Raiding my Wine Cellar – Château Lynch-Bages 2004

Every wine has a story.  At least that’s what wine marketers want us to believe.  Less talked about but no less interesting, in my opinion, are the stories about how we acquire the wines we drink.

Most bottles are bought in shops or supermarkets, others are gifts.  Many of these stories are mundane.  Once in a while however, there’s an exciting story behind a bottle in a cellar and Château Lynch-Bages 2004 is one of them.

One day in early 2015 an American named Stephen Bolger called me to explain a concept he had successfully sold to Lynch-Bages, a Bordeaux Grand Crû Classé in Pauillac.  His idea, already in place for a few years, was to enlist an international group of affluent wine lovers to work a harvest at the winery, choose grapes for a personal blend under the supervision of the Lynch-Bages winemaking team, and once the base wines had been vinified, return to the winery to bottle them. These customers would have their own stock of wines made at Lynch-Bages and act as de facto ambassadors for the winery in their countries. Some of the members of the group had participated for several years.

It was and is, a brilliant marketing idea.

The idea we discussed was for me to act as an expert tour guide for an upcoming road trip to Rioja, where the group was going to blend their Lynch-Bages-based base wines and visit a few Rioja wineries. It was the first time the group was going to venture beyond Bordeaux.

I was flattered to learn that I had been recommended by a friend, Jane Anson, one of the best-known experts on the wines of Bordeaux (and who recently published a comprehensive book about the region, Inside Bordeaux).

To make a long story short, I took the group on a tour of several high-end Rioja wineries, chosen in advance by Bolger, gave a Rioja Masterclass and tasting and schmoozed with the group for three days, including a gala dinner and old-vintage tasting of Marqués de Riscal.

Far from being the typical stuffy black tie gala wine event, it was organized as a fun-filled end-of-the-trip, with people moving from table to table with their glasses and laughing at the disguises provided in the photocall.  

Shenanigans at the photocall. From left, Tom Perry; Eric Boissenot, advisor to VINIV clients and consultant oenologist for Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Margaux and many others; and Stephen Bolger. Photo credit: VINIV.

A highlight of the experience was a lunch at Remelluri with Jean-Michel Cazes, the owner of Lynch-Bages, who, I discovered, had always been a Rioja lover and had several friends in the Rioja wine trade.  Not surprising given that Rioja and Bordeaux are only a four-hour drive from each other!

An additional takeaway from the visit was a group member’s invitation for me to speak at Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Club to a group of Washington insiders including several members of Congress.  To my surprise, one of the congressmen introduced himself as the owner of a newly created Rioja winery.

One of the perks with this group was the gift of a bottle of Lynch-Bages 2004, so I was especially excited to open it on Christmas Day with my family.  

It showed a medium-high ruby color with a brick rim, surprising for a 16 year old wine.  On the nose, elegant, round blackcurrant, acidic red fruit and pencil shavings.  The palate showed round, elegant tannins, nice acidity and was very much alive with an incredibly long finish.  The wine’s depth and elegance made me think that it could have been cellared longer but we wanted to enjoy it for this special lunch and it did not disappoint.

Out of curiosity, I did a search for the wine on both Wine Searcher and Vivino.  WS showed an average per bottle price of USD 204 plus tax in the USA and Vivino, an average price of EUR160.

I have never paid so much for a bottle of wine so I was doubly grateful that I had a chance to drink this one.  The complexity and depth of aromas, elegance and incredibly long mouthfeel convinced me that had I bought it, this bottle would have been worth every penny.

Raiding my Wine Cellar – Marqués de Riscal 2003

My wife and I have more wine than we can possibly drink. Under normal circumstances we would organize a dinner party and open six or seven bottles, but 2020 has been anything but normal. We decided at the beginning of lockdown in March that we would try to draw down the stock in our cellar before doing any buying, a strategy that wasn’t very successful because of the great offers of direct purchase made by wineries. By the time we were unlocked in mid-June, we had drunk lots of interesting bottles hidden away in the cellar.

Among them were:

a 2007 ice cider from Asturias, a 40 year-old white port, a 2011 white from Costers del Segre in Catalunya, a 2008 merlot roble from Mendoza, a 2007 merlot from Moldova, and a lot of Rioja.

Last night we carried out a raid to our wine cellar and came upstairs with a bottle of Marqués de Riscal 2003.  I didn’t remember drinking that vintage from Riscal so it was going to be an adventure because 2003 in Rioja was classified as “BUENA”.  If you consider that the official grading system here from best to worst is EXCELENTE-MUY BUENA-BUENA-NORMAL and MEDIANA, “BUENA” was right in the middle. The last two definitions defy me, but I guess one has to accept that no one is going to buy a wine classified as DEFICIENTE, nor is the Board likely to classify it.

On its website the Rioja Regulatory Board explains that this classification is based on applying a mathematical formula after tasting thousands of young wines and that later ageing in barrique and bottle can be beneficial as time passes. (The Board does not say that it can be harmful if the wine is not cellared properly downstream, but it happens).

So I proceeded to open the bottle.

After cutting the foil I inserted my lever corkscrew and started to  apply gentle pressure.  The cork didn’t budge. “#$@%*!!” Normally I would have reached for my trusty old cork remover, a gadget with two thin steel blades that you insert on each side of the cork.  By slowly twisting the device and pushing it in, you can more or less separate the cork from the sides of the neck of the bottle and then twist out the cork.

