Wine battles in La Rioja (the healthy kind)

In La Rioja, celebrations often include spraying participants with wine.  These are not manifestations of some atavistic warlike trait, but rather acts steeped in tradition.

In La Rioja two of the most important events of this kind are the Haro wine battle, celebrated on June 29 and the clarete battle, held on July 25 (Saint James’s Day – Santiago, the patron saint of Spain) or on the following Sunday.

The Haro wine battle probably began in the late 19th century during a pilgrimage to a spot on a hill overlooking the Ebro in honor of St. Felices de Bilibio, a hermit in the 6th century who lived in these hills.  During the meal, the pilgrims, no doubt under the effects of copious amounts of alcohol, began to throw wine at one another.

Today, thousands of locals and tourists gather in the main square of Haro early in the morning where they walk or ride up to the site of the battle.  After celebrating Mass, the battle begins.  20,000 liters of wine are sprayed by the participants from squirt guns, wineskins, buckets and industrial sprayers until the participants, who arrived dressed in white, are drenched in red wine.

The clarete battle in San Asensio began much later, in 1977 during a meal organized by one of the peñas (social clubs) that liven up festivals in most Spanish towns and cities.  Here, between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of clarete are sprayed around by the 1,300 residents of the village, joined by over 4,000 partygoers from other parts of Spain and abroad.

During other local festivals, large groups of young people gather in the main square waiting for the rocket signalling the beginning of the festival to be shot off.  After the rocket, the revellers throw flour, wine and eggs at one another.

The food fight par excellence, however, has to be the tomatina, held in Buñol, a village in the province of Valencia, where tons of ripe tomatoes are unloaded by dump trucks and thrown by the villagers and outsiders at one another.

I see this as a healthy way to let off steam and to get one in the mood of the local festival, a week of dancing, eating and drinking that takes place in every village, town and city in Spain.

Given the current state of our economy, a little escapism like this has to be a good thing!

Photo:  the clarete battle of San Asensio.  Photo credit:  La Rioja

A young, fresh Riojan


No, this isn’t about a sassy kid from Rioja, but rather street parties that our local newspaper LA RIOJA organizes around Spain to interest consumers, especially those from 25 to 35,  in Rioja wines.  ‘Riojano, joven y fresco’ is the theme that takes Rioja wineries to cities around the country to offer their wines in a relaxed atmosphere.

Sales of Rioja in Spain, our most important market with a 70% share, are dropping at an alarming rate because of stricter enforcement of DUI laws, the effects of the economic crisis that has affected sales in restaurants, traditionally a bastion for Rioja, competition from new wine regions and abnormally hot weather that draws people toward the chilled ‘caña’ or cold glass of draft beer and away from wine.

Sales in Spain peaked in 2007 at 249 million bottles, falling to 218 million bottles in 2009.  Rioja has made a firm commitment to international sales as a means of making up the shortfall, but increasing exports by 31 million bottles is no mean feat when major markets (the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the USA) are reeling from the economic crisis.

Some hope, therefore, lies with rekindling the Spanish market

This year, the party has already gone to Santander, Oviedo and Logroño and will return to Logroño on July 29.  I attended the Santander event with some friends.  The choice of a venue couldn’t have been better – a tree-lined boulevard near the center of town durng the evening hours before dinner when townspeople are out for their pre-dinner stroll and therefore predisposed toward a few glasses of wine.

For 5 euros, visitors received a tasting glass, a small brochure describing the wineries with a place to make tasting notes and five vouchers, good for five glasses of wine, a good deal.  The local ‘Centro Riojano’ (Riojan expats club) provided cheese, sausage and information about the Rioja region.

The party was a success for everyone involved – the locals, who were able to sample a wine range of wines at good prices; the wineries, who promoted their brands with their distributors and customers, and the elected officials from Rioja and Santander who shmoozed with their constituents.

Riojan street parties like this are becoming an important part of Rioja’s promotional activity in Spain, the UK (Tapas Fantásticas) and Germany.  It would be nice to be able to do them in the USA, Rioja’s # 1 target market (wishful thinking, due to Americans’ puritanical attitude toward alcohol) because the best way to sell wine is to give consumers a taste in a convivial atmosphere. I hope the Rioja PR campaign in the USA finds a way around this, because the US is the only market with the growth potential to compensate for falling sales in Spain.


Every year at the end of the first week in July, a group of my friends from the USA, Canada, Sweden, France, Norway, Holland, Germany, Israel, Russia, Finland and several other countries set out for Pamplona, a normally quiet town in northern Spain to join 200,000 locals and 500,000 visitors from all over the world for nine days of celebrating the festival of St. Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona.

My first appearance here was in 1971, only a week after arriving in Spain with a copy of James Michener’s The Drifters and Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta in my suitcase.  I never imagined that I would live in Spain, marry a Spaniard and raise two children, much less return to Pamplona every year to see my friends and relive the greatest party ever.

In the ensuing 39 years, we have solved the world’s problems, laughed, cried, eaten, gotten drunk, danced all night, gone to bullfights and run down slippery streets in front of, beside and behind 1,300 pound bulls.

Pamplona is a place you have to see to believe.  It’s bigger and better than Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, the Bangkok Water Festival, the Tomatina, Super Bowl Sunday and the Kentucky Derby.  As a matter of fact, I think it’s better than all of them combined.

To me, however, the best thing about the St. Fermin festival is to see how the locals celebrate, for first and foremost, it’s a religious celebration, honoring a medieval man who was martyred and became a saint.  Everyone from babies in strollers to the elderly dresses in white, adding a red sash for a belt and a red scarf, and one of the highlights of the celebration is the procession through the old town on July 7, St. Fermin’s Day. A statue of the saint is carried through the city streets followed by several bands, the mayor and city council, religious groups, dancers, gigantic papier-mâché figures representing the kings and queens of Navarre, the cabezudos or ‘big heads’ and the kilikis, men wearing disguises who carry a cloth-filled bag attached with a rope to a stick who run through the streets hitting shrieking young children who try to escape but really want to be hit because it’s good luck.

For foreigners visiting the city for the first time between July 6 and14, Pamplona is nothing more than a week-long, alcohol-soaked street party.  But as they return year after year, they begin to enjoy the festivities like the locals, watching the processions, going to concerts, dancing to rock and roll, tango, and salsa in the many parks around the city, attending the bullfights, watching or participating in the running of the bulls, eating in bars, especially tapas and enjoying almuerzo.

If you live in Spain you can enjoy this atmosphere at any town festival throughout the summer, but for me San Fermín is special – a place where I can forget my age and act like a teenager with my best friends without a care in the world!  

Photo:  the statue of St. Fermin carried through the streets of Pamplona on July 7