water, to which orégano is added or, depending on the area, other spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, and paprika, sometimes even piquant paprika. The marinade, which gives the olla podrida its strong flavor, also preserves the meat, so it can be left all season in a cool place such as a basement or a cave. Then you put in some fatty chorizo, the one they call botage o, because it has a higher percentage of fat to lean, and some morcilla, blood sausage."

But, there is more. Ambrosio continued, " Once the olla podrida is cooked, you make what we call bolas, made from toasted hard bread that is then mixed some of the pork fat from the stew to make "balls," which are then fried and served on a platter alongside the olla. The meat that was cooked with the beans is served on a separate platter, the beans are also served on a separate dish, and guindillas, pickled onions and other pickled vegetables are served as a garnish. Then all you need is a big appetite." He then recommended a scandalous precaution, not to be repeated here, for the flatulence he said was sure to ensue from eating rotten pot stew.

I had gone with Ambrosio to one of these olla podrida pig-outs near Ibeas and he also had offered to take me to mother of all pig festivals at the Virrey Palafox restaurant in El Burgo de Osma in the neighboring province of Soria, where they have multi-course pig meals in February to celebrate the winter hog slaughter. But now, my concern was for Restaurante De Galo, whose chef-owner was the son of the owners of Galín, who were proud of their olla podrida. Just thinking about rotten pot stew conjured up visions of thousands of tiny porkers lumbering through my arteries in pursuit of the Pig Olympics gold medal for cardiac arrest.

Fortunately, De Galo turned out to be one of those great culinary surprises that can not only make your day, they can make your week and provoke future gastronomic pilgrimages. The restaurant was just inside the main village gateway, so we went straight in. Not only were we to have a great meal, I was introduced to another of the mysteries of Castile, one as basic to the human condition as food itself, but unique to this region and utterly fascinating. Inside the restaurant, in an ante room, was a cocina serrana, a "kitchen of the sierra," specifically the Sierra de la Demanda.

Chimenea serrana, Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / / 

Inside what was essentially a large chimney that tapered gradually to a small opening at the top was a large hearth, surrounding on three sides by benches, where the mountain people could sit on cold winter evenings as stew pots bubbled away, keeping warm, having communal meals, and, no doubt, tertulias, or gab fests, of legendary import, almost certainly repeating the great oral histories of the region. These cocinas serranas are as snug as a teepee and once I had seen one, I was immediately reminded of the pre-television days of my youth in my Illinois village when the communal joys of family and friends were everything. (In the Hotel Arlanza, there is another cocina serrana, this one now a part of the hotel bar and with a television installed. Somehow, it does not have quite the same charm as the one in Restaurante De Galo.)

Galo, Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

Our meal was as memorable as the cocina serrana. This man Galo could cook. We began by splitting a whole besugo escabechado, a sea bream marinated in an escabeche sauce and served cold. We mopped up the sauce with good coarse Castilian bread. Then came a local specialty that I seldom pass up when I see it on a Burgos-area menu, those alubias rojas de Ibeas that Ambrosio talked about. These were cooked with chorizo, served with grilled morcilla, and guindillas, the slender yellow-green piquant peppers that are a Basque specialty without which one, especially this one, does not consume his beans. The main course was vine-grilled baby lamb chops (served here with the kidneys), roasted potatoes, and what in recent years has become an indispensable side dish with roasted or grilled meats, delicious pimientos de piquillo, the sometimes slightly spicy little red peppers that are one of the great delicacies of Spain. We washed this repast down with a delicious, inexpensive Covarrubias wine from Ribera de Arlanza, a growing region that was on the verge of disappearing just a few years ago. Similar to a Ribera del Duero wine, but lighter and fresher, this Vi a Valdable, was not only perfect with the food, it cost less than the equivalent of $7. A café con leche, a delicious limited production Baines Pacharán from Navarra, and a Montecristo cigar were dessert, after which we would waddle off in the direction of the Colegiata.

Serving alubias (beans) at Restaurante De Galo. Covarrubias (Burgos). 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2012 / /

Over the years, Ambrosio and I developed a running gastronomic joke. First, in the morning, we claim to just about anyone who will listen, we have some breakfast, at which we discuss where to make our first stop for tapas, where we plot where to stop for the merienda (a kind of in-between-meals snack). After the merienda, it goes without saying that we need another tapa before lunch. After lunch, another tapas opportunity is in order, so we can discuss where we are going for the afternoon merienda, pre-dinner tapas, and then dinner, nothing too heavy, of course. Then there is the tough decision about where to have after-dinner drinks and cigars.

