I got in trouble with my scoutmaster once over a Spanish winetasting. We were training for the 50-mile patch, which we were going to earn as a troop, and on bicycles, and we had ridden out into the country, met the sag wagon, and pitched our tents. Then two friends and I went exploring, and in a ditch by some fields, tucked away in the tall grass, we found a bottle of wine. It had clearly been left by the campesinos, and I didn’t think they would mind if we just had a taste. The bottle had already been opened, the cork tapped back halfway. A cut loaf, as the old saw has it.
I was eleven, and had been in Spain for two years, and one of the most interesting things about the country was surely the wine. When the family went on bodega tours, or when we had our wine jug filled from the barrels lining the walls at the wine store, the scent of vinous liquids aging in oaken casks wafted me into a sort of heaven. And having been allowed to sample it now and then, I was developing an appreciation for the subtle pleasures of the grape.
My friends thought it pretty bold that I took a sip. They declined a sample themselves, so I put the bottle back where we’d found it, and wandered back to camp. Later that evening I got called to the scoutmaster’s tent. He seemed to think I had committed a horrible crime, and would be heading to hell in a handbasket posthaste. I thought the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, and that all I was guilty of was being interested in the local culture, but I wisely held my peace.
One reason I wished I’d been older when we lived in Spain was that I could have sampled more of the wine. I’ve made up for that as much as possible on my two trips back. During the first of these I stayed for a time with Yuyo’s family. Yuyo’s father, Eduardo, co-founder of a local wine-tasting club, felt it incumbent upon himself to introduce me to all the regional varieties I might otherwise have missed. Spaniards are proud of their city and region, and especially of the indigenous food and drink, so I had to drink a lot of wine. He sent me back to the states with a bottle of Oloroso from Montilla-Moriles, just over the mountains towards Córdoba, that was simply the best sherry-type wine I have ever tasted: smooth as velvet and rich without being too sweet, with caramel notes and a bouquet to die for.
This trip, I was on my own and on a budget. Fortunately, it is extremely difficult to find bad wine in Spain. At the supermarket around the corner you could get a perfectly drinkable tinto, red wine, in an actual glass bottle, for a buck. For seventy-five cents you could get something in a tetrapak, those ubiquitous waxboard cartons, that for all I know was just as good. David, one of my apartment-mates, went the tetrapak route, but he drank rosé. What a great country. Contrariwise, in this here country you can get wine for two bucks per bottle-equivalent, but only if you buy it by the gallon, that is fine for making sangría or calimocho but is otherwise undrinkable. For a bottle you can drink the starting price seems to be five dollars. Not like in the Steinbeck novels, Tortilla Flat say, where the boys get together eight bits in change to buy themselves a gallon of red. You get the impression that it’s good enough wine, too, which is as good as wine really needs to be.