Decanting funnel and filter (L), Old cork remover (R)

The problem was that I couldn’t find it, so I tried to get a good grip on the cork and pull.  The cork started to crumble. “##$$@@%%&&**”. When I decided there was no way to remove it, I reluctantly pushed the bits and pieces of cork into the bottle and slowly poured the contents into a decanter.  I thought, “Why am I going through this rigamarole when I know that the wine will be hopelessly oxidized.

Was I wrong!

The decanting process showed a brick-colored rim and a deep garnet tone in the center of the glass.  My heart started to race in anticipation.  On the nose, it showed stewed maraschino and black cherries, a hint of oak and the slightest hint of cork, probably from the pieces of cork that floated in the bottle for a few minutes.  On the palate it had a texture that I always describe as ‘yummy’, with firm ripe tannin, balanced acidity and a long finish.

How to explain the dried out cork and the excellently preserved wine?  I guess that the seal against the glass was so tight that very little or no air could get into the bottle, although it certainly would have been easier if there had been a little wax applied to the cork to facilitate opening.

Our meal was homemade cream of pumpkin-curry soup, eggplant stuffed with vegetables and medallions of turkey tenderloin in a wild mushroom sauce.  My wife and I agreed that the Riscal paired very nicely with these dishes.

After dinner we cleaned the bottle, poured in the remaining wine, stoppered it and removed the air. Today we finished it and found that it had held up very well.

This experience has encouraged us to drink our older wines more often.  Although we will undoubtedly be disappointed by some of them, finding a bottle like last night’s will make the whole experience well worth it.

“Today, Organic Viticulture is the Exception. Tomorrow it will be the Norm”

Francisco Ruiz, director of Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, is a passionate defender of biodynamic viticulture in Rioja. His company was the first in La Rioja whose vineyards were certified by International Demeter, the biodynamic certification body, and they have been farming biodynamically for four years.

Esperanza López from the La Rioja government’s Department of Agriculture, who was with us on our visit to the vineyards, told us that 61 wineries had vineyards certified as organic in La Rioja. The fact that only two have been certified as biodynamic shows that going full biodynamic from organic is a big leap of faith and a lot more responsibility.

I have to admit that before visiting Ruiz’s vineyards and winery I was skeptical about this farming practice. My attitude was based on a remark made several years ago by another Rioja winemaker and not by taking the time to learn about biodynamic farming.

This winemaker commented that one of the wineries in his group carried out biodynamic practices, referring almost jokingly to burying cow horns filled with manure in the vineyard.  When asked if it worked he replied, “I don’t know if it works or not, but it can’t hurt either.”

Francisco set us straight during a recent visit to one of his vineyards near Aldeanueva de Ebro in Rioja Oriental. He convinced our group that biodynamic farming indeed works by rebalancing soils spoiled by years of unsound practices, by creating harmony between the ecosystem of a winery and its surroundings and simply by being more healthy.

The concept of biodynamics was the brainchild of an Austrian, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). According to Wikipedia it was the first of the organic farming movements.  Biodynamic farming shares a lot with organic farming in general but differs in that it treats animals, crops and soils as a single, holistic system, while organic agriculture emphasizes the elimination of wide-spectrum pesticides and herbicides as farming practices.

For Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez, farming biodynamically was a logical step after the company had farmed organically since 1998.   Ruiz explains on the company website:

“Biodynamic agriculture is based on the idea of ​​the field as an organism-farm where everything is related. Always with the aim of strengthening the entire ecosystem, promoting and favoring the best conditions to achieve a balance that allows us to harvest high quality grapes without residues.”

That explains ‘ bio’.  What about ‘dynamics’? It consists of preparing, maturing and spreading in the vineyard a compost solution using a method created by German Maria Thun.

According to, ‘Maria Thun’ is a mixture of manure from free-range cows, crushed eggshells to replace depleted or deficient limestone and basalt sand to add silica to depleted soils.

These ingredients are thoroughly mixed together (dynamized) for an hour and are then added to a covered empty wooden barrel without its heads or a clay pot that is buried in the ground.  After four months the product is turned over again, valerian (an herb) is added and the product reburied for eight weeks.

For each hectare of soil, 250 grams of ‘Maria Thun’ is mixed into 60 liters of water, ‘dynamized’ for 20 minutes and applied to the soil.  The website recommends five applications a year.

Ruiz showed us where he was cultivating his ‘Maria Thun’ mixture.  It was a small wine barrel buried in the ground, covered with a wooden lid.

He also explained the importance of planting cover crops in the vineyard, both under the vines and in the rows between them. Cover crops are spontaneously grown in his vineyards but over time, leguminous species come to predominate, providing depleted nitrogen and nutrients for microorganisms and other animals that inhabit the soil.

We noticed a tall post with a crosspiece next to the vines.  Ruiz pointed out that it was a perch for the birds of prey in the area.  It was interesting to hear that the birds were fickle about where to perch so the company had to experiment with different designs.

A common pest in vineyards is the European grapevine moth, and traditional viticulture would mean spraying.  Ruiz follows an ecological approach, using sexual confusion traps that make it hard for moths to mate but don’t kill them.

 Biodynamics also applies to pruning and canopy management by pursuing a “green to green” approach – managing the leaves is done only when the cover crops have bloomed.

Traditional farming with its emphasis on pesticides and herbicides has noxious effects on crops and on people who consume them. An important principle of ecological farming is that healthy soils produce healthy crops that promote good health.  It’s a win-win situation.

After visiting the Ruiz Jiménez vineyards we were convinced that ecological viticulture is the way forward.  Francisco Ruiz summed it up nicely. “Today organic viticulture is the exception but tomorrow it will be the norm”. 

