Sour Grapes NYC

This brisk September morning gave way to a normal Tuesday for me, some writing, followed by a wine tasting.  The tasting was being held at Marea, hosted by T.Edwards Wines, one of the better importers out there.  The restaurant is quite accessible and lovely, and I managed to taste 45 wines with one of my staff members, Chris.  There were chickpea fritters and sepia croquettes, as well as a spoonful of ceviche to aid the palette, and a long table of charcuterie, cheese and grilled antipasto for heartier fare.  Everyone seemed to be having a marvelous time talking about wine and terroir and catching up with industry friends.  Yet for me, my mind was elsewhere, caught up in what I consider to be a typical, classic New York City moment.

On my way to the event, I was feeling good about myself and the day’s schedule.  I wore a velvet jacket with a hot pink shirt and jeans.  I took the express at 96th  St. and Broadway hoping to catch the local at 72nd St.  Just my luck, the train was there waiting.  I was seated at the last car when on 66th St., an elderly man with a walker tried to get off the train before the doors closed.  He was moving faster than normal and dragging his walker.  He made it out before the doors closed but then stumbled and fell to the ground.  Everyone witnessed the fall, but we all remained paralyzed.  He tried to get up, but failed and collapsed to the platform.  Two people closest to the door arose and asked if he needed assistance.  He waved them off from what appeared to be embarrassment at his predicament.  A young woman seated in front of me cried out, “Isn’t someone gonna do something?”  By then the doors had snapped shut, and the train ambled its way towards my destination, Columbus Circle.

Why didn’t I rush to help him?  What was so important that I didn’t lift a finger?  I got up immediately, trying to free myself from the scene, feeling disgusted with myself for having done nothing.  Quickly I tried to analyze why I had behaved so wrongly.  I didn’t want to be late to the tasting.  Check.  Someone else would eventually help him.  Check.  He could get up on his own.  Check.  He waved off the two people who offered him help.  Check.  If I had helped him up, I would have waited at least an hour for an ambulance and had to fill out accident and police reports.  Check.  Then why do I feel so ashamed and miserable?

The truth is that in our fair city, people are so concerned with their schedules and themselves that when it comes time to help our fellow New Yorker, we turn the other cheek.  Someone else who has the time can do the job.  I was so concerned about the wine that I was going to taste, I overlooked an elder in need and made countless justifications in a matter of seconds as to why I couldn’t do it.

It is easy to blame the pace of this town for my lack of care, and in this is only a part truth.  We are so caught up with this frenetic pace that we overlook the right thing to do quite often.    So often I will witness some public behavior that appears rude and savage, littering, the death of chivalry, outright rudeness and crimes against humanity.  Today the grapes tasted sour, and I felt ashamed to be a New Yorker and to be myself.  I am upset that my priorities are so mixed up that I couldn’t help my fellow man, even if it means the price of that special commodity – time.

I rushed to the booth to report the accident.  A worker was coming out of the booth to purchase a beverage. “There’s been an accident,” I pleaded.  “Report it to the booth,” she dismissed, so as not to take time from her break too.  There was a line, and I asked the gentlemen who was up next if I could please get in front of him, that it was an emergency.  He replied no, and I informed him that a senior citizen had fallen and required attention, and that I was merely trying to report it.  Further, that if he felt it was more important to purchase his metro card first, that he should continue.  “Only if it is an emergency,” he reluctantly retorted.  “There is a man who has fallen at the station,”  finally getting it off my chest.  “Someone will see him there and take care of it,” not the relief I was looking for.   “No, it was at the rear of the station and no one was around.”  She looked at me blankly.  “Call it in or anything that happens will be on you.” I left feeling ill, guilty and dissatisfied in my attempt to rectify my past error.

The tasting is over, and I have lots of notes, but none of this matter much.  On this gloomy September afternoon, I am thinking of the elderly man who fell at the train station, needing a helping hand, hoping for decency in a time of recession, and ultimately what is the responsibility of being a  true New Yorker.

Ribeira Sacra Day 2

Breathing mountain air facilitates resounding rest, and shortly after an early rise and a  quick cortadito, El Capitan and I were met by a two car entourage of winemakers, led by Raul Perez, winemaker of El Pecado and Leirana, and joined by Pedro Rodriguez, who produces Guimaro.  Also present, Luis, an enologist, and Rodrigo, a winemaker in Rias Baixas.

The ride to the vineyard was even more treacherous than the day before, the highlight being a stop near a 2,000 year old Roman iter near the Bibei river.  Conditions were muggier too, and for some reason communication proved difficult.  It was hard to translate, as too much information was being rattled off at an alarming rate of speed.  Winemakers can be passionate, so much so that they want you to know everything about their wines.  But we were looking for a sense of history and place, and so much got lost in translation because they had a different agenda. Our questions were never answered directly, but this may have been just the Galician way.

