Ernest Hemingway, Antonio Ordóñez and Rioja Wine: a historical snapshot

Note:  This article was first published in the 50th anniversary edition of Valor y Arte,  magazine of the New York Bullfight Club in the spring of 2011.

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Ernest Hemingway traveled through Spain a number of times between 1923, his first visit, and 1959, his last. His relationship with Spain is best exemplified in his writings about the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, bullfighting, and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

In Pamplona, Hemingway was revered and his visits to the Sanfermines were announced well in advance.  However, he made one almost completely unannounced trip to Spain in September of 1956, his first since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, to visit the San Mateo festival in Logroño where his friend Antonio Ordóñez was scheduled to participate in two corridas.

Some diehard aficionados spend enormous amounts of time and money following their favorite toreros and bull ranches all over Spain between March and October and often travel to Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia for the winter season. A lot of people don’t realize however, that this obsession is not a recent fad.  Hemingway’s last trip to Spain in 1959 was mostly devoted to following his friend Ordóñez around the country to write about a series of corridas mano a mano with Luis Miguel Dominguín. The temporada was immortalized in The Dangerous Summer. So in retrospect, it is not surprising that Hemingway would make a special trip to Rioja to see his friend face bulls.

On September 21, 1956 Hemingway arrived in Spain by car from Biarritz with his fourth wife Mary Welsh and Rupert Belleville, an RAF pilot who wanted to become a bullfighter.  They stopped in Pamplona to pick up Hemingway’s friend Juanito Quintana, whom he had known since the 1920s when he stayed at Quintana’s hotel in the Plaza del Castillo.  After lunch at Las Pocholas, they set off for Logroño for the bullfight, arriving just in time, according to the article and pictures published in El Ruedo on September 27.

The cartel that year consisted of two corridas and a novillada.  On the 21st, Litri, Ordóñez and Venezuelan César Girón fought Montalvo bulls. On the 22nd, Manuel Arranz bulls were fought by Julio Aparicio, Ordóñez, Mexican Joselito Huerta and the rejoneador Ángel Peralta.  The third festejo was the novillada featuring Jaime Ostos, ‘Chamaco’ and Chucho Ortega with young bulls from the Urquijo ranch.  It was, as bullfight fans say, ‘un cartel de lujo’.

The Hemingways, Belleville and Quintana were of course seated at the barrera just above the capotes. Soon after the fight began, someone in the crowd recognized Hemingway and he was offered a drink from a huge wineskin, which he handled with great dexterity to the delight of the people seated around him.

The fight that day was not a spectacular success for Ordóñez, who was booed on his first bull but received an ear for his second.  Girón was carried out of the ring a hombros, while Litri apparently went away empty handed.

The San Mateo festival takes place at the beginning of the grape harvest in Rioja.  In fact, 1956 was the first year the festival was officially called Fiesta de la vendimia riojana (Rioja grape harvest festival).  Perhaps because the group noticed this on a poster, the next day they visited a Rioja winery, Bodegas Franco-Españolas, located just across the Ebro river from the city center, where they were undoubtedly treated to a tour and a copious tasting.  

There is no other evidence of a Hemingway sighting in Logroño during the feria except for a picture of Hemingway, Ordóñez, Jaime Ostos and  a Doctor Tamames (the father of the well-known Spanish economist Ramón Tamames) posing in front of the Gran Hotel, which until a few years ago, was the bullfighters’ hotel in the city. In fact, the visit would have probably been lost for posterity had it not been for the Logroño-based photographer, Esteban Chapresto who took pictures and sent them to El Ruedo.

Hemingway and Ordóñez visited at least one other Rioja winery together: Federico Paternina in Ollauri near Haro, although it’s hard to ascertain when the visit actually took place.  Both the visit to Franco-Españolas and Paternina were listed in the website of historical photographs from La Rioja(http://www.conocimientoytecnologia.org/lariojaenlamemoria/) as being taken in 1959, even though we know that the visit to Franco-Españolas took place in 1956. What we know for sure is that Hemingway was a big fan of Paternina and visited the winery several times. 

Antonio Ordóñez himself was no stranger toLa Rioja either, as his first bullfight dressed in a suit of lights was in the Haro bullring in 1948.

Hemingway’s visits to Paternina have been used several times by the winery in its marketing campaigns. In 1984 Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux was featured in an advertising campaign and officially opened the Hemingway Cellar in  the winery, by that time located in Haro.

