Last Sept. 3, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Valdepeñas region of Spain, home of Don Quixote, windmills and millennia-old wine traditions. On my return I sat down to write my impressions—and nothing happened! What could I say about a series of unspectacular to good wines that the rest of the world could clearly live without? The experience itself was so pulsatingly memorable, yet the wines weren't.
What to do? I'd ponder, get flustered and finally, like an anguished cornerman, throw in the towel. That is, until a few nights ago when a migraine quickened my brain speed and it all fell into place. I had had it all backward. I'd not only been trying too hard to like what I tasted, but my initial perception was that the wines seemed out of place in our "fast lane, new and improved, what's happening now in the world" wine culture.
"They won't be drinking Rioja here in Valdepeñas," said the owner of Bodegas Arúspide as we tried a round of his production. And there was the answer. What I had missed at first was seeing it all from their sense of a justifiable pride, arising from being virtually free of outside influence. Insular? Maybe a bit, but fiercely independent and content. These are terrific people, so in love with their traditions, their food and drink, all of it unique to their once isolated slice of the world. They really believe their wines are at least as good as, and probably better than, any others, so why bother with anything else? They are incontrovertibly happy.
I got off to a lousy start. A maze of just completed walkways and nonexistent help was compounded by iffy cell phone communication, no coins to use in the airport phones, and my mis-routing to a different terminal in the airport, which was kind of like going to LaGuardia while the rest of your party lands at Kennedy. Plus, my luggage was lost, and I spent three hours filling out forms to ensure it was delivered ASAP. (That didn't work well, either—the luggage didn't arrive until three days later!) Frustration was mounting, despite the welcome distraction of a group of luscious blondes talking up Scandinavian airlines. But by an act of God I finally found our tour leader, Raquel.
Raquel, who spoke a very broken English, was a native of our destination with an apartment in Valdepeñas. She was a nice enough woman who, I later realized, carried herself as a typical Valdepeñan. Yes, she wanted things to go well, but seemed under no constraint to try extraordinarily hard to make it happen. I related to her temperament when one of us would be late for leaving the hotel (same guy every day), but I couldn't understand her brusque, somewhat off-putting manner. That is, until I realized she was just being herself. She clearly had not been browbeaten by any higher-ups to be on her best, ass-polishing behavior. We writers are often spoiled by winery representatives who make our travel and communication a breeze. Here was someone willing to help, but at her own pace, in her own normal manner. In retrospect, this is what I admired most about her—but not right away! A sweeter disposition might have been nice, but it would not have been her. If Raquel got a bit tired, she didn't hide it. If she thought we asked for too much, she'd show her displeasure with an "ooh-fah" sigh and facial displeasure. On reflection, she did a great job in letting us see reality, not an airbrushed view of the region. This also held true with both the president of Valdepeñas' wine bureau, Fernando Prieto Ruiz, and its secretary, Juan Manuel Cruz. They were very cordial, spoke no English, but got ideas across with Raquel's assistance and avid use of hand gestures and facial expressions. (Italians don't have a monopoly on such things!) These folks were enjoying our visit, and provided fine hospitality, but not to the extent of changing the basic approach to their normal lives.
I remember our very first meal together. When I ordered goat as a main course I got a good deal of flak. Why would I order goat, they seemed to ask? I thought, how adventurous and pioneering of me to try something new. They thought, what a dumb choice by an ignorant tourist at our best restaurant. I got winks and faces all evening: good natured, but tongues firmly clamped in their jowls. They knew goat was OK, but for themselves—perhaps eating out more rarely that I realized—beef and seafood were far more logical choices. See? They were real, not falling all over to falsely celebrate my "silly" choice of peasant foodstuff. (Suddenly, all this reminded me of the Florentines—that same impish sense of humor constantly on display in my father's hometown.)
I now also appreciate the kind reception we received at the older, more family oriented bodegas in and just outside the city. They had wine trophies on mantelpieces but seldom did any superficial boasting occur. Remember that practically no English was spoken, but even their English-language promotional films were blessedly short and no-nonsense. How often does that happen in public relations? I liked these folks.
New government restrictions on vines per hectare and acceptable varietals to be grown as of 2006 came up in conversation, yet much of the hoopla seemed to be given short shrift by those who liked the way things already function. Centuries don't give way to decrees overnight. What we tasted for the most part was solid and genuine, a taste of what has made Valdepeñas the sea of good wines that are drunk everyday across Spain. A staggering 50 percent of Spain's total production comes from this region, by producers running the gamut of artisanal, organic farmlets to industrialized, Gallo-like models of efficiency and volume. A large portion of value-conscious drinkers in Holland and Germany (the two biggest importers of the Valdepeñas and Castilla-La Mancha bottlings) enjoy megaliters of these wines. The wines that are more cutting edge are better, but only marginally so. For all the new technology, the wines remain foursquare, mostly unexciting but eminently drinkable, fun, pleasing and a great wedge in their healthy lifestyle pie chart. Add the occasional Gran Reservas that turn one's head and taste buds around, and it's all seldom boring. They really believe—and I could sense their unshakable confidence—that their wines are as good as any, and that their reserve and rare bottlings, ones they seldom imbibe themselves, are showcases of all that wine can be. These are the best wines in the world, just as true believers proclaim Eastern Carolina barbecue the best pork in the world, and true Russian vodka without competition.
Not everyone is a jet-setter critic, one who tries it all and then decides what others should like. Sometimes the natural law of "wholesomeness of place" is good enough. Such inherent pride is shocking at first, but then, some six months later, it feels uplifting, like the best and most logical way to be. A bit open to progress when it really serves your people, but really, why go elsewhere when your food and wine traditions are so solid, satisfying and soul enriching that anything else is just a variation on a theme of what you already have in spades?
Knowing what I know now, how much more I would have appreciated this trip to Valdepeñas: arriving in the middle of the holy week dedicated to their patron saint of wine; standing on the mayor's balcony, celebrating with the thousands who gathered for a mix of fun and reverence; thrilling to a most impossibly androgenous singer, who was part flamenco, part Spanish love song, part grand opera and part screams of passion reminiscent of Moorish chants on the parapet of a mosque. (All this profoundly artistic culture wrapped up in drag!) A time surrounded by tradition, magical feelings, and the impossibly poignant undercurrent of Internet-enabled, cell phone-chatting youth, which is bound to upend this way of life in the next generation.
It's not Spain's most colorful landscape, but it has history and variety at every turn. Outside of an overly polluted cityscape spewing diesel and industrial smells—some mornings jarringly reminding me exactly of the air in urban Cleveland I grew up breathing decades ago—there are the hillsides, the squares in less "developed" towns like Almagro, just down the road, with life seemingly standing still in the 1700s. Its unburdened vistas, medieval architecture and a quiet that is initially unsettling makes a hypnotic memory.
In short, this region of Spain provides a passport to life on a more honest scale. A good, sturdy, unflappable people whose sense of pride and place is an honor to see today. I'd return in a heartbeat—but I'd still order the goat!
The estates listed below are all exported to the United States, but availability is spotty. Look for:
Bodegas Vinartis (especially Senorio de los Llanos)
Bodegas Real (good 2005 chardonnay and 2004 Finca Marisanchez)
Bodegas Arúspide (2004 Agora Noble red)
Bodegas Miguel Calatayud
Bodegas Félix Solís (2002 Vina Albali Arium)
Bodegas Navarro López (2001 Old Vine Crianza)
Arturo's column appears the second Wednesday of the month. Questions, comments, suggestions and queries are encouraged at firstname.lastname@example.org.