Featured wine:  Ingenium by Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Ingenium is a white made from the maturana grape with no added sulfur that Ruiz described as a natural wine. He noted that the Rioja Regulatory Board would probably not accept it as a Rioja.  He said that it wasn’t a big deal because as a Rioja he would be unable to sell it to a distributor for more than 2 euros a bottle, “but as an ‘anarchic’ wine, not subject to Rioja regulations, it could be sold at a higher price”. Rioja helps you but it also pigeonholes you”, commented Ruiz.

I have to admit that I’m not an accomplished enough taster to be able to distinguish an ecologically farmed wine from one farmed traditionally, but it makes total sense not to ingest pesticide and herbicide residue that are likely to be found in traditionally farmed grapes.

Viñedos Ruiz Jiménez

Carretera Comarcal LR-115, Km 43.5, 26559 Aldeanueva de Ebro (La Rioja)


Tel. +34 941 163577

Juan Carlos Sancha: A Riojan Champion of Sustainable Viticulture

Sancha tilling his Cerro La Isa vineyard

The World Tourism Organization’s fourth Global Wine Tourism Conference in Chile in December 2019 emphasized the role of wine tourism for sustainable rural development and launched a call to action.

UNWTO General-Secretary Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Wine tourism creates jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities. It touches all areas of the regional economy through its linkages to handicrafts, gastronomy and agriculture. There lies its great potential to generate development opportunities in remote destinations.”

Rioja wineries read his message loud and clear.

Today, over 400 Rioja wineries have a tourism program, increasing visits to wine villages, generating jobs, promoting knowledge about wine culture, enhancing the wineries’ image and creating additional revenue streams. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

However, challenges remain. Among them is attracting discerning wine tourists who have no shortage of choices of wineries to visit. The most forward-thinking wineries here are moving away from the traditional model of “visit the winery, taste some wine and go to the gift shop” toward an approach focusing on the vineyards.  Explaining how the specific conditions in a particular vineyard – soil, microclimate, elevation, exposition to sunlight, grape varieties, farming techniques and the relationship of the vineyard to its habitat is a necessary step to gain a better understanding of what goes into a bottle of wine.

One of the most interesting wine tourism projects based on sustainable viticulture and winemaking in Rioja is at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the remote village of Baños del Río Tobía in the Rioja Alta subregion.

Sancha’s efforts earned him a ‘Best Of Wine Tourism’ award from the Great Wine Capitals Global Network in 2019 for Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices.

Sancha has been a champion of sustainability in Rioja for over 30 years. While at Viña Ijalba he was a pioneer in introducing organic viticulture, and together with colleagues in the department of viticulture at the University of La Rioja, led the fight to rescue several traditional grape varieties on the verge of extinction in Rioja, including red and white maturana and turruntés, which were later added to the list of approved varietals in the DOCa. Rioja.

In 2007 he moved back to his village and took over the management of his family’s vineyards, most of which were planted to garnacha (grenache) by his great grandfather on steep terraced hillsides at about 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. Sancha’s goal was to learn about the characteristics and differences between his vineyards and eventually make single vineyard wines from several different plots. After the Rioja Regulatory Board created the category of viñedo singular (singular vineyard) and it was approved by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Sancha applied and his Cerro La Isa vineyard was among the first to be granted VS status in 2019.

Today, both red and white Cerro La Isa have been approved as wines made from viñedos singulares.

While Sancha the academic is known for experimenting with long forgotten grape varieties in Rioja, his true love is his plots of old vine garnacha, a variety that once outnumbered tempranillo in Rioja vineyards but by 1973 had shrunk to 39% and today is only 8% of the acreage in Rioja.

Sancha’s Peña El Gato vineyard

With his knowledge of Rioja’s viticultural heritage and with his old vines planted above his village, it was a no-brainer that his wine tourism project would be focused on sustainability.

When you visit Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, among other things, you will learn about

sustainable viticulture and winemaking;

conserving old vines and their genetic material;

saving historical grape varieties and vineyards;

the holistic relationship between vineyards and their surroundings.

A visit to the property features a trip up to Cerro La Isa (Isa’s Hill) where Sancha has built an eight-sided covered lookout from which you can see the family’s old garnacha vineyards planted in the early 20th century.  Sancha will tell you that he was lucky to save most of the vineyards, but pointing at empty terraces, unlucky in that several were uprooted before he moved back to the village.

You will begin to understand the backbreaking work invested by Sancha’s ancestors to create and tend their vineyards without the benefit of machines on a cool, windswept landscape.  

You will learn about Rioja’s singular vineyard project, whose goal is to encourage owners of old vines to maintain them and hopefully make unique wines from the grapes produced there.

You will learn the difference between massal and clonal selection when planting vineyards or replacing vines and you will see some extremely old vines of vitis silvestris, with male and female plants rather than the hermaphroditic vitis vinifera, the prevalent species of grapevine planted around the world today.

In the winery Sancha will explain that solar panels provide energy, water is used sparingly and little or no sulfur dioxide (SO2) is used as an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant in winemaking. In fact, one of his wines is ‘natural’, with no added SO2.

Sancha’s enthusiasm and his passion for saving Rioja’s viticultural heritage are boundless.  After visiting his vineyards, wine tourists will have a much better understanding of the hard work and skill required to produce the grapes that make great wine.

Juan Carlos Sancha, S.L.

26320 Baños de Río Tobía, La Rioja, Spain

Tel. +34 941 23 21 60 ; Cell. +34 639 21 60 11


Same same…but Different

On August 8, Spain’s Official Journal published the authorization of 20 projects of viñedos singulares (singular vineyards or VS) in the DOCa. Rioja, bringing the total to 104.