More recently, Paternina opened a restaurant in their old aging cellars in Ollauri, featuring a ‘menú Hemingway’.  A few years later, they  launched an innovative advertising campaign relating events in the history of the winery with famous historical events, people or places.

One of the elements of this campaign featured the juxtaposition of Hemingway’s love of San Fermín and his love of Paternina.

In the 21st century, Ernest Hemingway probably has lost his appeal for attracting wine drinkers to Paternina because the drivers of wine consumption are the millennial generation, most of which, sadly, have probably never heard of him.

Nonetheless, the memory of his fascination with bullfighting and love of good wine remains in the photographs placed throughout Bodegas Franco-Españolas and Federico Paternina.

Gender wars – ‘El’ Rioja and ‘La’ Rioja

Tom and sister Fran ca. 1953

The recent ruling by an Argentine judge affirming that wines from the Argentine province of La Rioja don’t cause confusion with Spanish Rioja reminded me that even here in Spain, the use of ‘Rioja’ can be confusing.

First of all a short Spanish lesson: ‘el’ and ‘la’ are the masculine and feminine singular definite articles in Spanish.  Both mean ‘the’ in English.

‘El Rioja’ means ‘Rioja wine’ as does ‘el vino de Rioja’, while ‘La Rioja’ is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, comparable to ‘states’ in the USA or ‘länder’ in Germany.  ‘Rioja’ without the article refers to the Rioja denomination of origin (denominación de origen calificada Rioja), or Rioja wine region.  The D.O. Ca. Rioja is located in three of Spain’s states: La Rioja(68,2% of the total area), Álava in the Basque Country (21,1%) and Navarra (10,7%).

This fact has a number of consequences for Rioja wine.  First, it means that ‘el Rioja’s’ wine rules have to be approved by the Spanish ministry of agriculture, while for practically all of Spain’s DOs, located within one region, the regional government has the power.  There are only three exceptions:  Rioja, Cava and Jumilla.

Three states, three governments and therefore three groups of elected officials, from three different political parties, are represented in the Rioja Regulatory Council, the organization made up of farmers and wineries, where the development of Rioja grapes and wines is debated. So politics often interferes with the running of the wine district. In addition, several organizations vie to promote Rioja wines:  three Chambers of Commerce, regional and city government promotion boards, ICEX (the Spanish Institute of Foreign Trade) and the Rioja Regulatory Council itself. I once counted 17 of them.

It would be great if these organizations put their money into a common pot.  However, with the exception of the Regulatory Council and ICEX, for whom ‘El Rioja’ is a whole, each of these local and regional organizations promote ‘their’ Rioja, which means that promotion, PR and advertising often resembles shoppers fighting over a piece of clothing at a fire sale.  Distributors, wine writers and journalists are often bewildered by the conflicting messages they hear.

I remember talking to a Dutch journalist several years ago about attending a series of wine tastings in Logroño called ‘Grandes de La Rioja’, organized by the government of La Rioja.  He asked me whether he would be able to taste the Riojas produced in the other two regions.  ‘Sadly, no’, I replied.

The Rioja Regulatory Council has jumped through a lot of hoops to get everyone in the boat to row in the same direction and promote Rioja wines in general, with some success. For several years, elected officials from the three ‘states’ have provided a small amount of money for promotion, but it’s peanuts compared to the funds they devote to ‘their’ Rioja.

It’s ironic that the growers and wineries themselves don’t feel as attached to their subzone as their elected officials.  Many farmers sell their grapes to wineries in other parts of the region, wineries do the same with bulk wine and some companies located in one part of Rioja have vineyards and even wineries in more than one subzone. They recognize that the strength of the word RIOJA transcends these regional differences.

One name, two places

How would you feel if you bought a bottle of Rioja and discovered that it came from Argentina instead of Spain?  Deceived?  You bet!

I was reminded of this long-standing dispute between Spain and Argentina yesterday when I opened the Vibrant Rioja social media widget http://www.vibrantrioja.com/widget.html  on my computer.  This neat app, like a tweetdeck, lets me see on one page what’s happening in the world of Rioja as well as read feeds about other topics I’m interested in.

