Smoking is out, ‘smirting’ is in


If you ask someone from Rioja what bothers them most these days, chances are it’s not the economy, the unemployment rate or the scores from last week’s football games, but rather Spain’s new antismoking law, that came into effect on January 2. The earlier law was a toothless piece of legislation that pandered to every smokers lobby in the country, led by the bar and restaurant associations, for whom smoking was the lifeblood of their industry. Imagine a law that allowed bars to decide if they were smoking or non-smoking. I never saw a single bar with a sign that said no smoking was allowed, meaning that whenever I went out for a drink I had to put up with other customers’ smoke, making the bar look like a back room where politicians were making some kind of deal.

Fortunately, the law didn’t take effect on January 1 when Spain en masse is celebrating New Year’s. My wife told me that she and my son went out for a glass of wine before lunch on New Year’s Day (I was in bed with the flu). The smokers were outside, puffing away while holding their drinks. She thought “this new law might really work.”

Fat chance. Two young Chinese guys walked into the bar to play the slot machines. Men like them are famous in Spain because they seem to know when the machines are going to pay out so they sit on bar stools nursing a glass of beer while feeding money into the machines. Suddenly, they lit up cigarettes. The reaction of the smokers in the bar was instantaneous. Every smoker lit up, immediately enveloping the bar in a yellow cloud. My wife told me about it and we had a good laugh because it was still legal to smoke inside until the next day.

The new law, while largely observed, is a perfect example of a typical Spanish attitude: I only care about my rights and don’t give a damn about yours. Smokers, angry at having to go outside to indulge, are oblivious to the inconvenience they cause to the rest of the customers in the bar. Probably the most intransigent attitude of all was taken by the owner of a restaurant in Marbella on the south coast who, in an act of Spanish civil disobedience, continued to let customers smoke in his bar and even appeared on TV, radio and in the papers to brag about it. This man, an ‘exile’ from the Basque Country (some say that he had refused to pay a tax imposed by ETA and was threatened) practically dared the police to enforce the law. They did, with a vengeance, fining the restaurant about 140.000 euros and shutting it down. I just read that the owner has recanted. After all, who can afford to part with that kind of money in today’s economy?

Bar and restaurant owners all over Spain say that the law is the straw that broke the camel’s back on top of the effects on consumption because of the economic crisis. I’ve been asking bars and restaurants if the law has adversely affected their businesses and have gotten a variety of answers. The bottom line seems to be that places that are well-run and popular are doing well, while the poorly-run ones are doing worse.

In a way, I sympathize with the smokers. After all, bars are the community centers in this country, open from 7 am to midnight, where people gather to read the newspaper, catch up on gossip, have breakfast, a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, a cup of coffee or a drink. A recent article in the Spanish newspaper El País talks about an unexpected advantage of going outside to smoke – people who meet members of the opposite sex while having a cigarette. This is called ‘smirting’, a combination of ‘smoking’ and ‘flirting’, a word coined in the USA in 2003. Apparently this technique is so successful that non-smokers often go outside with smokers because the action there is better than inside the bar. According to this article, in Ireland, where the law is similar to Spain’s, 25% of couples that met in 2007 and 2008 were the result of a cigarette smoked under the moonlight.

So, it seems that even though smoking in public places is now illegal, it’s a great way to start a relationship.

Gran Reserva: Is it Rioja’s answer to Sideways?


I’m getting ready for my annual trip to Florida and am busily loading e-books into my Kindle.  Since I’m addicted to anything related to wine, when I read an article in Palate Press  about Vertical, the sequel to Sideways, two thoughts crossed my mind:  the book would make perfect, no-brains-involved reading on the flight and wouldn’t it be fantastic for Rioja if, as author Rex Pickett hints,  someone made a serious movie in English featuring Rioja, much like Sideways for wines from Santa Barbara County in California and the pinot noir grape and the Willamette Valley in Oregon for Vertical, also famous for pinot and other burgundian varieties?  After all, Sideways has been responsible for the increased popularity of pinot noir in the USA and has given a big boost to wine tourism in Santa Barbara.  Although it’s too early to say what Vertical’s impact will be in Oregon (the book was published last November), I’m sure it will be a boon to both the region and its wines.