Yesterday however I read an article in an online magazine about the launch of a terroir-focused wine brand created by a well-known Rioja winery. What caught my eye was a comment about the coincidence of the creation of this brand three years after the creation of the viñedos singulares (singular vineyard) category in Rioja. The article gave the impression that the wines from this particular winery were part of the viñedos singulares project. This is a bit misleading, so I think it’s time to set the record straight about the differences between Rioja’s singular vineyard category and single vineyard wine projects in Rioja.

As they say in Thailand, “Same same…but different.”

Rioja Alavesa vineyards

Rioja Alavesa vineyards with the Sierra Cantabria mountains behind (T. Perry)

Singular vineyards

A project sanctioned by the Rioja Regulatory Board whose purpose is to protect vineyards with certifiably old vines by encouraging the owners not to pull them up but instead aspire to make singular wine from them.

Inside Rioja has already published detailed information about the viñedos singulares project that you can read here.

VS in Rioja is similar to South Africa’s Certified Heritage Vineyard project and I know that the promoters of each project are following the other’s progress, so Rioja’s VS project is not just a shot in the dark.


A future singular vineyard owned by Bodegas Ontañón in Quel  (Photo: T. Perry)

 Single vineyard wines

Single vineyard designations are also a part of Rioja’s DNA. Many of Rioja’s historic names reflect the concept of single vineyards such as Viña Tondonia, Viña Bosconia, Viña Pomal, Viña Zaco, Viña Ardanza, Viña Alberdi, Viña Albina and others. These places have existed for more than a century in some cases but I believe that because the wines produced in these wineries in western Rioja Alta are blends, some of them with garnacha from Rioja Oriental, they have come to be identified as winery brands rather than coming specifically from the so-called vineyard. It is interesting to note however that Viña Zaco from Bodegas Bilbaínas was one of the first applicants to receive VS status in 2019.

Viña Tondonia

Viña Tondonia during a snowstorm in 2005 (Credit:  Tondonia website)

In addition, newer wineries have registered names containing the terms ‘Viña’, ‘Finca’, ‘Propiedad’, ‘Heredad’ and others alluding to place and the ensuing confusion about brand versus origin is perhaps why, at least today, they do not enjoy the protection given to VS. They are, instead, the affirmation by the grower and winery that the vineyard in question and the wines produced there are special, and have demonstrably terroir-linked characteristics, which in most cases they certainly show in tastings.

The increased focus on terroir in the wine world gives these single vineyard wines a legitimate place in the market and they deserve recognition.

Why haven’t more growers and wineries applied for VS status? One reason, perhaps rooted in the Riojan mindset, is the unwillingness of a well-established single vineyard-advertised brand owner to submit to a yearly tasting and the possibility of losing VS status for a certain vintage,  while a magazine or favorite wine writer can give the brand a perpetually high score just by looking at the label or hearing the producer’s name.

Or maybe it’s just being cautious until the VS category is better established. However one marketing executive I asked stated categorically, “VS is a stillbirth”. Well, we all know where he stands! I certainly disagree.

Will these two categories converge? I’m not sure today but it would be beneficial to Rioja if they did.












Well-trained Sommeliers Add Value to the Restaurant Experience


Bilbao-Rioja Venta Moncalvillo Carlos Echapresto

Photo:  Venta Moncalvillo. Carlos Echapresto is the co-owner of the restaurant along with his brother Ignacio.  Carlos holds Spain’s National Gastronomic Award and was Spain’s Best Sommelier of the Year in 2016.

About twenty years ago I led a group of sommeliers from the USA on a tour of Rioja wineries and restaurants. During a visit to one of the area’s top restaurants, I asked the head waiter, who was also the sommelier, how diners chose which wines to order with their meal. He replied, “Older locals always choose their favorite Rioja before ordering the meal. Younger locals and visitors from other parts of Spain and those from abroad choose the food first and then ask for recommendations about pairings. The older locals will always choose a Rioja but the others are willing to experiment, even with wines from other parts of Spain.”

Both are legitimate strategies, but obviously only the latter warrants the intervention of a sommelier or a qualified head waiter for guidance. This almost invariably leads to some pleasant surprises. With the growth in international tourism to our region, the increasing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in La Rioja, Alava and Vizcaya (16 restaurants with a total of 19 stars) and the inclusion of a dizzying number of wines from other Spanish regions and from abroad on our wine lists, the need for a well-versed maître d’ or a sommelier is a necessity, especially if a guest is from outside the region.

A good example is at Remenetxe in Gernika, near Bilbao. Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementería’s wine list has 1400 wines, of which 550 are from Rioja and of these, 290 from Rioja Alavesa alone. Unless you’re a Rioja wine connoisseur, Jon Andoni is there to help.

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego is the maître and head sommelier at the two Michelin-starred Echaurren in Ezcaray in La Rioja as well as the president of the Association of Sommeliers of La Rioja. He talks about his wine list like a philosopher as “…more than a menu. It is a book of sincere reflections that speak of wines through those who make them. (Each winemaker) describes his way of understanding the vineyard, his way of working, his life, in short”.

Chefe Paniego

José Félix (Chefe) Paniego, maître and head sommelier at Echaurren

Félix Jiménez, the owner of Kiro Sushi (1 Michelin star) in Logroño, makes choosing a wine easy because he only serves one. To accompany his sushi menu he serves Akemi (‘bright, beauty’ in Japanese), a white Rioja chosen specifically by Jiménez after tasting a huge number of samples to find the perfect taste.

