Vol. 1 No. 10 …the wine in Spain isn’t mainly on the plain

Mea culpa…I am a week late with this post. A lot of things going on plus I had the allergy attack of the century and that was not conducive to writing – or tasting wine! Here goes…

There are six main wine regions in Spain. Only one, Jerez (Hereth), is in the south, nearly at the southernmost part of Europe. It is famous for sherry. While we didn’t visit the region, we were fortunate enough to be told of a wine festival (Feria de Vino), in Durango, which is between Bilbao and Donostria (Basque name for San Sebastian and the one the locals use). The owners of the beautiful hacienda we were staying at were kind enough to tell us about it so we drove the fifty or so miles hoping to taste some local wines. Wrong! Admission was 15€ and it gave us access to a dozen tables of food samples from jambon to Spanish cheeses. We were also given the best wine glass I have ever seen at this type of event and access to over 15 exhibitors and nearly 80 wines – some local – but others from all wine regions of Spain including Jerez. The program listed each exhibitors name and all the wines he had brought to sample plus the price per bottle in euros which simplified the choices. Most were in the 4-9 euro range (currently $4.40 to $9.90 thanks to the strong dollar, 1.1:1), while about 20% were priced over 20€.

First, there were several Cava’s, and no that is not like Asti Spumante. Cava originally came from the Penedès region near Barcelona (Barthelona), where the wine was so bad that in the 1870’s, Don José Raventós, owner of Bodega Codorníu went to France to see how Champagne was made – at that time, even their grapes weren’t the best but the wine was in high demand. He bought some equipment there and had it shipped home, and when he arrived announced to the owners that from now on all they were going to make was sparking wine, and it proved to be a wise choice. But Cava is not wannabe knock-off of Champagne, it is its own character. It is made in exactly the same manner (methóde champenois), and uses the same terms for dryness as in France, ranging from Brut Nature to Sweet. Freixenét is the only one brand allowed by the French to have ‘champagne’ on the label…it was grandfathered in before the French clamped down on the use of the name. Instead of a Rosé however, they call it Rosada. It is reminiscent of a Provencal Rosé, only sparkling, and now made in several areas of Spain. In La Rioja, I had both Brut and Rosada from such well-known names as CUNE (pronounced Cuné), Muga, and La Rioja Alta. I also had some from the French Basque country in both styles. They sell for 12-18€, and are better than most champagnes in that price range. Sadly, I have been unable to find the high quality ones here, only the major producers like Cordoníu and Freixenét.

I went to several tables and found what the Basque owners of our hacienda wanted us to try; Txocoli  (the name of the grape is Txocolina but they say: Choc-o-le since ‘tx’ in Basque is pronounced ‘ch’ – once you learn that reading signs is much easier). It has a slight fizz which they amplify by holding the bottle above their head and pouring it into a large tumbler on the side of the rim (the same way they pour their cidre (sidra). It is a refreshing and lower alcohol wine.

There were several worthy Brandies too. That is what brought me to Ximenéz-Spínola’s booth (‘xi’ is pronounced like José Jimenéz). A tall, well-dressed man, José Antonio Zarzana, was behind the booth and we began to talk while he made sure I had tasted all three of his sherries and two excellent brandies! As with every person I meet that is in the wine industry the ‘ice’ was quickly broken, and we became ‘buddies’. The label on their wine is absolutely beautiful: black and gold lettering on a white background – stunning!). I told him that the only ‘pedro ximenéz’ (the name of the grape which was brought to Spain by Roman soldiers who were responsible for spreading most of the grapes in Europe), I had seen in the U.S. was ‘PX’ and asked if that was theirs…wrong question! There are perhaps six good producers of pedro ximenéz, If it has that name on the bottle it means that the grapes were allowed to dry in the scorching sun for two to three weeks until it shrivels as the water is dehydrated. It is then very concentrated and aged for as long as twenty years before releasing it.

