It’s the beginning of September. Vacation’s over but you still have to endure a flight delay or a monumental traffic jam most of the way from the coast back to your house. The kids are complaining because they have to go back to school. You have to go back to work. You’ve gained five pounds in three weeks. You’re irritable and can’t sleep. Sound familiar? It’s what Spaniards call ‘el síndrome posvacacional’ or post-vacation stress.
Fortunately in Rioja, The ‘Rioja and the Five Senses’ program has the cure. Throughout September, your sense of hearing is stimulated by a range of musical activities around the world of Rioja wine. It puts you in a good mood and gets you thinking about wine again after a summer of drinking beer.
Inside Rioja attended two of these activities recently: a concert of popular music from the ‘30s and ‘40s held at Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha in the small village of Baños del Río Tobía in the southwestern corner of the Rioja wine district, and a rock/blues/pop combo at Bodegas La Emperatriz a few miles north.
Round One – Swing
Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats, a four person combo made up of a tenor sax/clarinet, an upright bass and a guitar, led by a talented young singer, Saphie Wells. The band played songs made popular by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and others, including ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’, ‘All of me’ and ‘C’est si bon’. Ms. Wells really put her heart into the songs, and her audience responded by snapping fingers and clapping in time with the music.
One of the buildings in the winery was converted into a nightclub for the event, with soft lighting, and tables for two or four with candles scattered in front of the stage. During the concert, the winery served one of its red wines with glasses frequently topped up. Fortunately most people came and went on a bus provided by the organizers! https://swingcatsbarcelona.com/
Juan Carlos Sancha is not only a winery owner but also holds a Ph.D in viticulture. A professor at the University of La Rioja, he is one of Rioja’s foremost experts on local grapes. In the 1990s he led a movement to rescue little-known grape varietals from extinction and then fought to get the best ones approved for use in Rioja wines. You can thank him and his colleague Fernando Martínez de Toda for the addition of red and white maturana and turruntés (no relation to the torrontés grown in Argentina) and helping to develop white tempranillo, a natural mutation of the red variety, discovered in 1988.
Sancha has also fought hard to develop the concept of singular vineyards in Rioja and old vine garnacha at high altitude above the Najerilla river valley near Baños. https://juancarlossancha.com/
Round Two – rock and roll
The following Saturday we traveled to Bodegas La Emperatriz, a winery surrounded by over 200 hectares of vineyards divided into 22 plots. Some of these are in the process of being certified as singular vineyards. The property used to belong to Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of France’s Napoleon III, with grape and wine production dating from the mid-19th century. The property’s current owners are Eduardo and Víctor Hernáiz.
Both Juan Carlos Sancha and La Emperatriz are members of Provir, an association of family-owned wineries in Rioja. Eduardo Hernáiz is the association’s current president.
The musical date was with Confluence, from Bilbao, a band made up of weekend musicians who in “real” life are lawyers, statisticians, civil servants and members of other professions. ‘Confluence’, as the name suggests, specializes in a combination of rock, pop, country, jazz, blues and spirituals.
Led by the inimitable Irrintzi Ibarrola on vocals and acoustic guitar, the band is made up of a Hammond organ, electric bass, drums, electric guitar, and harmonica with an occasional riff from an alto sax.
If Saphie Wells and the Swing Cats reminded me of the music my parents used to listen to, Irrintzi Ibarrola and Confluence was my music – the USA and UK from the 1960s and early 70s, with songs from Ben E. King (Stand by Me), Otis Redding (Sitting on the Dock of the Bay), the Beatles (I’ll Get by with a Little Help from my Friends) – although sung in the lusty Joe Cocker version, Johnny Cash and of course, Bob Dylan.
Hearing the Cocker song took me back to 1970 when some friends and I jumped a curfew imposed because of the riots caused by the Kent State murders to go to a Cocker concert in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It was well worth risking getting arrested!
The band also played some of Ibarrola’s original songs. My favorite was ‘Mitad hombre, mitad sardina’ (Half man, half sardine) inspired by the moment Ibarrola looked at himself in the mirror wearing a wet suit.
Clearly, Ibarrola’s inspirations are Cocker, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Cash and Motown (Ibarrola introduced himself as a native of Detroit). His number one hero, however is Bob Dylan. For the group’s second encore, Ibarrola sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as Dylan in the 60s, 80s and the 21st century. Pure genius!
It was a swingin’, swayin’, foot stomping performance.
After the concert I introduced myself as a real native of Detroit. Ibarrola laughed and asked me if I had understood his singing. “Every word”, I replied, although I have to agree with Ibarrola’s statement from a recent article in Bilbao’s El Correo: “You can perform rock and roll in any language”!
Right on, brother!