Félix Jiménez

Félix Jiménez, alma mater of Logroño’s Kiro Sushi (Photo: Kiro Sushi)

Carlos Echapresto, the co-owner with his brother Ignacio of the one Michelin starred Venta Moncalvillo in Daroca de Rioja doesn’t use “maître” or “sommelier”, on his business card, but rather “host”. In a 2017 interview on the Spanish Wine Lover website, he explains that before his guests are seated he offers them an aperitif and tries to discern their food and wine tastes to make the food/wine pairing experience more enjoyable. He is a big fan of wine by the glass, offering more than 70, which is fantastic if you are ordering the tasting menu.

Some of his guests will tell him, “I have a budget of X, make some suggestions.” Echapresto says, “If there’s a good vibe in the restaurant and I have the opportunity to offer something really special, I’ll open it.“

The wine by the glass strategy is a must with a tasting menu, but it works best if the customer is given the chance to choose. I discovered this the hard way recently when my wife and I went to a well-known restaurant with a Michelin star in Cantabria to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We decided to try the tasting menu with the wine pairings recommended by the restaurant. The pairings were not specified on the menu but we trusted the sommelier’s decision.

It turned out that three of the pairings on the nine-course menu were from the same winery – a ‘cava’, a white and a red, and two others were a wacky red and white from new appellations in Cantabria. A furmint from Tokay saved the day. We concluded that most of the wines in question were good deals from a local distributor who in turn passed them on to the restaurant. A consequence of COVID-19 and a three-month forced closing? The meal was delicious but most of the pairings a little forced. We felt that it would have been more honest if the pairings had been written out on the tasting menu. After all, how much does it cost to print a page on a laser printer? Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware!

Josep Roca

‘Pitu’ Roca (Photo Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Has the pandemic caused by the covid-19 virus changed the role of the sommelier? Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca, maître and sommelier at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, voted #1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015, is sure that it has. He recently told La Verdad that his dining room staff has gone from one day to the next from being purveyors of happiness to superfluous. “COVID-19 has mandated social distancing, requiring us to reduce contact with customers to a minimum”.

Among the ideas that have occurred to him are “emphasizing movements more than words, using gestures like they do in the Far East, cultivating the poetry of rituals or the eloquence of silence. In short, employing new ways of transmitting safety, good taste and happiness.”

Roca also suggests modifying wine lists, not by removing wines, something he considers a travesty, but rather by using graphic elements and simplifying choice for guests. Roca suggests printing out a shorter list on recyclable paper in accordance with guests’ choices of food items, a wise suggestion that our restaurant in Cantabria would be smart to consider.

My takeaway is that the adventurous food and wine lover can learn a lot from a sommelier if she’s willing to experiment. Wines by the glass are a great way to discover new things, especially with a tasting menu. Most top restaurants understand this but even more modest restaurants could increase their offer of wine by the glass, especially in today’s difficult economic climate. Even though a restaurant can’t afford a sommelier, the maître or the chef can be a reliable guide.


Social Distancing in the Good Old Days

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.20.37

Almost everyone who visits Spain for the first time talks about how sociable Spaniards are. We love to mingle with our friends at restaurants, bars and on sidewalk terraces. Bars are our social clubs, where we have breakfast, read the newspaper, meet with our cuadrilla (group of friends) to have a few drinks and some tapas before lunch and/or dinner, have an after dinner drink, gossip, talk politics, soccer, the economy or any other topic. And we don’t mind if our friends get up close and personal when we’re together – with lots of touching, handshakes, hugs and air kisses. In fact, when we see an empty bar, we usually don’t go inside. In short, keeping our distance from others is not part of our DNA.

But that was in the good old days.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 09.32.02

I’ve always thought that Spain was one of the countries where one’s personal space was small until I read an article in the Washington Post about a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in 2017 that analyzed a sample of almost 9,000 people from 42 countries.

The authors of the study showed subjects a card with the outline of two people (A and B) facing each other with a scale underneath ranging from zero to 220cm for reference. The subjects were asked if they were A, how close in centimeters they would be comfortable with B as a stranger, an acquaintance or a close friend. The results were surprising.

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.57.09

(Credit above and below: Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology via the Washington Post)

Screenshot 2020-05-14 at 18.50.04

Argentines were the most comfortable at close range with strangers, acquaintances and close friends, while Romanians, the most standoffish in the study with strangers, were comfortable with close friends at a distance of about 45cm.

Spaniards kept strangers at about 90cm, acquaintances at about 75cm and close friends at about 60cm.

Curiously, the study showed that citizens of the USA were comfortable with good friends at a closer range than Spaniards (45 vs. 60cm) while Norwegians didn’t feel uncomfortable standing about 35cm away from a close friend.

Unfortunately, there was no evidence about Swedes and their much-celebrated penchant for keeping their distance from everyone. That might explain why Sweden and Norway have chosen to deal with the coronavirus in widely differing ways.

This academic experiment, while undoubtedly carried out with the strictest scientific rigor, offers different results from my own empirical experience. One instance was at a cocktail party at the US Embassy in Madrid in 1976 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Latin American diplomats and Spanish businessmen tried to talk practically nose-to-nose with US Embassy personnel while the Americans moved backwards to give themselves space. It was obvious that neither side realized that diplomacy also means consciously respecting others’ personal space.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned about personal space is many years attending some of Spain’s most popular festivals like San Fermín in Pamplona, San Mateo in Logroño and Aste Nagusia in Bilbao and San Sebastian. When you’re surrounded by thousands of others while watching fireworks or the chupinazo (the firing of the rocket signaling the opening of the festival), defending your personal space, whether you’re from Argentina, Chicago or Madrid, is impossible. The best way to handle it is to go with the flow and have fun.

Let’s hope that soon we’ll be able to return to the good old days.

