Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My wine tour of Spain

In May 2007, I took my second trip to Spain (my first was a beach vacation to the touristy Malaga in the South). The plan was to meet my friend Chris, who was a line cook at Bouley with me in 2004, and travel from Barcelona to Rias Biaxas on a wine tour of all the wineries we could find. Not only did we share a love for good food and wine, Chris had helped me manage the machismo at Bouley when burly line cooks thumped their chests in my direction. We became great friends, and explored the dining scene in NYC as much as we could. Our trip was an opportunity for us to learn about Spanish wines, but also to discuss the potential of opening a restaurant together.

We traveled on a budget, and focused our money on wine and wine tastings. Though this meant that we camped every night for three weeks, we didn't fare badly at all and had fresh bread, cured meats, and a bottle of delicious wine every night, albeit cheap and served in plastic cups. In our down time we talked about launching our restaurant, which Chris envisioned to be upscale and multi-roomed (like Bouley) with a California-French menu. He had worked almost exclusively in fine-dining restaurants (Water Grill in LA, Bouley and Cafe Gray in NYC) and insisted that our restaurant be upscale and food-focused. Though my interest in the industry included more casual concepts (Hue and SushiSamba in NYC, and Le Pain Quotidien in LA), his excitement was infectious and I jumped into the plan as if it were my own. We spent significant time brainstorming at cafes throughout the country, and I developed a new-found appreciation for quality coffee.

The country was gorgeous, and we chose to follow our senses to explore it. We spent the first night dozing on the fragrant beaches of the Balearic Sea, and the last on the warm sand in San Sebastian. In between, we explored the grassy hills of Navarra, the wine cooperatives of the dusty and dry Priorat and Montsant, the traditional producers of Rioja, and the misty, sea-side family vineyards of Rias Biaxes. At all the wineries we visited, we were welcomed in to taste as if we were family. The producers were proud to share their love for the wines they represented, and we were eager listeners.

While in Montsant, we stumbled on the annual wine festival and tasted from about 20 different producers in the area. We were exceedingly lucky; the wine producers in Priorat are so small and focused on their craft that they do not often welcome visitors in to taste. In fact, we could barely find a soul to speak to in the major wine village of Gratallops. I loved the rich, concentrated, mineral-thick punches-in-the-mouth from old-vine Garnacha and got to taste some from some of the most celebrated producers in the country. Other standouts from our trip included a lovely white Rioja by Puelles, a chardonnay from Castillo de Monjardin, and a Crianza from Ramirez de la Piscina.

For me, this was the first time that I traveled to explore food culture. I was completely intrigued by the way the Spanish ate: frequently, in small quantities, and often with wine instead of vegetables! Every bar or eating establishment had at least a faint smell of cured ham. History, tradition, and cultural pride was written into every stone of every building and reflected in the care with which the Spanish took care of their product, from soil to plate.

Ultimately, Chris and I decided not to open a restaurant together. I felt that I needed a rounder, more technical approach to business so I went to Business School, and Chris moved to Guatemala. Though our plans did not pan out, I am grateful to Chris for sharing his love of Spain with me, for teaching me how to stay optimistic and strong in a mentally and emotionally challenging industry, for developing my palate and appreciation for fine food and wine, and for representing the voice of dissent against a world trying to beat down the little guy just trying to do the right thing.

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