Los Santos Inocentes

Today, December 28, Spain and most Spanish-speaking countries celebrate ‘el día de los santos inocentes’ (the innocent saints), that originally commemorated the murder of all children under two years old in Bethlehem by King Herod, ostensibly to rid himself of the baby Jesus.

Today, however, is the day when people play all kinds of practical jokes on one another, like April Fools’ Day in the USA and the UK or les Poissons d’Avril in France. People will call to say you’ve won the lottery, kids will stick paper dolls on their friends’ backs and the newspapers will invent stories, some of them so realistic that most people will believe them. 

For example, several years ago our local newspaper reported that the sailboat that had competed in the World’s Cup, sponsored by Rioja wines, was offering free cruises down the Ebro river.  Hundreds of people went down to the river to line up for a ride.  Another year, it was announced that city hall had approved a subway system for Logroño, and that a world-class soccer star had signed a deal with the local team.

Lately, however, these practical jokes or ‘inocentadas’ are absent from the papers.  A journalist suggested in this morning’s LA RIOJA that the daily doses of bad news due to the current economic conditions were about as much as people were willing to put up with, some of which, such as ‘2010 will be the year the Spanish economy starts to grow again’ and ‘the housing and unemployment crises are about to end’ are so unbelievable that they sound like December 28th’s practical jokes all year round.

I, for one, am going to start a new December 28 tradition:  give my friends some good news and buy them a glass of wine.  That’s what we need around here today!

Christmas in Rioja

Here, the holiday season lasts about a month – from December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) to January 6 (Epiphany).  Imagine starting the party at Thanksgiving and ending it on New Year’s Day and you get the idea.

There are quite a few differences between celebrating in the USA and in Spain.  In the first place, there is no fixed tradition about who gives the gifts and when.  Traditionally, gift giving took place on the morning of January 6, Epiphany, the day the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus.  The holiday itself is called ‘Reyes’ or ‘Kings’.

This is not always the case, however.

When I was recently married with young children, we usually spent the holidays at my parents-in-law’s house in Zaragoza.  My father-in-law was from Barcelona, and his family’s tradition was to give gifts on Christmas Eve, something my family still does today.  Their Nativity scene had the crib with the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, assorted sheep and a curious figure squatting behind a palm tree called ‘el Caganer’ or ‘the crapper’.When my kids and their cousins wanted their presents, they had to yell, ‘Tío Cagatarro’  three times.

To maintain this tradition we have a ‘crapper’  next to the manger.

In the Basque part of Rioja, the man who brings the presents is ‘el olentzero’, a man who delivers the coal.  Curiously, in Spain, when kids misbehave, their parents say that instead of presents, they’re going to get a lump of coal.

Santa Claus (Papá Noel) is also on the scene, undoubtedly due to Anglo-Saxon (in other words, commercial) influences.  I always laugh when I hear ‘White Christmas’  and ‘Jingle Bells’ sung  in Spanish. It’s like singing  ‘La Bamba’ at Thanksgiving.

One of the highlights of the season is the Christmas lottery,  held on December 22.  Every radio and TV station carries the drawing, with the numbers and prizes sung aloud by children from an orphans’ school near Madrid.  After the winning numbers are drawn, TV crews rush to the city or village to film the happy winners drinking wine and planning how to tell their bosses they won’t return to work the next day.

The big family dinner is always on Christmas Eve – an event that I always tell my Spanish friends is analogous to Thanksgiving in the USA.

On New Year’s Eve at exactly 12 midnight, everyone celebrates the new year by eating 12 grapes, one for every chime of the bells in the city hall tower in Madrid.

I don’t think children care whether the coal man, the three kings or Santa brings the presents, but I’m sure what the parents think.  Imagine having your children around the house from December 15 to January 7 and having to wait until the night of January 5 to receive their presents!  Most parents I know let them open their gifts on Christmas Eve to keep them busy until they have to go back to school!

Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri’s geothermal energy project

You don’t have to be a fan of Jules Verne to know that the earth radiates heat from its core. In countries near the Arctic Circle, this energy has been used for years to heat buildings.  As far as I know, however, no winery has used geothermal energy in the winemaking  process until this technology was put into place by Bodegas Regalía de Ollauri in Rioja. The project was announced in early November and presented to the recent Wine Future 09 conference in Rioja, where it was received enthusiastically.

The idea is simple:  although the outside temperature may fluctuate between -10ºC and +40ºC  (14º to 104ºF)  in Rioja, the temperature at a depth of 100 meters under the winery is a constant 14º to 18ºC (57º to 65ºF).  By drilling and installing a closed circuit of pipes connected to the heating and cooling network in the winery, warm water can be pumped to the surface during the winter and conversely, cold water to the surface in the summer, thus greatly reducing the energy needed to heat or cool the winery or a room to the desired temperature,for example, for alcoholic or malolactic fermentation. The process is facilitated by using a water-water pump which releases no CO2 into the atmosphere.

Regalía de Ollauri boasts that by using this system it is the least contaminating winery in the world, reducing total CO2 emissions by 80%.

The winery has recently released a new product, Versum, made using this technology.  The name, from the Latin ‘return’, ‘turn’, change’  is meant as a symbol of returning to the earth, the source of this energy.

I applaud this idea.  Using renewable energy plays an important role in slowing down the effects of climate change. The Regalía de Ollauri project, using technology provided by Sapje, an engineering firm in Rioja, will undoubtedly be copied by other wineries, given this unlimited resource lying just below the earth’s surface.  It’s an example of copying that I like!



If you think I’m referring to those steel structures that take you over rivers, gorges or deep valleys, guess again.  A ‘bridge’ or puente in Spain is a long weekend when there’s a holiday on Tuesday or Thursday and you get the Monday or Friday off, ‘bridging’ the workday.

Next week we have a good puente in Spain, because Tuesday (December 8)  is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holiday in predominantly Catholic countries in Europe such as Spain, Austria, Italy and Portugal.

Its international appeal was brought home to me by a message that an Italian friend posted on Facebook this morning.  She said “aspettando il ponte” (looking forward to the bridge). Me, too!

A puente sets off a mass migration of Spaniards to their second homes in the mountains or the beach, sometimes hours away, complete with dire warnings from the police about the number of cars on the road, driving safely, increased patrols by unmarked cars, hidden radar and, sadly, a number of fatal accidents.

 Here in La Rioja, the police have predicted that 300,000 cars will crisscross the region from today at 3 PM until midnight on Wednesday.

Sometimes holidays will fall on both Tuesday and Thursday, in which case many companies close down for the entire week.  This happy circumstance is called an acueducto (aqueduct) and is a real cause for celebration in Spain, since everyone here is always complaining about work.  One of the funniest jokes I ever heard here is a conversation between two men that goes like this:

A:  “How many people work at your company?”

B:  “Well, there are 75 people on the payroll  but only five or six really work!”

An unpleasant consequence of any puente is the traffic jam, an obvious event because everyone is going everywhere at the same time.  Spaniards, who consider themselves to be very clever (and I agree!) try to avoid traffic jams by leaving early or taking alternate routes, which never works because everyone does the same thing.  I’ve found, after 38 years of puentes, that the best thing to do is to leave at the usual time and take the usual route.  No matter what you do, your trip will take longer than usual.

Nothing is more frustrating during a puente than reading the newspaper in a bar with a torrential rainstorm outside and seeing pictures of others basking in the warm sunshine somewhere else in Spain while you’re soaking wet.  The next year, you decide to go there for the puente and it rains all four days.

The next worst thing about a puente is the traffic jam on the way back.  You arrive so upset that you’re more tired and frustrated than before you left home!

For me, the smartest thing to do during a puente is to stay home.  The streets and bars are full of tourists who don’t know the best places to go, but I can smugly go to my favorite haunts, get spectacular service, and not worry about driving home!

