I got back last night. I should give this entry more thought but feel the urge to post, even in haste. Surviving a bawling infant on her father's lap next to me, I flew through Madrid-- and that new and vastly improved airport. Previously, transfer here was nightmarish. No more. Shopping ain�t bad either. Transfer to Bilbao was a breeze. I was able to sneak in an hour snooze in the car and woke up in Haro, the town where traditional Rioja still has a grip. I dashed into my hotel to deposit bags and zipped away for tapas with Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia. Maria Jose is feisty and passionate with remarkable energy and generosity. She loves wine, she loves her wine and she also loves champagne. Did you ever notice how many people intimate with wine don't actually love it? They might love the lifestyle, they might love the business, but obsessed with the wine and aromas in the glass? I find it rare. When we got to our tapas destination, Altamauri Restaurante, the owner turned ashen when he found out that I didn't eat meat or shellfish. He disappeared into the kitchen and proudly came out with minestra (overcooked vegetable stew) with some ham in it (ham is a vegetable). But there was also a salad and a battered and dried piece of swiss chard atop a potato slice. No matter: the star of the show was the 1997 Gravonia. Two women at the stools to our left lit up cigarettes in front of the no smoking sign. After 1.5 bottles (there were three of us) with Maria Jose talking as fast as a hummingbird's buzz, we toodled off in her Land Rover to the Tondonia vineyards, embraced by the Ebreo river. Silver Cantabria mountains lit up the back ground. The vines were just coming to life. Some were new plantings which had the look of a newly seeded scalp that had a hair transplant. But, most striking were the wet leaves sprouting from the dead limbs of old gnarled vines, reaching out of the sandstone soil, like hands reaching out of purgatory. Hand-like vines. Movingly beautiful. Soils there seemed pink in the brilliant sun. In fact Rioja looks so much like the bottom of a great sea, I could see this pink as degraded coral, perhaps the reason for the regions salty wines. Maria Jose in newly planted, pink vineyards. Before dinner we toured the soon to be opened decanter shaped Zaha Hadid tasting room. It's a small structure of matte silvery and coppery steel--a blip of modernity smack against the 19c winery ginger bread. After, I got a ten minute rest then on to diner at the Hotel Los Agustinos. They've a new, competent chef delivering up simple, clean food with nods to the bells and whistles of new Spain. Maria Jose brought three wines with her. 1981 Gran Reserva Tondonia Blanco which was all toffee, licorice and lemon. ( By the way, I bought a 1987 Gran Reserva at the great wine store inside of the Hotel Villa LaGuardia for only 19euro!). The 1985 Tondonia Gran Reserva was herbal, elegant, twiggy, and powerfu with leather aroma. The prize for me was the 1981 Bosconia, intense with cinnamon and rose petal. While drinking she told me the story of the dirty bottle. New York�s Astor Place has quite a number of older bottles for sale. But the store complained to importer Doug Polaner that the older bottles were dirty and he passed this on to her. � I told Doug,� she said, �I love you dearly, but I will not clean my bottles for you. I do not want to sell these bottles to people who can�t understand them. Astor must learn that this dirt and the mold that grows in my cellar helps to preserve wines.� Everything about the handling of their wine has to do with its beauty; from the vines they graft themselves, to the mold that clings to the bottle, to the spiders in the damp cellar that eat the bugs, all of these elements have a part in making the LdH wines the gems they are. We barely put a dent into the four (one was champagne) bottles, but it couldn�t be helped. The next day I had visits to Muga, Ona, Ramirez de Ganuza and lunch and I couldn�t afford a hangover.