It is mid summer and I am with Ambrosio and his family on a path half way up the hill that rises above Ambrosio’s hometown of Guzmán, a small village located at the western edge of Burgos province just a few kilometers from Roa in what used to be known as Old Castile. At ten in the evening, the sun has just gone down over the páramo, the great stark Castilian plateau, which so captivated the imaginations of such writers as Antonio Machado and Miguel Delibes.

The páramo, like the large herds of sheep which graze these ancient hills, has recently been shorn of its cover. Gone are the infinite rows of ripening wheat that wave seductively over these hills earlier in the summer; now the fields are uniformly close-cropped and lay in the soft evening light looking like large tawny lions. From here, I can see a vast section of the great wine-growing Duero river valley and, in the distance, more hills where the last rays of the sun bathe the occasional hill top village with a rich golden light.

The hill behind me is honeycombed with family-owned wine and cheese caves, cool manmade caverns which were already centuries-old when Columbus discovered America. In a little stone shed built into the hill, Ambrosio and Asunción, are laying out the fixings for a simple, but first-rate and unforgettable dinner: a salad of garden-picked lettuce, perfectly ripened flavorful tomatoes, and sweet Spanish onions; wedges of Ambrosio’s superb Burgos sheep’s milk queso Castellano, a delicious, slightly sharp, white cheese; round, thin slices of home-cured country chorizo; chuletillas (milk-fed lamb chops), and red cherries picked from a villager’s trees. The meal will be accompanied by the rustic, but delicious, country wine which Ambrosio and his father buy from the cooperative in the neighboring village of Quintanamanvirgo, then age in large old barrels down in the cave next door. Ambrosio ages cheeses in his cave.

Soon we descend into the pitch dark depths of the wine cave, lighting our way by candles. The bodega, as a wine cellar is called in Spain, is perfectly cool and properly humid for ageing wine. It is rustic, old, full of atmosphere. There are cobwebs, mold, 16-liter bulbous glass garrafas with cork stoppers, a modest stash of bottled wines, a couple of smaller barrels, and a large cuba barrel, where last year’s harvest of wine is gaining character. Using a siphon, Ambrosio draws a good measure of dark red Ribera del Duero wine into a porrón, a beaker-like pitcher with a neck for putting wine in and with a long needle-nosed spout. The spout facilitates sanitary communal drinking for those who have mastered its use and wine-stained shirts or blouses and good-natured expletives from those who haven’t.

Part of the ritual demands that we sample the wine from porrón down in the cave. Ambrosio lifts the beaker by its glass neck and places the tip of the spout just inside his open mouth without letting it touch his lips or tongue. He elevates the bottom of the beaker and a thin stream of wine flows out. Once the flow begins, Ambrosio gradually extends the porrón to arm’s length taking the wine into his mouth in an arching stream that flashes ruby in the flickering candle light. Watching someone drink from a porrón in one of these wine caves is spectacular, beautiful, folkloric. There is almost a religious quality to this rite, a discernible atavistic pull that binds those who share from this vessel. This wine bonding, camaraderie in a jug, is the stuff of vintage nostalgia.

After a couple of more rounds, we draw more wine to top up the porrón and climb the hand-hewn steps out of the cave into the fresh evening air. Around us, other villagers are also preparing al fresco dinners in their own hillside merenderos, as they call these little huts, few of which are anything more than a cave anteroom with a stone table in front.

One of Ambrosio’s friends from the village has brought up a bundle of grape vine cuttings, which he sets alight on the ground in front of a rough masonry retainer wall. A blaze roars several feet above the bundle. I photograph this culinary pyre with the tower of the village’s 16th-century church, the rust-red, tejas-tiled roofs, and the lovely pastel vestiges of the glorious sunset as a backdrop. While the flame is blazing itself out, leaving only squiggly, glowing vine embers that are perhaps the perfect fire for cooking chuletillas, Ambrosio loads a hinged grill with two dozen little lamb chops. The grill has handles so that the whole device can be flipped over to finish cooking the other side.