Sherries are made using the Solera method where barrels are stacked in rows and bottles are filled from the bottom row and replenished with the one from above until they reach the flavor that is desired from dry to sweet (Mansanilla to Pedro Ximenéz).

José is the viticultor (winemaker), and a descendent of one of the original family of producers in Jerez. They use ‘px’ grapes exclusively. When he took over as winemaker he introduced a new sherry in which he added some juice from the ‘px’ and created a very rich, semi-sweet sherry. We purchased a bottle of it (Exceptional Harvest), and consumed same in a couple of days. Yummy! We also bought a bottle of the Pedro Ximenéz, which I brought home and would have bought a Brandy if I could have brought that back too. These are expensive wines ranging from the ‘Old Harvest’ (20€), the ‘Exceptional Harvest’ (40€), and the PX at 45€….and worth every penny!

By the way, you don’t drink a glass of PX. It is so rich you drink less than an ounce. Despite the high price, in Spain they can be seen pouring it over ice cream. Later in the trip, at a terrific restaurant in Burgos (Restaurante Rincón de España). the owner, as a gift, poured each of us a glass from a just unopened bottle of 1996 PX. Nectar of the gods!

Next: a visit to La Rioja and a chance meeting with a bodega owner.

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

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Vol. 1 No. 9 …what is good wine?

(TB is really anxious to report on my trip to northwest Spain but I saw a blog today that just had to be reported in the wake of the arsenic ‘scare’: people are already increasing their price points on wine or as the TV show was called we’re  movin’ on up! Will try to get the Spain articles in this week. TBOW)

Customer: This wine tastes terrible!

Merchant: Really? Parker gave it a 90!

Customer: I’ll take two cases!

Don’t be that customer! Trust what you like, not what Robert Parker, Michel Rolland, or any other critic says is a good wine. For one thing, you  might serve it to friends and they might have the same tastes as you and like the customer, think it tastes terrible. $50 down the drain and worse, perhaps ruining a good meal (putting aside for a later column which wines pair well with food).

First, ‘good’ is a relative term: compared to what? Is a wine ‘good’ for a Cab? Is it good in the $50 and up range? Is it good value? Is it good by itself? …with food?

As TB writes this column those thoughts come back again and again. We have all heard someone tell us that is a good wine,  but then tried it and found it ‘so-so’ – or worse! A few decades ago Gerald Boyd, a prominent San Francisco-based wine writer, wrote an entire column that essentially asked this question.

He said, how can you accept a wine writer’s recommendation without knowing what he looks for in a wine? Does he like big, bold, tannic wines, like Robert Parker?  At the other end of the spectrum the late Robert Lawrence Balzer who wrote in the Los Angeles Times? An eccentric, pioneer wine writer who accomplished many things in his 99 years but who could talk as glowingly of Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Sutter Home White Zinfandel (they pioneered it in the 1970’s and Balzer wrote a column saying they were ‘on to something’, even though there is no such thing as a white Zin, a red grape that produces what we now know as a ‘blush’ wine), as a first growth Bordeaux.

This is the point of TBOW: you be the judge, not some recognized expert. Two of the most respected wine writers are Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have had a ‘lively’ debate over which is better: Bordeaux or Burgundy? Since I have a friend who can‘t stand Pinot Noir (it makes him ill, and we have tried to trick him but somehow he always has the same reaction), it proves it is in the ‘nose’ and taste buds of the beholder.

Think of wine as NASA would: the cost difference between 90% reliability and 100%, or even  95%. Wine is not a matter of life or death so a wine that is 90% as good as a $100 wine (very subjective, of course), can cost as little as $25-30. If you want the expensive wine and can afford it, more power to you, but TB would suggest that fewer and fewer people either an afford an expensive bottle of wine or do not have the inclination (there was a time that this writer wanted and collected them but that is in the past having some that were disappointments when he finally drank them).