(Photos:  Tom Perry)





How Rioja Wineries are Preparing for the Wine Tourist of the Future


Winds of change

the cork in a bottle of Rioja from Bodegas Patrocinio (Photo:  Tom Perry)

“We will soon be able to welcome you again with open arms.
You’ll soon be able to marvel at our landscapes,
feel our sun on your face and share in our lifestyle.
Until then, look after yourselves and those around you.
Thank you for your support.”

This quote from the Spanish National Tourist Office on its US website tries to convey an upbeat attitude toward the reopening of the Spanish economy after a seven-week lockdown. The stark reality facing Spain’s tourism sector however, is a lot less optimistic, at least in the short term. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism accounts for 14.3 per cent of Spain’s GDP, the largest percentage in Europe, with most travel taking place between April and September.

Spain’s administrative division into seventeen autonomous regions is currently a hindrance for attracting tourists. Travel from May 11 (stage 1 of the loosening of restrictions) will only be allowed within one’s home province. Because the Rioja wine district is located in three provinces (La Rioja, Álava and Navarra), a wine tourist living in La Rioja is today unable to visit a Rioja winery in the province of Álava just across the Ebro river. Today, government plans indicate that interprovincial travel (stage 3 or 4, depending on the province) will probably be allowed towards the end of June, but these plans, dictated by politics as much as scientific evidence, change on a daily basis.

There is no timetable for opening international borders, so wineries plan to cater to local, and eventually national tourists for the foreseeable future.

This somber picture has not deterred Rioja wineries from staying close to their customers, selling their products online, educating consumers, carrying out extraordinary acts of solidarity and preparing for the “new normalcy”.

Before COVID-19, online sales directly from wineries to consumers took place mostly in winery tasting rooms. Today online sales are part of the “new normal”. This new sales channel is especially helpful to small and medium sized wineries whose business to the hotel, restaurant and bar trade has dried up. Great deals abound and shipping is free or subject to a small minimum purchase.

The Rioja Regulatory Board has created a website (You deserve a Rioja) that offers 15,000 free visits to 70 wineries as well as an interactive buying guide for direct purchases from wineries or from online wine merchants.

Wine tourism before coronavirus 2

Wine tourism before coronavirus…Will it ever be the same? (Photo: Tom Perry)

Rioja wineries have taken advantage of Spain’s prolonged confinement to produce videochats featuring winemakers, media personalities, virtual tours and online tastings. Among the most interesting is a lecture series on Instagram Live about grapevine maladies created by the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture and Bodegas Valdemar’s wine tasting and wine and food matching course that includes access to a video and six bottles of wine designed to be enjoyed at home. Valdemar has created Momentos Valdemar, a project designed to make wine culture easy to understand and enjoy. The company philosophy is summed up on the Momentos website: “We’ve been made to believe that to drink wine you almost have to be a sommelier, but that’s not true.”

Wineries have quickly understood that in times of crisis, unselfish acts are of vital importance. Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva were among the first companies here to use their connections in China to import and distribute personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in hospitals. The Osborne group, parent company of Rioja wineries Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Pernod-Ricard are using their distilling facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Lecea and Bodegas Murua are two of the Rioja wineries offering free visits to healthcare workers once wineries are allowed to open. José Masaveu, general manager of Masaveu Bodegas, owner of Murua explains, “When you’re up against this situation you can do one of two things. Be a spectator or act, within your possibilities, getting involved in the fight against the coronavirus.” Murua, along with other wineries, restaurants, chefs and wine personalities, has donated bottles of its high-end wines to a charity auction to benefit activities organized by the Spanish Red Cross.

How are Rioja wineries preparing for the “new normal”? The clear consensus among those consulted is that they will learn as the situation evolves, and that wine tourism activities will be adapted to smaller groups with an emphasis on providing a safe experience.

Cristina Pérez, PR manager of Marqués de Riscal explains, “When faced with the uncertainty we’re experiencing, we’re forced to reinvent ourselves and learn on our own” and adds, “we have to be able to receive visitors in a safe environment”.

Luis Alberto Lecea of Bodegas Lecea brings up the interesting point that even though wineries can prepare for wine tourism under the new normal, they can’t be sure about the expectations of the “new” wine tourist. Consequently the winery is preparing several scenarios.

Natalia Bermejo, the wine tourism manager for the CVNE group that includes CVNE, Viña Real and Contino emphasizes that their wineries have a number of different spaces and activities geared to visitors with diverse interests, so there is no need to “change the script”.   However, a major responsibility for the group is making sure that their visitors feel safe by pursuing certification of their properties as Covid-free, by providing sanitized glassware and snacks wrapped in individual packages and using disinfection methods to assure that visitors aren’t carriers of the virus.

Blanca Baños, managing director of Bodegas Bohedal recently announced that the winery will open its outside terrace on May 11, provided that La Rioja is authorized to go to stage 1 of the unlocking protocol. Even though the terrace is large enough to accommodate groups of visitors at the maximum 50% capacity dictated by the protocol, she expects that arrivals will initially be from the winery’s hometown of Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, mostly to provide a place to meet for the small businesses in this village that relies almost exclusively on tourism.

Marta Gómez, the PR manager for the Pernod Ricard Winemakers Spain – owner of Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios – sums up the group’s philosophy in one word: resilience. “We’ve been working hard from the very beginning of the crisis for that great day when we can once again open our wineries to visitors.” “…very well-thought out plans and sanitary measures so that each visitor to our wineries will be safe and protected, and be absolutely sure that we’ve thought about each and every detail to protect their health”.

