This hostel was pristine compared to the last. I had begun to think I had the 8 person bed room to myself after being there the entire day, but as luck would have it, my bunk mates came in at midnight and they all spoke English. Two 29 year olds from Denmark- Sophie and Aska, and a Pennsylvania bred American - Adam.
Sophie was beautiful and tall. Very, very tall. (In fact, all three of them towered over me and I spent my entire time with them jumping around like a child to reach their level for attention). She was a medical student in the great socialist Denmark where education was free and money was never a motive, and had lived in Spain for 3 months a few years ago. Aska (pronounced Oscar without the r) worked in some sort of International Economics studying underdeveloped societies and he was hilarious. The type of person who is instantanly best friends with every single person he meets, whether he speaks their language or not. He was quite fluent in Spanish, but even if he met a distant language, he got by with dance moves, wit and charm that he had seemed to master universally.
And then there was Adam – a Cornel student getting his Masters in Viticulture and working in the Finger Lakes vineyards. (Seriously … the luck??) As soon as I discovered that he was in wine as well (which was approximately 3.5 minutes upon their entering of the room), and had an appointment with a winery the next morning in Rioja, I asked him if he wanted to take me along. He laughed and I looked down at him seriously from the windowsill where I sat cross legged with my lap top, “I am 100% serious,” I said, and so it was decided.
Adam was weird, but harmless and interesting and nice enough. A Viticulturist and an Ornithologist (which is the study of birds he told me after I informed him I didn’t know what that was), who drove a black Mercedes convertible he had borrowed from a buddy in Madrid. He was by all worldly standards, “hot,” tall and tan with crystal blue eyes, but by all definitions a total science geek stuck in an athlete’s body. He was the type of person who immediately offered you all of the facts on a particular comment or observation you might have made. An endless bank of random knowledge, travel and Cornel stuffed brains.
“I’m sorry, but rules are: top down,” He said as we got in the car with his finger on the button to open the roof.
“I’m sorry, but you clearly don’t know me yet. Top obviously down. Snow, rain or hail,” I responded sliding in the other side.
We were off and Adam looked like a child overcome with giddy pleasure as he drove. It was indeed, pretty amazing – the Rioja countryside and back roads with vineyards as far as you could see. Upon certain twists and turns of the road, we would look at each other and burst out laughing because this was just too cool.
“What are those!?” He asked, more to himself than to me, slowing down and pulling off the road into a gravel path in a vineyard. I looked at the vines next to me, wondering if he could tell what type they were just by looking at them. They looked pretty normal to me but I didn't know; maybe this particular patch had stumped him. My hand on the door handle, ready to get out and inspect, Adam reached around and grabbed Binoculars from the middle consol. (Yes, this kid carried binoculars and a heavy duty pair at that, because “you never know when you’re gonna see cool stuff,” he told me). As I was wondering why on earth he needed binoculars, when we could just get out and look at the vines, he positioned them up towards the sky.
“So cool,” He said under his breath. I followed his trajectory to two very ordinary looking, black birds circling above us and then sat rather gape jawed and dumbstruck as he pondered them, reversed, and then carried on down the road as if everyone did that.
“Sooo … you like birds …” I mused.
“Yea. Like I said, I was an Ornithologist,” He responded
Okay then. “A Viticulturist. An Ornothologist. And a Mercedes convertible. I have yet what to make of you, Adam Kane.”
He smiled, which was good, because as I later found, sometimes he laughed at my jokes and other times, my wit blew right past him, completely lost like a passing sound he hadn’t picked up and he remained blank faced like I hadn’t spoken at all. Which was also another absurd impossibility, because Adam Kane had bionic hearing. Seriously, he thought it was normal but it wasn’t. He could detect a swarm of bees or a faint bird cry from a mile away (I can hear him now correcting that fact that it was indeed not even a half mile away, but more like .1 miles). He simply refused to believe I couldn’t hear these sounds as well, and I wouldn’t believe that he did until we followed this mystical hearing to the actual source and I saw it with my own eyes. Once we found it, I would look straight from it up to him, studying him like he did with his birds trying to classify this strange breed. He seemed not to notice that I was watching him as he watched whatever it was that he was particularly engrossed in at the moment.
Overcome with the landscape, the wind in our hair, and the energy of the afternoon, we thought we may have taken a wrong turn so Adam pulled off on a side road to look up directions and call the winery.