I want to recommend a great wine blog, www.thewineeconmist.com by Mike Veseth who is an economist who has chosen to study wine. In today’s blog (3.31.15), he discusses the impact of the financial crisis on wine consumption (actually all consumption was impacted). Wineries have seen their wine clubs ‘wither’, and downward pressure was exerted by wineries and wine shops who were finding it difficult to move their inventory,  significant discounting occurred in th ‘dead zone’ of $20 and up wines. As a table in the blog shows, sales of wine selling up to $8.99 a bottle are off (and will likely be more so with the new  arsenic ‘scare’). Meanwhile wines  from $9.00 to $11.99 have had increased sales of 7.2%; contrast this to wines from $6.00 to $8.99 which have declined by 3.2%! Below that level they are off from 0.1%- 1%. More significantly, wines selling for $12..00 to $14.99 are up by 10,6% and wines selling for $20 or more are up 15.7%! This is significant since total wine consumption  for the 52 weeks ended 12/6/14, as reported by Wine Business Monthly, was up just 3.4%! Think about it!

The extreme high end Bordeaux have priced themselves (been priced?) out of the range of all but a small percentage of consumers. Also, new laws in China which prohibit giving gifts (Lafite Rothschild was a favorite), have cut back on Chinese demand and the ‘spec  wine’ buyers have seen the values of their wine consortiums plummet. Also, you will find this hard to believe but there is counterfeiting  out there! No…not wine! Yes, wine and it is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s era. One would be wise to consider wines as consumables and stop gambling on demand and thus prices of rare wines continuing to rise.

In the movie, Red Obsession, the statement was made that the Chinese would buy up all the best wines in the world. TB chuckled at that because in 1989, just before the Japanese economy tanked, the same was said of Japan! Funny how that same year the went into a tailspin and have never emerged from it. The same may be true for China, and take TB’s word for it: no wine is worth even $100, except for the historical value, but do you feel lucky? It might be fake!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 8 ….there’s arsenic in the wine! Say it isn’t so, TB…

TB had intended to write more on his trip and has almost completed on segment but this story is too important and also highlights his theme: there are many good wines produced now around the world that are forcing out the bad. Areas that used to just produce a high volume of wine are now making less and at higher quality…a good thing!

It isn’t so! Okay, there is, but an ambulance-chasing law firm in L.A. with the unwitting (?) help of a Denver-based chemical analysis firm (neither shall be mentioned by name so as not to further publicize their heinous actions by creating a scare that is much more insidious than any trace arsenic in wine. Put a stop to it.  Of course they were able to get two couples to file, thus getting class-action status – the Holy Grail of product liability lawyers – but just how have they been harmed? Did anyone suffer injury or die? Wouldn’t it more likely that someone had dies of arsenic poisoning leading regulators to look at wine? Unless the wine industry comes on very strong and proves the suit is without merit, it will probably be settled on the courthouse steps with only the law firm benefiting, and of course, secondarily the chemical analysis firm. I believe there are just four names in the class action. If you have been, or had the opportunity to be, a party to a class-action (most likely through some securities you own(ed), you are well aware of how this works: settled out of court, lawyers and expert witnesses are paid, and in a case against say Ford, for fires in pick-up trucks, the plaintiffs get a $200 coupon to be used on a new…FORD PICK-UP! Why in God’s name would you buy anything from the company knowing that they produced a vehicle that could catch fire (even though the problem was fixed long ago)? In this case, how about if they gave you a coupon for a free case of ‘Two-Buck Chuck’? That’s the ticket.

Enough of the levity, now to the serious side of the issue. The U.S. Food and Drug Agency has decreed that drinking water should not contain more than 10 parts per million of arsenic (this due to a 2013 decree caused by it being in orange juice) that we consume much more water than arsenic…er, wine…a couple of glasses most likely a day, versus a couple of quarts (or liters) of drinking water. The rub is that arsenic stays in your body and eventually builds up (that is the theory of how Napoleon was poisoned, slowly, and without knowing it). How valid is the 10ppm level?