María José López de Heredia, managing director and member of the fourth generation of R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, offers a sober reflection about the current situation, in keeping with her family philosophy, in place since the company’s founding in 1877:

“…At the present time, and out of respect for the innumerable amount of people who are suffering, our plan is “Patience”, respect, prayers for those who have died and efforts to responsibly protect our families, our employees and our potential visitors as well. We cannot encourage them to visit us when we cannot guarantee their safety, our attention and therefore, their enjoyment.”

“…But from now on we believe that all of us have learned another lesson and this is that in addition to developing ‘wine tourism’ from a strictly economic point of view, we winery owners have the moral obligation to contribute improvements and worthwhile thoughts to society. Nature, on which we all depend so much and wineries even more for obvious reasons…has taught us a huge lesson about humility; it has proved to humans that we don’t control it. We must love it, take care of it, understand it and we have to do it not only with words but with commitment and with action.”






Rioja Copes with the ‘C’ word

Rioja, like every other wine region in the world, is suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. If we can find one positive aspect in the terms of the two Spanish government-mandated lockdowns on March 13 with a tightening of conditions on March 28, it’s the fact that agriculture-related activities are considered essential and remain ‘open’. Consequently, farmers continue to tend their vines, winemakers and winery workers are moving wine around wineries, administrative staff is working from home and a few wineries are even shipping orders, almost exclusively to international customers.


(Photo credit:  Tom Perry, Note on door:  daughter Martha)

However, winery doors are shut for tourists. Worse still, the on-trade (bars, cafes and restaurants), are locked down. Rioja’s most recent annual report (2018) emphasizes the importance this channel:

“Nielsen highlights the positive performance of Rioja in the on-trade channel, where the highest added value can be found, and where Rioja has an overwhelming 60% market share, climbing to 80% for aged wines.”

Shuttering the on-trade has hurt all of our wineries even though the off-trade  (hyper-and supermarkets and wine shops) are still open. A recent study by an ‘app’ that promotes money-back deals reports that since the beginning of the crisis, wine sales are up 42% in the chains that work with them. Well, maybe, but I’m sure it’s because of the anxiety produced by the lockdown. These big stores stock almost exclusively wines from large and some medium-sized wineries. Smaller wineries and those selling wines from singular vineyards, winemaker’s selections and other small volume products have three options: wine shops, online retailers and direct sales from the winery via internet. Sales here are faltering in spite of substantial discounting.

We will deal in greater depth with the economic consequences for the Rioja wine trade and wine tourism in an upcoming article. Today we want to emphasize:

  • how wineries are giving back to the community;
  • how wineries are continuing to educate and entertain current and potential customers;
  • how English-speakers can learn more about Rioja.


(Credit:  Who knows? It was sent to me via WhatsApp.  Sorry.)

First of all, our gratitude to Alberto Gil, wine columnist at our regional newspaper La Rioja  and Javier Pascual, founder and editor of La Prensa del Rioja for publishing information in their respective media about Rioja’s current situation, some of which I have reproduced here to complement my own research. Both write extensively about Rioja and are great sources of up-to-date information provided you speak Spanish.

I want to send a huge ‘¡Muy bien!’ to our Great Wine Capitals Global Network colleagues Visit Napa Valley for their extensive coverage of the solidarity shown by this premier wine region’s wineries during the coronavirus pandemic.

They also feature special offers for online shipments. I hope readers of Inside Rioja in the USA will take advantage of them. VNV – you are truly inspiring!

We hope to hear from the rest of our GWC colleagues and will share their initiatives here.

Riojan winery solidarity

There is a chronic shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. Two wineries (that I am aware of) with customers in China have ordered, received and distributed masks to these beleaguered workers. A big shoutout goes out to Bodegas Marqués del Atrio and Viñedos de Aldeanueva.

Bodegas Lecea, one of the most visited in the region, has offered healthcare workers free tastings and visits to its network of underground cellars for a year.

The Osborne group, owners of Bodegas Montecillo, as well as Campo Viejo, AGE and Ysios’ parent company Pernod-Ricard are using their distillation facilities to make sanitizing gel.

Bodegas Gómez Cruzado in Haro is selling its wines online with a discount, using the proceeds to pay the wages of its workers, avoiding layoffs.

Virtual tours (either produced by the winery or by roving wine writers)

Some well-known wineries featured are:

 Two of the best interviews given by María José López de Heredia from Viña Tondonia are available in a two-part series shot in 2010 with Gary Vaynerchuk in his groundbreaking series wine library tv. The normally loquacious Gary was mostly silent, letting MJ do all the talking. Priceless!

Vaynerchuk interviewed other Rioja personalities for his show. We assume you’re interested, so use the search function in Wine Library TV and the keyword ‘Rioja’.

  • Telmo Rodríguez talks about his single vineyard ‘Las Beatas’ (in English)

Virtual tastings and wine knowledge

The problem here is the almost total absence on the web and social media of Rioja tastings in good English (here I detect an opportunity for a wine-savvy native speaker to give classes to winemakers). Note: Not me, thank you!

  • Viñedos y Bodegas de La Marquesa Valserrano has produced two good ones with English subtitles, both recently posted on the winery’s IGTV site.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has begun to produce materials to supplement their PR campaigns in major markets. A number of short interviews, subtitled in English, are available.

The Regulatory Council has recently launched a fantastic initiative: The Rioja Wine Academy. Here anyone can study three, free online courses:

  • Rioja Wine Diploma
  • Diploma in Rioja Wine Tourism
  • Diploma for Trade and Distribution

A fourth course, geared to people interested in teaching others about Rioja is the Rioja Certified Educator Program, subject to application and acceptance of the candidate by the Regulatory Council. There is an online module as well as a series of seminars, tastings and visits to Rioja wineries. Three classes of Certified Rioja Educators, whose mission is to be ambassadors for Rioja in their markets, have already graduated.