While the chuletillas are roasting, we pass around the porrón and Ambrosio starts telling us about his 70 year-old father’s wine drinking habits. Ambrosio claims, that his father--the late Ambrosio padre--in his youth, drank three to four liters of wine per day. Some field workers drank six, he says. He calculates that his father has drunk some 85,000 liters of wine in his life. "Tres camiones cisternas--three tank trucks full," he figures.

 Ambrosio Molinos and his late father, Ambrosio, at the family home in Gúzman (Burgos province) with chuletillas al sarmiento, lamb chops cooked over grape vine cuttings.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2004 /

"His front tooth has a groove in it - - like limestone which water has dripped on for years - - where the stream of wine from the porrón hits it. When he had a stomach operation last year, the doctor told him he could only have one glass of wine per day, so he bought a very large glass. He refuses to drink water in months which have ‘r’ in them, so he still drinks a liter of wine a day."

Ambrosio’s hilarious account of his father’s love of wine is just the beginning. The smell of the fire-roasted lamb is irresistible and the cool wine flows freely, calling for another descent or two into the cave. We eat, drink, laugh, and talk until midnight. Out here in the Castilian countryside, the sky is a celestial canopy blazing with thousands of bright stars that seem to be hovering just above our heads. Finally, the cool air coaxes us down to the village bar for a café con leche and a brandy.

These are heavenly nights on the páramo of Castile.

--The End--
Read more about Ambrosio Molinos (I am mentioned in the text) in the new book:

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese  

by Michael Paterniti (Available July 30, 2013)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sunset in a Glass: Drinking Manzanilla Sherry at the Source

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Sunset in a glass, Manzanilla sherry along the Guadalquivir River at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which along with Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa Maria, is one of Spain’s three great sherry producing towns, Javier Hidalgo, producer of La Gitana manzanilla and an old friend, once told me, “If you ever have a glass of manzanilla at sunset on Bajo de Guía beach, you will never have another glass of manzanilla anywhere in the world without seeing the Sanlúcar sunset in the glass.”

That sounds like a zealous public relations invention until you have actually seen a Sanlúcar sunset with a glass of manzanilla in your hand. Picture yourself on Bajo de Guía beach at the western edge of Sanlúcar. The main part of town, where most of the sherry bodegas are located, is perhaps a kilometer behind you. Before you is a broad river, the Guadalquiver, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, a vista which stretches to the horizon. On the far bank of the river is the Coto Doñana, one of the greatest wildlife preserves and bird sanctuaries left in Europe and it is pristine, except for a small guard building on the shore and the remnants of a picnic carelessly left behind, which has drawn a wild boar down to the beach to forage. In the foreground, fishing boats roll in the gently lapping waves. A pair of old beached boats and several overturned fisherman’s dinghies, which make could seats for the viewing the sunset, are scattered along the beach. 

Langostinos de Sanlúcar with La Gitana manzanilla, in the evening, 
Bajo de Guía beach on the Guadalquívir River, Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
 Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Just before sunset, I usually purchase a couple of ice-cold half bottles of manzanilla, a plate of the famous langostinos de Sanlúcar (spectacular prawns), and some olives from Bigote, Casa Juan, or Mirador de Doñana, just three of more than a half dozen quality seafood restaur-ants facing the beach. I convince the owners that I will indeed return their catavinos, sherry glasses, and traipse across the sand with my culinary booty, the borrowed glasses, and my companion or companions (I once did this with a gourmet crowd of fifty people, including Chefs Allen Susser, Mark Miller, Jimmy Schmidt, and Robert del Grande) to one of the fisherman’s dinghies, preferably one with a flat bottom to serve as a table. I stake my claim to primo viewing rights, pull the tapón (stopper) from one of the bottles, pour a glass of manzanilla, and toast those who are going to watch today’s version of one of nature’s finer miracles with me. I never forget to toast my own good fortune at being in Sanlúcar de Barrameda at sunset once again.

La Gitana Manzanilla, half-bottle chilled.

Gerry Dawes©2008 /

To see a Sanlúcar sunset properly takes more than an hour and usually requires another quick sprint across the sands to replenish the stocks of cold wine, but the show is just beginning and we are on our first bottle of manzanilla as we peel and munch on those delicious prawns. The sun is a giant red-gold ball hanging out on the horizon and it seems to be plating the surface of the ocean with gold leaf. The fishing boats bobbing in the foreground are gradually becoming silhouettes. The smell of the fresh breeze off the Atlantic is echoed in the slightly salty taste of the manzanilla and the prawns, then one realizes that the greatest of wine and food matches are really wine, food, and place matches. I lift my glass to the sunset while the sun is still a perfect sphere above the horizon and see the whole scene repeated upside down in my glass.