The French drink on average 16.4 gallons of wine per person each year (that’s less than 6 ounces per day or about 9% of their daily intake of water. If the standard there was the 50ppm and assuming their water was right at 50ppm, that would mean the standard for wine could be 500ppm  or higher, with no ill effects. In fact, the results of the lab study here didn’t even exceed the 50ppm level which the lawsuit has labeled.

Yet without saying how many different labels they tasted, they came up with 28 producers and 73 labels, most notably Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck), and some of the others named being sold through Trader Joe’s (talk about defamation!), and other outlets. No one asked them to do this (or so they say), and the wine industry has its own chemical analysis companies that strongly dispute the findings. In their scare campaign they said some of these wines more than 500% of the limit (see they could have said five times which is just 50ppm – hardly worthy of sounding alarms). Even the FDA and EPA said the limit was established for ‘public water systems’ and is not relevant for wine  – how about that?

Back to the 10ppm limit. Canada, conservative Canada (who has to absorb the health costs of their citizens), has a limit of 100ppm. Europe is 200ppm…they too have to pay health costs!

If you aren’t disgusted by our legal system by now, you should be if this case isn’t thrown out of court and the law firm sued for their overblown claims like ‘dangerously high levels’ that are damaging an entire industry.

How did the arsenic get in the wine? It is in all wine and virtually all things including the soil. Diatomacious earth is commonly used to filter wine, with presumably the best filtration methods being used on middle and high-end wines. Sorry, no smoking gun here.

You decide the facts and hopefully this case won’t even come to trial and be dismissed for lack of merit. But is there an upside to this? There just might be. Perhaps consumers will see that for a little more (Two-Buck Chuck now costs $3.50), and Trader Joe’s and other vendors may be able to get people to pay more…there are many steals at all wine shops for under $10, some for as little as $5 (once TB saw a clerk moving a case of TBC and warned him not to drop even one bottle or the profit would be lost). Did you ever stop to think how much just the bottle, label, cork or screw-cap, cost…let alone the cost of growing and processing the grapes? It is hard for TB to contemplate what the wine sells for that allows it to be profitable at less than $10 (we haven’t even considered the cost of production, except by tremendous volume. Try paying a little more and experiment with several wines not just settling for one because it’s cheap.

Happy tasting!

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol. 1 No. 7 …a visit to La Rioja

Of the six major wine regions in Spain, La Rioja (from the river Rio Oja, a tributary of the Ebro river that flows through the region), is by far the most important, although many others are developing. As mentioned in the prior blog, there has been improvement in Basque wines, and quality is up throughout the region.

Spain owes its fame and pain in the wine industry to phylloxera, the parasite that destroyed the vines in Bordeaux, causing the winemakers to try to find similar places to grow their wines. These included both the west and east of Spain, and even Portugal, but the most successful was La Rioja. But when grafting the shoots to American rootstock created phylloxera-resistant vines, the French returned to Bordeaux and eventually the bug moved into Spain forcing the growers here to do the same. It was both costly and time-consuming and many growers abandoned business.

The next ‘shockwave’ came when Generalissimo Franco (don’t say that name in Basque Country), ordered the vines to be replaced – with wheat – due to a famine. Somehow, some way, the wines were eventually brought back and while lacking the elegance of French wines they were soon sought out. Just as in other parts of the world, modern techniques improved the quality of the wine and today, the best riojas command high prices.

Rioja’s might never have become popular had it not been for modern tastes that caused a transformation not only in Spain, but Chile, Argentina, and even Portugal. These wines remain less expensive (except the very top lines which can cost as much as $100), and are exceptional value.

As my readers know, TB is, and has for long, been opposed to ‘wine snobbery’. Why should we ‘accept as gospel’ what Robert Parker, or Michel Rolland, or any other wine critic says is best? I asked this question at several of the wineries and was greeted with nods and smiles. At Muga, of all places, Carmen, my host, complained, “Everyone asks me ‘what is your best wine?’ I always tell them this, it is the one that you like best.” No one has ever made that statement to this writer before, yet he feels it is prevalent and it sums up exactly the point of this blog and what wine enjoyment should be about. Would you dare to ask a mother which of her children is her favorite? If you don’t have a wine cellar, why do you want to buy a wine capable of aging for ten years or more? Under improper storage conditions it will likely be ruined by the time you get around to drinking it.

