This morning I heard the news of Pedro López de Heredia's passing. He was 85 and hadn't been well for a few years.
I met him only once but know him mostly through his daughter Maria José, and as a way of sending my condolences to her, as I know this is a huge loss, I offer an excerpt from my first book, chapter 4 entitled, Rioja Loses Its Spanish Accent.
To all of us who love Spanish wine and the new wave of them coming up, we can thank the hold outs, especially López de Heredia, who kept the flame of Rioja burning.
On the flight to Bilbao, I begged my way into a bulkhead seat. Being the kind of person brought up to feel guilt with no provo- cation, I looked uncomfortably at a long-legged football player type crammed into a tiny seat while all five feet and one hundred pounds of me luxuriated in the extra room. Once I overcame an urge to offer a seat swap, though, I indulged in a rare moment of tranquility, happy to be tiny. This trip was before liquids were banned on planes and it was still possible to sneak wine on board disguised as fruit juice in a water bottle. I had some wonderful gamay from the Loire, which I drank happily. I was just ready to reach for the Ambien when I realized my sleeping potion was in my checked luggage. At the same moment, the infant next to me started to wail. So I read through the night, including an inter- view with Pedro López de Heredia, Maria José’s father. He was quoted as saying, “If we allowed ourselves to be guided by the financial profit that drives many winemakers to use accelerating techniques during the wine making process, our product would lose their personalities.” Wow, I thought, now there’s a father for you.
We don’t get to choose our fathers, but Pedro’s passion for wine honesty and integrity is what I look for, whether choosing literature, wine, or love.
I was staggeringly tired when I landed in the spring-bright sun, and I slept soundly during the one-hour connecting flight from Bilbao to Haro, where I awoke to the sight of the old Tempranillo vines just coming to life. The fresh leaves pushing from splintery stumps looked like hands reaching for the sun. The silver-tipped Cantabrian Mountains lit up the background. The sandy soil looked like crushed coral. I felt I was standing in the basin of a drained-out sea. Perhaps that’s why I found a sea-like savory salinity in so many older Riojan wines. Haro was the town that put Rioja on the map. Problems in the French vineyards helped make the region famous. In 1849, when a powdery mildew destroyed vineyards, Bordeaux merchants crossed into Rioja and set up consultancies to help Rioja make wine suitable for the French palate. Again, in 1877, when the louse phylloxera ate up their vines’ roots, the French looked to the tempranillo-based wines of Rioja to replace their Bordeaux. So the region has a long history of French influence. The French fo- cused on Haro because it was conveniently located near both Bor- deaux and Rioja and directly linked by rail to the ocean for shipping. The town became home to several great wineries, including Muga, Cune, La Rioja Alta, and López de Heredia.
All but LdH have added the modern amenities of stainless-steel tanks, new oak, and perhaps a few more tricks as well. The other three are widely thought of as also producing some traditional wines. But, though not wildly modern in their techniques, Cune and Muga do produce some hormonal, over-the-top wines to compete in the vinos de alta expressión market. The real old-fashioned cheese—López de Heredia—stands alone.
I was signing in at the hotel when Maria José López de Heredia breezed in to fetch me for lunch. She was ablaze in canary colors: gold eye shadow, lemon-yellow silk scarf trailing behind her Isadora Duncan–style, buttery-looking boots, and a tan cor- duroy skirt. “Ahlyce!” she cried. “Eeet’s goude to zee you ah- gayn! Look at this weather! Eeez gorgeous, no?” She summoned me in her raspy, chirpy voice. “Queeck, we have to run for lunch.”
There was a magical, elfin quality to her. If I didn’t see the stray silver strand in her head of glossy black hair, I would swear she was sixteen. She was so incredibly cute that I wanted to pinch her cheek, pick her up, and put her in my pocket. I could easily imagine her as a chatterbox child who never stopped to inhale. She was so perky that she woke me right up from my jet-lagged stupor. We ran, sprinted, dashed for the restaurant with such urgency that our lunch might have been the reason that I’d crossed the Atlantic. At home, I hate lunch. I never like taking the time, or spending the calories, and if wine is involved—an occupational hazard—I can never go back to work without a nap. But lunch is an important part of European life, and in Spain it is absolutely sacred. There was no way to avoid it.
We slid into a tapas place, Altamauri Restaurante, just seconds before closing time. The owner turned ashen when he found out I didn’t eat meat. In a country where the pig is considered a vegetable, this is problematic. These are the times I need my pig-loving friend Skinny. Her passion for pork is so attention getting that people don’t no- tice I’m pushing the food around on my plate, reaching for the cheese instead. Sweating nervously into his huge mustache, the chef murmured an unconvincing, “No problem,” and disappeared into his kitchen. Maria José ordered wine while I noted two women on the stools to our left lighting up cigarettes in front of the no smoking sign. The chef returned, proudly bearing way too many plates of tapas, in hormonal proportions. These are not the dainty tapas of Barcelona, these are the huge, pinxto-sized plates of the Basque. The minestra—overcooked vegetable stew— had some ham in it (remember, pig is a vegetable), but there was also a salad and a battered piece of Swiss chard draped with a thick potato slice. I was happy to trust that this food was far from avant- garde, that there were no fish scales or eyes in anything. Maria José tittered about me eating like a bird while she packed away lunch with gusto. If I ate like she did, I would turn into a cow, but she, in constant motion, must have the metabolism of a hum- mingbird. No matter: The star of the show was the 1997 white from her Gravonia vineyard. We had no trouble polishing it off and wanting more, even if there was no nap in my future.
Trained as a winemaker, Maria José is her family’s charismatic ambassador to the world. I don’t understand how she remains single. How could a woman prone to saying things like, “After a hailstorm, when vines are damaged, you mourn for your vines as if they were children” and “If you have this relationship to the earth, you make a very different wine” not have a trail of suitors? She must. Suitors, however, would have to compete with the other loves in her life, like her father, Pedro, and the family wine. “My father wanted me to study chemistry,” she told me. “That was a big fight in the family, because my grandfather yelled, ‘She’ll learn how to make wines with no grapes!’ I need chemistry. I need to know what to do if something should go wrong. But in modern wine school, when everything is right you are taught it is wrong!” She went on to tell me that any time the malolactic fermentation commences before alcoholic (the reverse order of things, but often a result of the years weather patterns), “A UC Davis grad- uate would drop dead on the spot.” Another lesson she didn’t lis- ten to at school was to plant clones instead of replanting from their own cuttings, known in French as selection massale. The sup- posedly virus-free clones are developed in the lab and raised in the sterile environment of a nursery. They can never produce grapes with the complexity that vineyard selection can. Bred for certain flavors, bred to produce grapes that are more precocious than those grown under selection massale, they are viewed as an eco- nomic boon and a safer choice. I often get press releases in which a winery proclaims the careful selection of clones for their vineyard, but Maria José says, “We will never use them. You need three hundred clones from a nursery to give the complexity of one real vine.”
“I met Mr. Parker once,” she volunteered. “When I told Pedro,” she said, referring to her father, “that I was going to have lunch with him, he told me I could only go if he promised not to write about the wine. Pedro explained, ‘Because if he writes about our wines, we won’t have any to sell!’”
She found Parker charming. “I have no problem with him,” she said. “He loves our wine.”
I wasn’t going to be the one to break it to her that she and her padre were delusional. Parker told me that Rioja is overrated and, as far as the LdH white Rioja is concerned, “I hate those wines. I won’t review them because I don’t need any more enemies.” He likes the reds enough but, he said, “I like their neighbor, La Rioja Alta, better.”