As the sun begins to sink into the sea way out at what once was the far reaches of the ancient mariner’s world - - Sanlúcar is west of the straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules, beyond whose gates lay the unknown terrors of the vast open sea - - you almost expect the water to hiss as the blazing globe sinks below the horizon. One wonders what the sailors who accompanied Columbus when he sailed from Palos just 50 kilometers west of here - - Columbus sailed from Sanlúcar on his third voyage - - must have been thinking. 

Gazing out there in the direction of that magnificent golden sphere, you can imagine all those treasure-laden ships sailing into Sanlúcar, which was the customs point where the gold and silver was counted before the ships could proceed upriver to Sevilla, yet another place for this rich lucre to change hands before eventually ending up in the hands of German bankers. When you also know that most of the sailors who accompanied Magellan, when he sailed from Sanlúcar in an attempt to circumnavigate the earth, died and only one crippled ship commanded by a Basque, Juan Sebastián Elkano of Getaria, came limping back here three years later, you have a palpable sense of a monumental history to go with your sunset, your manzanilla, and your succulent langostinos

The sun disappears beyond the horizon, ending another day, and its golden glow is replaced by an enchanting array of yellows, reds, blues, purples. The first bottle of manzanilla is now a soldado muerto, (a “dead soldier”) and we are into the second or third, lulled into a delicious state of reverie by the wine, the beauty of the sunset’s changing colors (now they are pastels), and the smell of the sea. The cares of the modern world have been reduced to a speck on my mind’s horizon - - a speck that soon becomes the twinkling of the evening star as it appears, growing brighter as the Technicolor background grows darker. This evening star was called lucero by the ancients who did not realize it was the same as the morning star, Venus, so they built temples to both. They say Sanlúcar’s name is derived from lucero

As the star grows brighter, so do the lights beckoning from the bars and restaurants along Bajo de Guía beach. Enticing smells of grilled seafood, garlic, and spices drift across the sands, finishing the splendid job of whetting the appetite that the maritime air and the manzanilla have already begun. We have extracted the last hues of exquisite beauty from nature’s light show and savored the last drops of our manzanilla, so we head for Casa Bigote, a favorite tapas bar and my candidate for the greatest bar on earth.

Bigote is an old-time fisherman’s tavern, a real taberna marinera so picturesque in its trappings that it could have been created by the Ministry of Tourism, except it is too authentic to have been fabricated. At the entrance to the bar, there are the ubiquitous bullfight posters, the mounted head of a fighting bull, and a number of taurine photographs of local bullfighters (the second most famous product of Sanlúcar after manzanilla), many of whom have been very successful. Inside the bar, apart from bullfight paraphernalia, the decoration - - calling it decoration is being charitable - - is nautical, maritime, (actually the stuff that fishermen have dragged up in their nets for the last several decades), authentic, raffish, unique, and utterly captivating.

Behind the bar, perched on a small upturned barrel of Barbiana Amontillado Viejo, is a small image of the Virgen del Carmen (the patroness of the fishermen) mounted in the yawning jawbone of a small shark. On the wall behind the bar is a huge tortoise shell with “Bar Bigote - Bajo de Guía” spelled out with pieces of fisherman’s rope, several starfish, all sorts of odd crustaceans, a mounted fish, a whale bone, and photographs of a whale beached at Sanlúcar. And suspended from the rafters, along with a blowfish, are amphoras, the pottery urns, which were used in the days when Spain was a part of the Roman Empire to ship wine, oil, olives, pickled fish, and other foodstuffs back to Rome. 

Bar Bigote,  Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Among the habitues of Bigote is the great Matador José Martínez “Limeño,” one of my oldest friends in Spain and the padrino of Sanlúcar’s bullfighters. Limeño gained fame as a journeyman matador, who became so good at fighting the feared Miura breed that he won the trophy as the best bullfighter in the Feria de Sevilla, one of Spain’s most prestigious taurine events, three years in a row, something not even Juan Belmonte, Manolete, or Antonio Ordoñez had accomplished. I almost never visit Sanlúcar without meeting Limeño at Bar Bigote and for over the more than 25 years I have known him, he has been proved to be the catalyst for many of my most memorable wining and dining experiences in this extraordinary town. This evening is no different. I am meeting Limeño at Bigote.