Think of it this way: wine is about pleasure and passion. Passion is not being able to tell your friends, “Parker gave this wine a 90”, it is about offering them a wine that you love and most likely they will be drawn to it as you were. Here is a simple test: try a bottle of wine…in your mind rate it, then visit a winery (or Bodega, or Pazo, or Chateau), and if you are lucky enough to meet the winemaker or someone else who is a full-time employee – not a student with a part-time job –try the wine again. Most likely you will rate the same wine different. See, their passion comes through just as yours does when you talk about wine with your friends. That is the anti-wine snob.

Visiting wineries in Spain as in most countries outside the United States requires a reservation. A tour can cost as much as 25 euros, but a trick to learn, especially if you have visited wineries elsewhere, is to reserve a tasting instead. This will not only save you money but precious time.

I had scheduled a tour of Bodegas Muga in Haro (pronounced ‘arrow’), but when we met the woman in St-Jean-de-Luz, who was an owner of Cune (actually CVNE and pronounced ‘coon-ay’ as it is the initials of the company that also owns other properties in Spain), Sophie Vallejo, she gave us an introduction to Cune, so we were admitted without a reservation and cancelled the tour at Muga which would have been difficult to make as we were coming from two hours away. We tasted six of their wines, including a white wine made from Viura grapes that is high in acid and a very pleasant wine for an aperitif or with fish. In addition, we had five different Rioja wines made primarily from Tempranillo, with varying amounts of Garnacha, Mazuela, and Graciano (one was 100% Graciano, a very temperamental wine of high quality, which I liked best.

The older style wines, like Imperial, which was their most expensive and most highly regarded are aged longer in oak, both French and American, this was a result of the cost of French oak so they bought the wood from America and had their own coopers make the barrels.

Today, only Muga still makes its own barrels, both French and American. Their more modern wines are sold under the Contina label and are much more forward as most people now prefer. The aging time has been reduced to three to four years in oak (the American imparts vanillin flavors to the wine, while French has more spice), then another three to five in bottle. While there are many wines produced here, it is the Crianza’s, the least aged and less complex, while the Reserva’s and Gran Reservas that are the most sought after for the longevity.

We also visited another top producer, La Rioja, which provided us with a beautiful and complex Albariño (not produced in La Rioja but Rias Biaxas which we were unable to visit due to distance). We also tasted their Rioja’s which also are produced under various labels with their best modern style wines as Torre de Oña. The quality of all the wines we tasted at the various Bodegas was amazing.

Later we returned to Muga, which had been closed and Iasted another eight wines, two impressive Cava’s: a brut and a Rosada, both beautiful, especially the latter. Then six more wines including a white made from Viura grapes, and reds from Crianza to Gran Reserva.

A bit of history on Haro. Due to rail access required by the French vintners it established rail service to Bordeaux and Bilbao in the 1880’s, and two years later it was the first town in northern Spain to have electricity, early in the 1900’s. The town is beautiful with Baroque architecture, the vineyards below, mountains in the background, and winding narrow streets (as in most of the north, the streets are almost all one way which is confusing until you understand the plan, and even more so in the larger towns and cities like San Sebastian and Bilbao). Today, only a handful of the ‘old’ bodegas remain situated in Haro, which is at the northwest corner of La Rioja (Rioja Alta). Most of the others and the new wineries are now near Logrono, primarily in another beautiful hill town, La Guardia. As mentioned previously, the new ones are designed by world-renowned architects, and stand out against the mesas with the mountains in the background

La Rioja is in three parts, with Rioja Alta producing the best wines due to a higher elevation, the best soils, and the breezes that come through the canyons of the Cantabrian Mountains from the Atlantic Ocean. The bottom of this region is Rioja Alvesa, still good but drier, and to the south Rioja Baja, which produces grapes with lower acidity, higher alcohol and are coarser due to the more sandy soils.