Rioja has taken a different tack.  Or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that TVE, one of Spain’s two public TV networks, has chosen to feature Rioja in a TV series set in Rioja called Gran Reserva, released for the time being for prime-time Spanish TV for an audience more interested in high drama than the tempranillo grape.

Like all popular TV shows and movies, the series revolves around ignoble human traits like greed, envy, murder and pride, with a little romance thrown in to placate middle-aged Spanish women brought up on gossip magazines.  It’s the story of two wineries, Bodegas Cortázar, for which wine is a lucrative business and Bodegas Reverte, defenders of the traditional way of grapegrowing and winemaking.

The screenwriters certainly got that right if they meant to portray the real-life Rioja business.

My first roar of laughter came when the name of the fictional town where the wineries are located was mentioned – LASIESTA (the nap), leading me to fantasize that the story was written by Americans for whom Spaniards are mistakenly portrayed like the old stereotype of Mexican men sitting against an adobe wall wearing a huge sombrero pulled over their faces while having a midday snooze.

I have to confess that I haven’t watched all the programs, but all the ingredients are there to compare Gran Reserva to Falcon Crest, for better or for worse.

Rioja towns and wineries have been engaged in a fierce battle to appear on the show and the casting calls for extras are more popular than a bullfight with José Tomás.

The official website of the series even has a link to the two fictional wineries:

 that are honestly better than a lot of real Rioja winery websites.

I can imagine an unsuspecting web surfer/wine buff finding these websites and actually going to a wine shop to ask for a bottle. Maybe the producers of the series could actually launch these wines. Maybe they already have. You couldn’t ask for a better PR platform. 

For Spanish speakers interested in watching the first 13 episodes (promisingly, a second year series of episodes is coming up), the above link will take you there.

Will Gran Reserva be exported to the English-speaking world?  I doubt it but it’s likely that one of the Spanish-language networks in the USA will be interested because the emotional gist of the story is similar to a host of telenovelas filmed in Venezuela that are staples of mid-afternoon Spanish TV programming.

This is not the first time that a movie or TV series has been made about the Rioja wine business.

In 1989, Marcos Eguizábal, owner of Bodegas Franco-Españolas and Federico Paternina, produced a movie called Oro Fino (Fine Gold) with a stellar cast including Stewart Granger (Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda), Jane Badler (the evil Diana from the first ‘V’), Tia Carrere (the nubile, swashbuckling Hawaiian actress (Kull the Conqueror, Wayne’s World 1 and 2) and Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian). The movie was a flop, probably because the aging Granger, in spite of his blond mane and British accent, was not a convincing love interest for either Badler or Carrere.

Not to be left behind, in 1999, the Basque network ETB2 produced the series Señorío de Larrea, featuring Rioja Alavesa. I have no idea if it was a success or not because I had never heard of it until I started to search the web to write this post. So much for that.

Perhaps the local governments and the Rioja Regulatory Council could persuade Rex Pickett, author of Sideways and Vertical, to write a book about a fictional trip to Rioja by Jack and Miles.  I even have a name for the movie:  Horizontal.

But on second thought, why make a movie or TV series when real-life winery drama is pervasive in Riojan and Spanish society?  Lately the gossip columns and financial news are bubbling about the story of the Rioja winery patriarch who is in the process of removing his children from the winery’s board of directors because of a perceived conflict due to the patriarch’s second wife and the inheritance.  Big news was also made by the owner of one of Ribera del Duero’s most famous wineries who ejected some of his adult children from the board of the family’s holding company for the same reason.

Truth, after all, is really stranger than fiction.