Bar Bigote, El Rocio, Guadalquivir Crossing Day
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Bigote grew spontaneously as a by-product of this legendary port. It is now the successful creation of the owners, Fernando and Paco Hermoso, and three generations of fishermen who have frequented this place since the Hermoso’s father opened it in more than fifty years ago. The Hermoso brothers’ father was a fisherman with a large bigote, a moustache. In 1951, he opened a little bar on Bajo de Guía beach, when it used to be the point where the fisherman unloaded their catch (before they moved to the new port in the little suburb of Bonanza, a couple of kilometers away). The fishermen and the owners of the boat would go to Bigote after the catch was sold to divvy up the proceeds of the day’s catch and drink manzanilla. 

Señor Hermoso ran his little bar there until 1967, when he followed the fishing fleet upriver to Bonanza, Sanlúcar’s then-new fisherman’s port and site of the afternoon fish auction, which is conducted by a reverse bidding procedure in which the ceiling price is quoted first. Fernando and Paco Hermoso stayed at the original Bigote. Soon, they added a kitchen and a coffee machine. 
Fernando Hermoso is the chef. He learned to cook for the crew of young fishermen with whom he worked in the local waters. He has a natural talent for the great guisos marineros, or fishermen’s stews, for which Sanlúcar is famous. Aside from Bigote’s own considerable attraction as one of the greatest places in Spain to eat seafood (and drink manzanilla), one of Fernando’s dishes - - huevo marinero - - has provoked many a gastronomic pilgrimage on its own.  Huevo marinero, is a sublime dish of monkfish and shrimp, cooked with olive oil and manzanilla in a cazuela, a ceramics baking and serving dish. When the dish is bubbling hot, it is pulled from the fire, a fresh egg is cracked on top and is the yolk is still setting up as it is served. With a copita of manzanilla and a piece of local bread to mop up the sauce, this “fisherman’s egg,” is not just food, it is a culinary epiphany. Fernando is also famous for his rape a la marinera (another monkfish cazuela dish with saffron sauce) and raya a la naranja agría (skate in a sauce made with the juice of bitter oranges, the kind used to make orange marmalade). 

Fernando Hermoso, Chef-partner, Bigote, Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

More than a decade ago, Fernando and Paco expanded into the building across a little alleyway from the bar and have formal dining rooms where they serve a maximum of 150 costumers per meal. There is usually one seating only; many people reserve two weeks in advance and start eating lunch here at 3:30 - 4:00 p.m.

Bar Bigote, Fernando Hermoso.
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Bigote serves fish and shellfish from the area around Sanlúcar. They claim they don’t use fish from the North or the Mediterranean, nor do they serve frozen fish. In stormy weather when the fishing boats are kept in port for several days, the Hermoso brothers have been known to close the restaurant and just serve drinks at the bar. They try to serve only fish from that day’s catch for dinner that evening and at lunch the next day. Fernando waits each day at 5 p.m. for the catch to arrive. They use shaved ice, nieve or “snow” they call it, to keep fish cold in wooden crates, just as they come in from the fishing boats. They leave the ice on the fish, even in the refrigerators where it is stored. Fernando says the refrigerator is just to keep the “snow” from melting. As long as the ice stays on top the fish, it does not dehydrate in the dry cold of the refrigerator.

While I am waiting for Pepe Limeño, I order another glass of manzanilla, some house-cured olives, and a tapa, or small snack, of boquerones - - small, fresh whole anchovies, battered and flash deep-fried. The skin is crisp, but the anchovies are perfectly fried,moist, not greasy. Andalucians and Bigote, in particular, have elevated frying fish to an art form. It is said that the Japanese learned the art of frying fish from Spanish and Portuguese sailors in the 16th Century.  
At about 9:30 p.m., Limeño appears, and there are abrazos (the friendly embrace that takes the place of a handshake amongst friends in Spain) all around. Nearly twenty years retired from the bull ring, he is still greeted by half the bar patrons before he can settle in for a manzanilla and a tapa. His appearance assures us of two things: We will dine informally, but exceptionally well, and we will consume our share of manzanilla. Limeño always seems to know which restaurant is serving the best current specialty. Sometimes we end up eating at tables outdoors along the beach, dining on tiny clams cooked in garlic, parsley, and wine sauce; another time we sample Fernando’s excellent fish-and-shellfish stews; and in an upstairs dining room down the beach, we have plates of salad followed by heaping platters of pescaito frito, perfectly fried fish - - acedías (baby sole), pijotas (small whiting fried with their tails stuck in their mouths), and calamares (fried squid). 