Through the quagmire, however, we did corroborate much of what we had learned on day one.  Winemaking had been a family occupation since Roman times.  Each family had different parcels and made wine for themselves, any leftover to be sold in bulk.  Cultivation was difficult to terrain, and so terraces were built for safety.  Much of the winemaking process was done on site in sheds, small hillside structures for sorting and pressing.  Much of the wine was sold to people of Lugo across the mountain ranges.  After World War II, young people started to leave the agrarian lifestyle for big cities and job opportunities, leaving the arduous work to the elders.  This trend continued until the 1990’s, when some of the youth decided to return to become farmers again, disillusioned with a capitalist and urban lifestyle.  Although the quality of the wine is controlled by the DO, certain producers are resisting the homogenous style in favor of making very uniquely terroir driven godello and mencia.  These wines have a potential for fine aging and hark back to the tradition of making wine for oneself.

It was a long day of tasting and information, much of it technical and academic.  By lunchtime things were smoothed over by an invitation for a family meal at Pedro’s mom’s house.  The structure, a typical display of Galician stone masonry and wooden beams, sported a long layout of warm rooms fit for mountain lodging.  The most interesting being the kitchen, with a natural rainfall runoff sink and wood burning oven that his 90 plus year old grandmother insists on using.  Feeding the flames with vines is integral to the flavor.  As we sat down for a typical Galician feast, 27 bottles were being uncorked and prepared for tasting, a dizzying number that I was sure would be blurred by bottle number 12.  The most interesting bottle may have been the first one, a thirty year old albarino from a female friend of the family producer in Rias Baixas without a label, a lime green bottle that delivered absolute pleasure and wonder of the grape varietal.

The food onslaught was intense, and intended for us to cry mercy.  I was up to the task but finally conceded by dessert.  A plate of Rias Baixas oysters to start, followed by an alluring plate of warm goose barnacles, a task which lets you suck out the marrow of life.  It took a few squirting mishaps for El Cap and I to get the hang of these curious delicacies, even though I have had them before.  “Break the claw open and suck the life out of the shell,” Luis suggested.  The enologist was the talker of the group, a former basketball player who clearly loved food and wine, but was strangely observing a diet and always talking, or complaining, which we soon learned was the Galician way.

Celtic Charcuterie


27 wines

Walk into an empty Galician restaurant without reservation or warning, and the owner may look at you gloomily.  Moreover, he will err on the side of negativity, rattling off some inane excuses about being fully booked, and how you should have called.  What if I get overbooked?  Even though there is barely a soul in sight.  Then with a gleeful sigh, he will act is if he bent over backwards to seat you, and give you some time limit restriction or nudge as to what he wants you to order.  Lest you somehow figure out a way to screw him.  And that is how it appeared with the winemakers, that somehow we were there to screw them, or that we were going to report about their wines in a way that would be screwy, if you get my drift.

So the enologist was regaling us about how he went to the doctor for a rectal exam, and how he wouldn’t let them do it.  I damn near fell off the table translating the whole fiasco.  It turns out he is on a restrictive diet (four helpings instead of six-welcome to my world), and they’ve rescheduled.  Perfect dinner convo!  Every other turn of discussion had him surely taking it up the backside, and his symbol for his virginity being taken looked like a perverted version of Tiger Woods’ fist pump after a made birdie.   Whether it was town politics, or the DO, or the weather, somehow Luis was getting it, and he was going to take it, but not quietly.

At one point, after sitting next to him so attentively (grandma lost her hearing and was able to sit in the background, blissfully unaffected), Pedro’s mother tried to get a word in edgewise.  “But will you let me speak,” he erupted.  At which point I rose from my feeding frenzy to retort, “But you have been the only one speaking for the last two hours.”  That earned kudos and raucous laughter from his peers, and really loosened up the festivities.

An empanada with pork ribs (bone-in), hit the table.  “Save the pastry for the dog,” Pedro’s mom advised.  A plate of Galician choucoutre was next, minus the sauerkraut, but full of sausages and potatoes.  Tortilla from house eggs, celtic pig ham, pig jowls, chorizo, a 15 month old rooster killed in our honor served in a stew, chick peas, and more lacon.  Then a speed tasting of the twenty seven wines.  It was too hard to keep up and take notes, so I just drank what I liked.  I got the impression that this type of family meal occurs frequently, and that we were getting a glimpse of real Galician life.  Eat, drink, argue and enjoy!


By the time dessert rolled around, a bica cake, flan, cookies and a coconut custard, we were four hours into the repast and busting at the seams, a second serving of cake was accompanied with a house made espresso liqueur which was irresistible.  The highlight was a wheel of manchego cured in olive oil for one year.  What a revelation! Out came the Cohibas, long ones, and turns by the window to enjoy fresh air.  Talk turned to wine and Ribeira Sacra, and plans were made for a party later that evening, if we could survive the late siesta.


Weather was not on our side, and the party was moved indoors to a local pub in Monforte near the river.  The only cure was a cold caña, and Rocio, the birthday woman of honor, was buying the drinks, as per Galician custom.  We met so many fun people that night, and I switched to Havana Club and coke, my de facto European drink of choice.

It was under the drizzle that Pedro opened up, and communication was facile and interesting.  The informal venue away from the wine was the right environment, and El Cap and I learned a lot.  We met a German woman working as an architect and dating a Gallego.  She claimed she could not get used to the large weekly feasts.  I was of course jealous.  We turned into pumpkins by one a.m.  How entirely unSpanish of us.