The regulations for producing Rioja and other wines are strict under the Denominación de Origen Calcificada (DOC). Among these are the length of time required for aging in the barrel and in the bottle which increases from a Crianza, Reserva, and a Gran Reserva. Historically, wines were aged much longer than required…some for twenty years or more! This aging caused the tannins to build up and lose the fruit characteristics. The three producers discussed here and many others, especially the newer bodegas have shunned these requirements for some or all of their wines. Why? Because they feel, and the public would agree judging from the price, makes them better. This follows in the footsteps of Italy’s Piero Antinori, who in 1971 decided to use smaller barriques instead of the huge barrels required under the DOC for Chianti. Both have have been generously rewarded for this by the buying public. Rioja’s may only be made from three grapes, Tempranillo, the mainstay, Garnacha, known in France as Granache, Graciano, and Mazuelo. Most have at least 70% Tempranillo. Some producers are now making single grape wines from Garnacha. CUNE is making a Graciano that was a favorite of mine (the joke, because it is so difficult to work with is that taking the Spanish word for thanks, gracias, they say “gracias, no gracias” Some single-vineyard Tempranillo’s are now being produced such as Contina’s (CUNE) Viña del Olivo, which is very intense…and expensive!

Only recently have I began to appreciate Cava, a sparkling wine made in the traditional méthode Champenois in the Penedes region south of Barcelona. In the 1860’s they imported French champagne-making equipment, usually a Brut or Rosada. It is now being produced in other areas and I particularly liked the Muga Rosada. The prices for these range from 10-20 euros.

I am taking the time today to write as it is raining out – the first day of the entire trip (10 days), relaxing in our beautiful hacienda just outside Donostrio (San Sebastian). The name comes from the Basque (Don a sign of respect for the saint, and Ostrio, for where he died in Italy). Signs are mostly in Basque (Euskadi) and Spanish, but IF you use the Basque you will do better. As for Spanish’, good luck as in the north it is all Castilian (Catalan), so they don’t understand you except in pigeon. That said, these are warm people, and we have had people spend a lot of time assisting us. Once in the Basque restaurant/Cidery (Sidra), by us and a woman at the post office who stayed for half an hour to help us. The clerks were useless. Imagine over an hour to mail a package home!
Adios, mi amigos…
TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol.1 No. 6 …oh, Spanish wines…

…ok, so the song was Spanish Eyes…sorry!

Tuesday we went back to St-Jean-de-Luz and had lunch at Brasserie Le Madison and at the next table was a Spanish woman who asked if she could help with our deciphering the menu board. We talked and when I told her I was working on a book on wine she told me that her family owned Cune, one of the top La Rioja producers in Haro (the Napa of La Rioja). She was fascinating and talked about during the war, Franco and the occupation of France. She is 81, eleven years older than TB. (Note, this is why we prefer to travel alone as we get to meet the locals and not get ‘wrapped up’ in ourselves. We enjoy travelling with others but our best experiences have occurred when we are alone.) Her name was Sophie Vallejo and when I told her a city in California had that name she told me she had gone there with Robert Mondavi! She was charming and wrote on my card a letter of introduction to her family’s winery, Cune, for a special tour. An interesting sidelight is that Cune is right next to Muga and years ago sold their grape juice to Muga. These are two of the most famous Rioja producers. She also recommended we visit Marquez de Riscal in Alava.

From there we went back to St-Jean-Pied-a-Port, to explore Basque wines. While not as polished as Riojas or Ribera del Dueros, they are interesting and the better ones (about 12-15€) are pretty good and very good value. The biggest is Irouleguy in St.Ettiene De Baḯgorry. The reds are made primarily from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tannat. The better ones have more of the Tannat grape making them suitable for aging up to seven years. They also make a Cava in the traditional French manner that is excellent value and very good. To be honest, TB had not been a fan of Cava but the more he learns, the more he sees how well it is made in the traditional manner. My favorites were a 2013 Kattalingorri, a wine made without herbicides (as the Lady Bug on the label indicates). And a 2014 Mignaberry Rose that is an aperitif. The tasting room was very nice and could stand up to ones in California – no appointment needed.

