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( 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.

2 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway, Antonio Ordóñez and Rioja Wine: a historical snapshot

  1. Is this why the movie “The Hunter of Death” portrays Antonio as Hemingway’s lover? I thought it absurd and this article seems to confirm it.

    • Thanks for your comment! I haven’t seen the movie to refer to but it’s the first time I’ve heard that either might have been gay.

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