“I hear birds …” I teased in a sing song voice as we sat on the side of a silent road by a very neglected horse covered in hay.
“Just common Sparrows,” He replied simply without taking his eyes from his phone.
Bodega Paganos was a beautiful property set in the valley surrounded by the Iberian mountain range. Bright, leafy vines stretched out from the white, rocky earth and surrounded the stone fortress that stood between them – built from the “Mother Rock” that lie way below the earth, which they tunneled out to make their aging caves. It was a 5th century winery with an all-star wine maker named Marcus who had been voted 3rd best in his trade by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Our host, Alberto, was without a doubt the nicest person in the entire world. The tour was meant to be in Spanish (Adam was fluent in Spanish of course. That year and a half he spent living in Peru studying plants or birds or whatever it was he did) and I was ready to smile and nod and suffer through it, just grateful to be there, but Alberto insisted on English for me.
He took us out into the vines and talked about all of their biodynamic processes with Adam. There were a lot of viticulture terms in broken English and Spanish and a lot of smiling and nodding on my part. Paganos’ vineyard cycle was planned entirely around the moon’s and each date out of the year was marked accordingly for the best leaf days, flower days, and tasting days. Because Paganos did not use chemicals or fast acting enhancements, the vines had to be cared for as if they were infants, each day of the year. Paganos produced four small quantity/high quality wines that were each named after their respective vineyards and yielded their own distinct personalities accordingly. They also made a larger production wine, which by Rioja standards of 8 million bottles a year, was fairly small at a mere half million.
Inside the winery, Albertos, showed us the equipment and took us through their version of the wine making process. I was amazed to learn that for the four top quality wines that they produced, each grape cluster was de-stemmed by hand, one by one, grape by grape, to assure the utmost quality and preserve the grape’s integrity. Instead of the common Bladder Press that I was familiar with in America, Bodega Paganos uses a Basket Press to extract the juice. Alberto explains to us the difference with an analogy of a teabag. The Bladder Press, he says, is like pressing your spoon to the teabag against the wall of your mug in the hot water to extract as much flavor as fast as possible. The Basket Press is like dipping your teabag in and out of the hot water by its string, oozing flavor into the water slowly but softly. This he said, was more time consuming but gave the wine a soft elegance that could not be achieved otherwise. They also still crushed some of their grapes by foot in huge barrels that subsequently served as the aging barrels for the first fermentation process. The secondary fermentation (Malolactic) was done in French and American oak barrels and in an entirely natural process that took from December to June to be completed. (The previous vintage was still in the barrel awaiting Malolactic completeion).
Paganos also made a wine that went through Malolactic Fermentation in what i believe is called an obom (an egg shaped barrel that pumped the wine in a certain flow used by the French for their whites; such as Chablis) and was 1 of 2 in the world to use this process for a red wine. Only 800 bottles were produced that sold for 1000 euros each. Albertos tasted three of the top wines with us outside against the vineyard and mountainous backdrop. They were divine (tasting notes at the bottom). He talked about each personality of the wine and told us that in Rioja, even his 2 and 3-year-old nephews study viticulture in school. He left us with a library of reading materials and invited us to a huge dinner and tasting on Wednesday night with the top California wine gurus. Instantly, a litany of curses against myself rang through my head for planning, for the first time in my journey, my next 3 stops, and transportation in between - all prepaid. I contemplated seriously about canceling my train and the next 3 after and just eating the cost in order to attend this dinner. (Later, upon meeting Adrian, I would end up unplanning all of these plans anyway.)
With a page full of places to see and eat from Albertos, Adam and I left to venture out to more of the Rioja countryside. The ride was heavenly, interrupted with spurts of knowledge and awe from Adam, like “Oh! Kestrel.” “Mini falcon. Super cool,” he would explain to me when I asked what the hell a Kestrel was. Or, the occasional screeching of breaks followed by, “Oh look! There’s a Quail.” Now thoroughly amused by my most recent case study, I began to play a game with Adam, pointing out every bird I saw. “What’s that?” “Magpie.” “That one!” “Piper.” But I couldn’t stump him so eventually I stopped playing.
