On the Road Again: Spanish Edition

Whether it's a moveable feast or a dangerous summer, off we go.

Though I write about drinks, at heart I am a travel writer. Travel writing is how I cut my teeth and being on the road is what’s always generated my best work. Wine writing, when it’s done well, is really a form of travel writing. When I write about searching out the world’s rarest grapes in the Alps, or a journey to the Mosel to share a 50-year-old riesling with an octogenarian winemaker, or a trip to London to taste a 200-year-old Caribbean rum, I’m (hopefully) writing about more than the liquid in the glass.

The last major wine trip I took, before the pandemic, was to France’s Loire Valley. Over a couple of weeks, I interviewed dozens of producers and tasted hundreds of wines for reports on cabernet franc and chenin blanc. My work on this trip was not narrative, but rather to score wines on the 100-point scale — something I’d become disillusioned with (and which I talked about in the first episode of our podcast Confessions of a Wine Critic).

On the evening that Chinese authorities closed down Wuhan, I wandered the ancient streets of Chinon. I’d spent all day with winemakers touring their 15th-century limestone caves. I had to get up early and do it all over again in the morning, but I was restless. Even though this was hardly the first winter I’d spent in some European wine region, sipping and spitting and scribbling, I’d begun to question what the point of all this tasting and scoring had been. Surely, there was more to all this beyond parsing whether a particular cabernet franc had notes of black olive or blackberry and whether it deserved a 93 or 88.

My Airbnb stood just down the winding cobblestone path to Chinon’s 11th-century castle, about a hundred meters from where a 17-year-old Joan of Arc arrived in 1429, after hearing heavenly voices. She’d traveled to meet future king Charles VII, who would give her an army to fight the English in the Hundred Years’ War; two years later, she’d be captured and burned at the stake in Rouen, then declared a martyr, then canonized. My own visit to Chinon was nowhere near as noble or epic as Joan’s. That night, I ended up at a bar in the town square, where a local guy bet me that I couldn’t identify, blind, the very bitter herbal spirit he set before me. He lost that bet, but it was still more like the rake’s progress than the hero’s journey.

Over the past 15 months, there’s been very little travel writing happening. Conversely, there’s been a boatload of wine and spirits writing. Perhaps this is why drinks writing has grown so dismal and boring over the past year: Everyone’s been stuck at home. Sure, they’ve been dutifully tasting and rating and mixing and Instagramming and influencing and whatever. But we all know that something has been missing.

While the pandemic has certainly played a role, the other factor is the small matter of the…utter collapse of media. Very few outlets now support the level of travel and reporting needed to do the work of independent wine or spirits journalism. Most drinks reporting is done with the aid of press trips sponsored by companies and organizations.

That’s why I feel extremely lucky to be able to get back on the road, independently, to do the work. To be clear, the work will be incredibly enjoyable. For the next couple of weeks, I will be traveling in Spain, sending you dispatches on what’s happening now in the country with the most dynamic everyday drinking culture on earth.

Over the past decade, I’ve reported quite a bit on Spanish drinks. From tempranillo to sherry to Basque cider to Brandy de Jerez to the Spanish gin-tonic. I once even found myself judging a national tapas competition on Spanish televison. But it’s been a while since I’ve gone to the source.

On this trip, I will be checking out the exciting things happening in Rioja as well as some lesser-known appellations in central Spain, traveling in Basque country, looking at how the pandemic has affected bar culture in Madrid…and likely, I will also be looking into the state of the Spanish siesta. Wine, cocktails, cider, vermouth and more! (I also promise to limit the Hemginway references).