We left Ribeira Sacra amidst lugubrious conditions, with a real sense of terroir and tradition, and an understanding that in Spain, under such Celtic climate and agrarian roots, lives a people who, cautious and pretending to look at life through a glass half empty, in actuality celebrating life to the fullest, a glass half full in my book.

The next leg of our journey was La Rioja, where the most familiar Spanish wine was crafted.  Our excitement was palpable, a piece of us left in Galicia.

Ribeira Sacra Day One, Part II

The journey back to the parador was perilous, in that my stomach was turned inside out from the adventurous route through the mountains.  After a splash of the face, and a heart rate return to normal after the pulpo gallego extravaganza at dizzying altitudes, Ramon was waiting in the parking lot for a drive to his vineyards.  We were already prepped for beauty and stunning views, but his vineyards (three in all) were breathtaking and distinctly different in their own rights.

He insisted on being called Moncho, and presented himself in a matter of fact fashion.  He wanted to chat about animals and his job as a veterinarian, that the winemaking was just family tradition.  He gave us a good recount of the viticultural movements by era, and before it could get too technical we were upon the caneiro river.

The plot looked like it was blessed by the river breezes and emboldened by the northerly sunlight.  The combination of shad to light to breeze surely put the caneiro vines in an advantageous locale.  But Moncho did not talk technical wine geek speak.  Rather it was about the families who have been cultivating for years, doing what they do for themselves as part of being farmers and ultimately true Galicians.

We visited his two other plots which were impressive but not as marvelous as caneiro.  The feeling on the slopes was a mixed bag of envy, and fear of the treacherous work necessary to love the land enough to continue producing wine for the family as a hobby and part of tradition that dated back to Roman times.

To understand the true meaning of Ribeira Sacra, Moncho felt it necessary to visit the religious side of the community.  He first brought us to an old church where the caretaker rocked in her chair several hundred meters away in town.  She accompanied us to the door revealing a classic expression of Galician stone craftsmanship, vaulted by a carved wooden ceiling and Spartan testament towards worship. P1000190

The next stop was a monastery, where as a boy Moncho learned to tend to the animals, and later as a doctor healing sick livestock.  For payment, the nuns would bake wondrous cakes of marzipan and local fruits.  To this day he visits them, still communicating through the old revolving portal system – contact with outsiders physically being strictly prohibited.

Transfixed on the monastery grounds under a great cypress tree in the midst of absolute solitude brought me back to the top of Dominio do Bibei, an experience of solace and contemplation, prayer if you will.  Ribeira Sacra is a sacred place because the people value family, tradition, and the power of prayer, soaking in the natural surroundings and way of life as a true gift from above.  Hence the soul of the Ventura family wines reflects these values.

A pit stop in town at Bar Caracas for a late cortadito was colorful.  The gentlemen were fiercely playing cards.  MariCarmen, the lady at the bar regaled us with stories of her days in Venezuela.  El Cap and I basked in the moment of good coffee, and especially the way of life that has not changed much for the elders present, the slow roll that is Galicia.

Back at the family winery, Moncho showed us his digs.  At the back of a very old house is a separate room with stainless steel vats and bottling assembly line.  Cases of wine from his small production not to far in the garage distance.  Mom and Pop greeted us eagerly, and we were made to feel at home immediately.  We tasted a barrel sample or two of the 2008 crop, and were promptly seated to a family style meal as if we were neighbors just dropping in at the right time.

The display of a cured Celtic ham leg lay in plain view at all times, as we devoured ham and chorizo.  His mom made tortillas to order, and it took real discipline to stop after the third one.  The farm fresh potatoes and eggs, the glistening façade yielding a runny interior – tortilla perfection.  Moncho’s dad ran around looking for old bottles for us to drink, and Moncho argued with his dad about his stash of older vintages.

The 2007 Pena de Lobo was juicy with granite character, while the 2007 Caneiro, was fresh, young, lively and a bit denser.  Both paired sublimely with the ternera (veal chops).  We finished up with a local cheese, arzua ulloa and house made membrillo, our stomachs once again expanding and challenged to fit in one last bite.P1000212

Moncho talked about being visited by his importer, who advised him not to make blends, but instead to feature single plot vineyards for his cuvees.  He did not seem preoccupied with vino mumbo jumbo, just concentrates on making honest, good wine.  His father expressed concern about the young people, and how they were not interested in hard work any more.  He seemed robust to me, and happy to still be working his land.

The darkness masked the mountains on the way back to the parador, and El Capitan and I ended the evening with two Cohiba cigars I had been gifted from my new friend in Madrid.  They burned slowly as we recapped the day.  I wondered if it could get any better.  El Cap responded that each winery visit is different, but that the exhilaration of the day ranked high on his list.  Overlooking Monforte de Lemos at night, with the Galician breeze, the luminescent stars, and shiny moon, our cigar smoke billowing through the dark blue sky, fatigue finally crept in, the emotional and mental exhaustion of a truly magical place taking its necessary toll.