The Basque Country, both Spanish and French, is beautiful…and the people are so proud of their heritage – especially those on the Spanish side (don’t say that in front of them though). It took me back to Northern Ireland…protest signs on barns and rock walls for independence, and road signs in Spanish crossed out so only the Uresqea remains. Warm, friendly people who are hardworking and funloving.

Next stop: La Rioja

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.

Vol.1 No. 5 …sleepless in San Sebastian

…actually in Hernani, just out of the town. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep because I am a week late updating the blog…not that I haven’t been working, but I had planned to describe the trip so readers can share in TB’s great adventure.

We arrived very tired on Wednesday, March 3rd having lost a day traveling. Several things stood out: first, coming from freezing weather in Minneapolis, it has been in the mid to high 60’s here and the last rain was the earlier on the day we arrived. We had expected to be able to navigate easily in San Sebastian and Bilbao but they are good sized cities that are built with narrow streets. It seems there are more cars than people and they are all parked, leaving no spaces for anyone else. You have to park in an underground garage and that can cost 20 Euros a day (originally we found a nice place in the old town but it had no parking and so that 20E’s added up quickly so we found a wonderful (and cheaper) place in Hernani, just 3 miles out of town. It is the perfect base for us as it is on the way to Pamplona, La Rioja, Bilbao, and the French Basque Country (the Spanish Basques consider themselves superior because they have refused to adopt the Spanish language and still fight for independence), and the owners are wonderful as is our ‘uber-modern’ apartment with a deck.

After resting a bit we ventured into Hernani and found a tapas bar for our dinner. They are excellent and you choose from them sitting on the bar and they are very reasonable (drinks and six tapas cost just 10€).

We spent most of Thursday in San Sebastian and then drove down the awe-inspiring coast to Bilbao where we ate in another tapas bar (the etiquette is that you throw your napkins on the floor while you are eating thus keeping the bar clean and clear). We will return to Bilbao for the Guggenheim and other sights.

On Friday, we returned to San Sebastian and took a great double deck bus tour for orientation and had a wonderful lunch in a beachside restaurant.

Saturday, we were told about a wine festival in Durango, on the way to Bilbao. It featured 44 wineries from all over Spain and local food. That meant a total of over 120 different wines some for casual drinking priced from 4 to 15€ a bottle, but there were also fifty priced above that with fifteen priced from 25 to as high has 76€ (a wonderful brandy from one of the very best sherry producers, Ximénez-Spínola, but my favorites were their two aged sherries…and I spoke at length with the winemaker; since they are produced in Jerez in the south, we wouldn’t have had that experience).  There were Riojas, Albariño’s, wonderful Cava’s, Ribero del Duero’s, and even some Basque wines, like Txakoli (Chocoli), a white. It was a fascinating experience.

On Sunday, we drove into the French Basque country and up to Bayonne, France, where I ended up speaking to an American who tried to help us talk to the owner of a shop. It turned out that he is an ex-Pat, who not only lived in San Francisco and New York before moving to France but was also in the investment business – he had worked for Bank of America when I was buying bonds from them and although we had never met we knew each other and reminisced about mutual friends – it truly is a small, small world! We then drove down the coast to Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz before returning home. It was refreshing spending a day where English was understood.

Today, Monday, we returned to the French Basque Country and drove to St-Jean-de-Pied-a-Port, where the Campostela begins (a nearly 500 mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, made famous by the Martin Sheen movie, The Way). Hopefully, TB won’t go to hell for getting a passport for the pilgrimage with no intention of making the endurance test. I got the first stamp and will hopefully pick up some more during our travels. I rationalized it that since we only have two more weeks in Spain I couldn’t have completed the journey anyway.

More to follow tomorrow…

TB

©Copyright 2015 TBOW, all rights reserved.