One topic really caught my eye:  ‘Argentina wins 12-year Rioja wine dispute’.  With a groan, I thought, “@#&!”, this problem will just not go away”! Even though I knew the details of the controversy inside out from my time as the director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association, I couldn’t help clicking on the link to read about it.

The story played out in three articles in www.telegraph.co.uk (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8490185/Argentina-wins-12-year-Rioja-wine-dispute.html)

The gist of the dispute is whether the Argentine province of La Rioja has the right to name, label, and market its wines as coming from La Rioja.

A few years ago, these Argentine Riojas made their first appearance in Europe via Denmark, and later Sweden, at the time, two of the biggest customers for Rioja.  I recall that the Commercial Attaché of the Spanish Embassy in Copenhagen called me to say that several containers of these wines had arrived at Danish customs, purchased by a Danish distributor of Rioja who was well-known for aggressive deals with Danish supermarkets. The embassy succeeded in having them turned away, claiming that under European Union law, Spanish Rioja was a protected appellation of origin and the wines had been fraudently labeled.

Soon, accusations were flying back and forth across the Atlantic.  From here, comments that the Argentines were taking unfair advantage of the growing popularity of Spanish Rioja.  From Argentina, claims that it was Spain’s fault because the province had been named after La Rioja in Spain and Spain had actually introduced grapevines to the region. Technically, the Argentines were right.  The Argentine province of La Rioja was indeed named by a colonial official from the SpanishLa Rioja in the late 16th century.

The Rioja Regulatory Council, incensed at what they interpreted as an attempt to intentionally confuse consumers, hired an Argentine lawyer to press its case and it began slowly creeping through the legal system.

According to the article in the Telegraph, an Argentine judge has just ruled against the (Spanish) Rioja Regulatory Council’s claim that two Rioja regions would confuse consumers.  She stated that there was no confusion because of the use of ‘La Rioja Argentina’ on the Argentine product as well as the fact that while the Spanish Rioja produces predominantly red wines, the Argentine Rioja produces mainly whites.

I haven’t read anything in the local press about this lately (but confess that I’ve been away a lot). I’m sure, however, that Spanish Rioja will appeal this decision loudly and vigorously.  The current President of La Rioja, who has made a name for himself locally and internationally for his staunch defense of Rioja wines, is standing for reelection this month and will undoubtedly make a lot of noise about the matter.

Using one region’s place name on another region’s labels is not new.  In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when France was the undisputed king of wine, Rioja wineries routinely labeled their wines with such descriptions as ‘Rioja cepa Medoc’, ‘Blanco cepa Graves’, ‘Viña Medokkia’ and the like. 

The Champagne region has been the most aggressive in defending its name against usurpation.  Others, notably the sherry and port appellations have fought battles with the UK and South Africa to forbid the use of the terms ‘British sherry’ or ‘South African port’, with great, but not complete, success.  While the European Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Champagne region, Sherry and Port ‘s protection came as the result of bilateral negotiations between the UK and Spain on one hand and the European Union and South Africa on the other, with lengthy phase-out periods.

If I remember correctly, even Champagne’s victory came with a price.  A very small wine region in Switzerland called Champagne also has the right to use the name.

To defend truth in labeling in the wine trade, an association has been set up to defend the use of place names (http://www.protectplace.com/), to which Rioja has been the most recent subscriber, joining Napa, Jerez/Sherry/Xèrés, Champagne, Porto, Chianti Classico, Tokai and others.

Although the Declaration to Protect Place Names has a noble purpose, the ultimate arbiters in this issue are international trademark laws as well as bilateral agreements between the countries involved.  So here, we’re girding up for international trademark battles and a redefinition of an Argentina-European Union trade agreement in the foreseeable future.

I personally thought that the issue had been peacefully settled, with the Argentines agreeing to define their wines as coming from Valle de Famatina (FamatinaValley) but apparently the Argentines are emboldened by the fact that their province is indeed called La Rioja.

To show how confusing this can be, I recall being offered a bottle of wine in a restaurant in Madrid a few years ago.  The waiter told me it was from ‘La Ribera’.  Thinking that he meant ‘Ribera del Duero’, I agreed.  When the bottle arrived at the table, I discovered that it was really from ‘Ribera del Arlanza’.  Needless to say, I returned it.

This episode as well as the Argentine sentence has reminded me to look more carefully at the label on a bottle of wine before buying it.  Caveat emptor.