We arrived at a small stone town and looked like two Beverly hills kids driving around in Daddy’s Mercedes Convertible. One old man stopped and stared, following us as we crept over the cobble stones. He said something aloud to those around him, which Adam translated as “Oh my God…” as he watched us. The town was otherwise abandoned and we parked to walk around.
“Do you smoke?” I asked him, pulling out a cigarette.
“No. Not since Peru.” He said.
“Neither do I,” I answered, lighting the cigarette dangling between my lips. He laughed in an amused yet mocking way, which was exactly the response I had anticipated.
“Only when traveling alone in foreign countries,” I smiled, blowing the smoke out around us.
We ate pinchos at the only café opened in town and Adam made friends with locals and talked to them in Spanish for what felt like forever about castles and vines (I think). We explored a dark and cold empty church and snuck through a locked iron gate down into the basement. Unfortunately, it was just for storage. No catacombs. I tried to carve my name into a stone railing where others had but Adam grabbed my wrist when I pulled out the pocket knife and protested defacing a 600 year old church, so I didn’t. We drove about 5km down the road in search of this castle he wanted to see and stopped to ask a vineyard worker where it was. He told us to cross over the main road and follow the tractor up through the windy dirt paths, so we did. We drove up the narrow dusty trails with vines tickling the tires of the car on either side until we got to the top of a steep hill.
The castle was from the 8th century and completely abandoned. Without a soul in sight or ear shot, we climbed to the top of the hill and went inside. It seemed to be merely an open space covered in overgrown weeds and surrounded by stone but Adam found a place where he could climb the walls to the very top. (Adam was a rock climber. And a surfer. And a collegiate swimmer. Among other things. Obviously.) I made him get down immediately and lift me up first because I was too short to reach the foot holding and refused to allow him this adventure without me. Kicking my shoes to the side and tying my skirt up, I climbed to the top, through holes in the wall and then up again the other side until we got to the top. The view was absolutely breath taking. Mountains faded in the distance around us, enclosing the valley with thousands of miles of vineyards rolling up and over each hill and around every road and every bend. Not a patch went untouched by them. The bright sun glistened off the river below us, whose protection, Adam informed me, was the Castle’s mission back in 700AD; and the wind howled through my hair and whipped my skirt in violent fits around my legs. We were on the top of the world. We screamed as loud as we could and waited as it echoed off the mountains and throughout the entire valley. We sat in a comfortable silence for awhile just taking it all in and I thought I could most likely stay up here for my entire life, just sitting atop these old stone ruins overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, with my bare feet dangling over the edge miles above ground, and the wind caressing my face.
We drove back to Logrono, stopping at random picturesque views or bird sightings and then met back up with Sophie and Aska in town. We spent the night eating pinchos and drinking everything, going from tapas bar to tapas bar down the lively streets. I bought some snails (live ones; pets) off a tiny Asian man selling them as if they were flowers perched there on his tree branch, as he walked through the local outdoor bars. Then, not knowing what to do with them, I bought them all and set them free in a garden. The four of us followed some Logrono locals that had become Aska’s new best friends to a Karaoke bar down the street and sang duet after duet in English while the local Spaniards clapped, smiling ear to ear at every Backstreet Boys, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen song. I contemplated canceling my train again. I’m pretty sure I told everyone that I was going to. But I didn’t. My train left out of Logrono the next morning and I willed fervently for that one perfect day and night in Rioja to be forever preserved amongst the sea of new memories that I was headed straight into.
TASTING NOTES: Bodega Paganos
2009 Sierra Cantabria ~ Deep purple hue. Classic Rioja spicy nose that lends into vanilla with time. Smooth, fresh mouth feel. A lot of grip without any bitterness to it and tannic structure without tannic feel. No over drying finish.
2007 El Puntido ~ More complex notes. Dark red fruit and black currents. You can taste the oak. A nose full of white flowers after it opens up; Albertos says that it smells exactly like the white flowers of the olive tree blossoms in the area. Despite being a 2007, you can still feel how fresh it is. Complex, with a minerality characteristic to it, it is very well balanced with rounded tannins and covers the entire palate.
2008 La Nieta ~ This wine has less oak and so much fruit - red fruits. It is bolder and powerful but also soft and elegant. It is not rugged at all like some other Spanish wines. 2008 was a great year in la Rioja. It has a finish that seems to last forever and a "high note" that Adam detects in the back of the palate.