Inside Rioja hopes that you enjoy exploring the wonderful world of Rioja from the safety and comfort of your homes!




Bodegas LAN: Getting Wine Tourism Right – including suggestions about how Rioja wineries can improve wine tourism

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Viña Lanciano (Credit:  Bodegas LAN)

Bodegas LAN is a newcomer to the wine tourism scene in Rioja, having only opened their tasting room in May. According to Alejandro Ruiz, the winery’s wine tourism host, “LAN is either the 186th or 187th Rioja winery to open its doors to wine tourists”.

Before deciding on a wine tourism strategy, LAN did its homework, visiting over 60 wineries. Their decision has been based on “less is more”, beginning with Alejandro Ruiz’s role in the winery. “My official title is ‘host’. I didn’t want to be the guide whose job is to say the same things to each group and wait for the next bus to arrive.”

It seems clear from Ruiz’s comment that LAN understands that a lot of wine tourism guides suffer from burnout from repeating the same story day after day and that different wine tourists want different experiences. More about this follows.

With the empirical evidence learned from many winery visits, LAN has devised three experiences.

The first experience is based on the acronym of the winery’s name. LAN was named after the first letters of the three Spanish provinces that house the Rioja wine district:

L for Logroño (now called La Rioja)

A for Álava

N for Navarra

This experience is a variation of the name, ‘LAN in Three Letters’. It’s a visit to the winery and a tasting, built around

L for Legend, based on the famous Roman bridge at Mantible which originally crossed the Ebro river to the area inside an oxbow where Lan’s signature vineyard Viña Lanciano is located.

A for Architecture, featuring LAN’s spectacular barrel aging cellar and the winery’s participation in the “Concéntrico” architecture fair featuring an original sculpture every year in the Viña Lanciano vineyard.

N for Numbers and Names, featuring the winery’s brand D-12, named after the winemaker’s favorite fermentation tank number 12 and the names of the winery personnel that contribute to the success of the winery and its brands.

This visit lasts 90 minutes followed by a tasting of D-12, LAN crianza and Viña Lanciano.

The second experience takes 45 minutes and centers on the barrel aging cellar. Here, visitors learn about the beneficial effects of oak aging to increase the longevity of the wine, followed by a tasting of two oak aged reds.

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LAN’s barrel aging cellar (Credit:  Bodegas LAN)

The third experience is a tasting in the tasting room. Visitors can taste as many wines as they want, paying by the glass.

In the future LAN will launch a fourth option: a visit to Viña Lanciano.

Wines are also available for purchase, both by the glass, bottle and case.

Alejandro Ruiz explained that most Spanish visitors request the full winery tour. Foreign visitors, especially those from the USA, preferred the tasting option.

LAN’s visitors’ reception area reminded me of Scandinavia – low key, featuring furniture with a contemporary design, blond wood shelves, bar, and stools with comfortable armchairs and sofas and two wood-burning fireplaces. It’s a place to relax, chat and enjoy a few glasses of wine.




LAN’s visitors’ center (Credit:  Tom Perry)

I think LAN has got its wine tourism philosophy right by offering visitors several options rather than the sole possibility of shepherding groups through the winery like cattle before providing a tasting at the end of the visit. This avoids what I call “bodega burnout”, an affliction that affects wine tourism staff and wine tourists alike.

In my former life as the point person for the international promotion of Rioja wines for fifteen years, one of my responsibilities was to lead at least 20 groups of wine, food and lifestyle writers around Rioja every year. These visits usually lasted a week with three wineries a day, so I reckon I’ve visited Rioja wineries at least 4,500 times. A lot of these visits took place before wine tourism became popular, but I was witness to the high turnover of wine tourism staff, who either left the industry or moved to other wineries because they were tired of giving the same spiel 15 to 20 times a week. I think there must be a better way. I remember a visit to Voyager Estate in Margaret River in Western Australia where the tasting room employee explained that the winery avoids burnout by rotating the staff between the tasting room, the winery and the restaurant. Might this be a lesson for Rioja wineries?

I learned about creating valuable wine tourism experiences from these trips with journalists. Visiting wineries with wine writers is an art form because the writers almost invariably know more about wine and the winemaking process than the winery staff itself, so a standardized tour would inevitably lead to boredom. I tried to maximize interest by requesting that for each visit, the winery concentrate on one aspect of the process from vineyard to aging. One winery would talk about how their vineyards are planted (for example to a specific varietal or to field blends of various varietals); stainless steel fermentation vats versus cement, both lined and unlined, eggs, or wooden vats; the effects of ageing in French, American, Slovenian, Russian and Spanish oak; single varietals versus blending; single vineyards versus sourcing grapes from different parts of Rioja; new oak vs. old oak and so on. By the end of the week, the journalists would have a good overview of the different ways wine is made in Rioja. This almost always produced lots of articles because the writers had plenty of angles to write about.

Ideally, I think Rioja wineries should replicate these fascinating differences by concentrating on unique experiences that don’t necessarily include visiting the whole winery. And of course they should pay more attention to opportunities to taste and purchase. A weekend visit to Rioja doesn’t have to mean being forced to see interminable stainless steel tanks and oak casks. If everyone showed visitors what’s unique about their property, Rioja’s value as a wine tourism destination would increase exponentially.

Bodegas LAN; Paraje Buicio s/n; 26360 Fuenmayor (La Rioja);

Reservations: +34 676 569 115 (Alejandro Ruiz)