We review the Wine Future Rioja 09 conference

The Wine Future Rioja 09 conference was held here on November 12 and 13.  Organized by Pancho Campo, Spain’s first Master of Wine, the event was touted as the most important gathering of luminaries in the wine business.  The cost was steep, about $1,500 for the two-day event, including a megatasting given by Robert Parker, arguably the world’s most influential wine writer.

Initially I was going to pass because of the price but finally I was able to attend, thanks to a complimentary invitation from one of the sponsors, Marqués de Riscal, whose finance director Fernando Salamero was my boss for 15 years while I was the director of the Rioja Exporters’ Association.

When I saw the list of speakers I was a little disappointed, because most of them were my age or older, which didn’t seem to jive with the idea of the future of our industry.

 Having said that, I especially enjoyed the presentations about social media (Ryan Opaz, Gary Vaynerchuk and Jeremy Benson), Miguel Torres’ talk about climate change and what Torres is doing about it, Robert Joseph’s thought-provoking talk about making wine easier to understand, Tim Hanni’s presentation about taste perceptions and Nicola Jenkin’s talk about packaging.

I personally feel that an important issue for the future of wine is overcoming the major hurdles small and many medium-sized wineries have to overcome just to find a route to market.  We can talk about empowering consumers all day but if consumers can’t buy certain products because of

  • the increasing concentration of distributors (USA)
  • the increased power of supermarkets and the demise of traditional retailers (UK)
  • the impossibility to sell wine through the internet between countries in the European Union
  • the difficulties small US wineries face to sell directly to consumers in different states (although this is improving)

these brands are handicapped.

In Europe, traditional wine producing countries face decreasing per capita consumption of wine and a lack of interest on the part of young consumers. There was a lot of talk about being able to connect with consumers but nothing was said about strategies to interest young consumers from Spain, France and Italy to wine.

I think there should have been more emphasis on these real issues facing our industry.

Parker tasting:

We tasted 20 wines (18 garnachas and two Riojas).  When the wines were announced in the program,there was a big fuss in Rioja about the absence of any Riojas and consequently, two were included at the last minute.  Parker defended himself by saying that he wanted to focus on the widespread international use of garnacha rather than on tempranillo, mainly used in Spain.  In addition, he stated emphatically that he didn’t want to give the impression that he was sacrificing his independence by promoting the wines in the region hosting the conference.  Fair enough,  but this explanation wasn’t well received by the locals because of the increasing range of garnachas from Rioja available here.  They weren’t, however, known by Mr. Parker, leading me to believe that their international distribution is weak (Garnacha producers from Rioja take note!).

Before the tasting, I, like most people, expected a symphony of overripe, overoaked, high alcohol fruit bombs, but was very pleasantly surprised, especially by the seven Châteauneuf-du-Papes, none of which had seen any oak at all.  All of them were really elegant and showed both the place they were from and the characteristics of the garnacha grape.  The 1945 Marqués de Riscal was superb.  I also liked the Clos Erasmus from Priorat (not at all inky and inscrutable), Espectacle from Montsant, the Clarendon Hills Old Vines and the Killakanoon from Australia.  On the down side, I didn’t think the Contador (from Benjamín Romeo in Rioja) was ready to drink yet and the Aquilón and Atteca Armas (both from the neighboring region of Aragón and sold by the Spanish specialist importer Jorge Ordóñez) had too much new oak , obliterating the fruit, for my taste.

 I was also fortunate to help a local journalist with his interview with Parker. In the interview he defended himself from his detractors by saying that he had an eclectic palate and that he was displeased with two of the wines in the tasting because they were overoaked!

He came across as a passionate, sincere, fiercely independent guy , which I liked.

I enjoyed the event because of the social media presentations, the networking oportunities it gave me and chatting the other speakers, most of them old friends.

However, next time, I hope distribution and social networks are at the top of the agenda!