Pescaito frito, tortillitas de camarones, Bar Balbino, Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

Langostinos de Sanlúcar and Manzanila La Gitana at Bigote. 
Gerry Dawes©2008 /

And sometime during our long, sometimes peripatetic, bar-hopping, lunches or dinners together, we have langostinos de Sanlúcar, those superb tiger prawns which can cost up to $60 per pound, depending on the season. And always, those chilled half bottles of manzanilla, sometimes Bodega Hidalgo’s La Gitana, a manzanilla fina, but just as often, the gold-tinged San León, a gutsy manzanilla pasada from Argüeso. And as we lift our glasses for yet another toast, I can still see the Sanlúcar sunset in the glass. Javier Hidalgo was right!! 

El Rocío pilgrimage, crossing the Guadalquivir at Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Gerry Dawes copyright 2008
Chapter Sidebar - Manzanilla

Manzanilla has become such a runaway favorite in Spain that it now outsells fino sherry by more than two to one. In fact, at last report, 70% of the dry sherry sold in Spain was manzanilla. It is the drink of choice at most fiestas in southern Spain and can now be found fresh in the bars and restaurants of Madrid and many other northern cities.

Catavino: Manzanilla Sherry glass at Vinicola Hidalgo. Posted by Hello
Gerry Dawes Copyright 2008

Manzanilla is a fino-type sherry, sometimes called el mas fino de los finos, the finest, the most elegant wine, of the fino family, which includes manzanillas, finos, and amontillados. It comes only from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has its own denominación de origen, Spain’s equivalent of appellation controlée, called Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanilla can be sold as sherry from Jerez, but only wine aged in Sanlúcar can be called manzanilla. Like other sherries, it is produced by the classic solera system of fractional blending.

So fickle is nature in the production of manzanilla, that not all bodegas in Sanlúcar are capable of producing it and even in some bodegas that do produce it, there are areas in those bodegas in which manzanilla can not be produced. The big, airy, above-ground bodegas in the barrio alto of Sanlúcar have a number of doors and windows which can be opened to let in air from the ocean side of the bodega or can be closed off if there is too much heat. As with finos, the best producers of manzanilla use only free-run juice. After fermentation the mosto (must) becomes mosto-vino, then alcohol is added to bring it up to 15 - 15.5%. It then goes into 500-liter botas (butts), which are filled only 2/3 full, for ageing in large, airy, high-ceiling bodegas.

The special yeast which makes sherries of the fino family possible grows on top the wine in these partially fillled barrels and is called flor, literally flower, because it resembles the white flowers that grow near the surface of streams. In actuality, it looks like cottage cheese floating on top the wine. Because Sanlúcar is on the humid Atlantic, flor, which needs humidity, grows all year round on the surface of the wine in the manzanilla bodegas, while in Jerez in mid-summer and mid-winter, yeast growth can be severely retarded and the yeast will even submerge, exposing the wine to slight oxidation.

Since the flor does not disappear from manzanilla and the wine has no contact with air, it is the finest, lightest bodied sherry, and is the palest, usually a green-tinged color not unlike that of a fine Meursault. The poniente winds, the westerlies, bring a salt-laden sea breeze and give a light touch of salinity to the wine.

Manzanillas are aged a minimum of five years, which in practice means, that since the five year aged wine is fractionally blended with older wines in the criadera system, they will be five-seven years old, in the case of manzanillas finas, 7-10 years old in the case of manzanillas maduras, and 10 years or more in the case of manzanillas pasadas. While fino sherries in Jerez in a solera may be racked, never fully, just drawn down by quantities equal to a third of the capacity of the wine, maybe five to six times before the reach the bottling stage, manzanillas may be go through 14 rackings in the same period.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

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

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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©2013

Sunday, November 4, 2012

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

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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 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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

Trailer for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

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