We’d imagine the life of a wine importer to be nothing but romance—all long nights, barrel laughs, and plates of beautiful food in good company. Turns out, we were wrong: It’s better than that. We asked Williams Corner Wine co-founder Nicolas Mestre to recount a recent wine-tasting trip to Spain. The CEO spends about 12 weeks per year in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain, drinking in what’s on offer (and what could end up in local retailers and on restaurant menus). Here’s his story:
“Our fourth night in Spain found us in an elegant restaurant in the ancient town of Toro in the province of Zamora. Our server had just laid down half-kilo veal steaks in front of each of the diners in our party with an enviably dexterous aplomb. The table grew quiet for a moment as we mentally digested the sheer scale of flesh we were expected to consume. Our host, an energetic Frenchman-turned-Spaniard and winemaker named Jean-Francois, wore a beatific smile that hinted at equal parts self-satisfaction, mischievousness, and inebriation. Into the three empty glasses before me he poured consecutive vintages of the inky, heady, and age-worthy Tempranillo-based wine for which the region has been renowned since at least the 13th century. I picked up each glass in turn, swirled, sipped, and tasted, then dutifully turned my attention toward the almost 17 ounces of beef steaming on the plate before me.
“My colleagues and I had arrived in Malaga, Spain, four days earlier and had holed up our first night in the center of Granada, the medieval Moorish city in the far southern region of Andalucia. Having arrived around lunchtime on a red eye from Washington, D.C., we decided to have a simple lunch at the hotel, then nap, then head to our first appointment with a winemaker based in Marchal, a short drive east of Granada on the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. A simple lunch turned into a several hour, multi-course affair at the excellent El Claustro restaurant in what was formerly the refectory of the Santa Paula convent, complimented by the delicious but unusual skin-fermented ‘orange’ wines of one of the area’s pioneering natural wineries, Barranco Oscuro.
“That evening we visited Antonio Vilchez at his small winery and tasted through a dozen or so wines from tank, barrel, and bottle before returning to Granada for a meal at a small, family-owned restaurant in the Albaicin neighborhood. There, we ate plate after plate of jámon and washed it all down with rich but high-acid red wines made from Antonio’s altitudinous vineyards.
“We awoke early the next morning and headed for the Puerto de la Ragua pass through the Sierra Nevadas. The hairpin turns along the A-337 motorway through the mountains did little to soothe our hangovers and jet lag, though on the descent we were so overwhelmed by the splendid view of the Mediterranean before us that we temporarily forgot the indulgences of the previous evening. Just before noon we arrived at our next appointment at a winery on the southern slopes of the Sierras. There, we tasted through three dozen unfinished wines resting in various containers including stainless steel tanks, barrels, and amphorae, before sitting down to lunch around 2pm and tasting through another dozen or so finished wines from bottles during the meal. We explained to our hosts that we had a limited amount of time to spend with them as we were due in Almeria by dinnertime for another meeting. We were assured that lunch would be a short and simple affair.
Three hours later, we were back on the road.
The days passed one after another in similar fashion: a morning appointment to taste wines, a “short” lunch usually lasting between two and three hours, a long drive, an evening appointment to taste wines, and a dinner that lasted late into the night. By the time we arrived in Toro on day four, we had driven over 1,200 kilometers, tasted more than 200 wines, and eaten such indecent amounts of ham that we were starting to sweat swine through our pores.
Thus explains my dismay—and Jean-Francois’s mischievous delight—at the unveiling of our main course at dinner that night: the cartoonishly large half-kilo veal steak.
After four bites, I surrendered to my body’s revolt against swallowing any additional solid morsel and convinced my colleague, who, it should be noted (and give one pause), had already finished his own piece of meat, to finish mine.
Around midnight, Jean-Francois motioned to our server for the bill. Soon, I thought, I would be in bed recuperating from the day and getting the much-needed rest that would sustain me for the morning’s drive to the Rioja region. As we left the restaurant I started to say my goodbyes to our host, but Jean-Francois cut me off and half queried, half demanded, “one gin-tonic?” I looked pleadingly at my colleagues for the least sign of protest, but there was none.
Sometime after 3 in the morning I realized we had lost Jean-Francois. He wasn’t at the bar. He wasn’t on the dance floor. He wasn’t using the gents. I stumbled up the stone stairs of the nightclub and out into the frigid Toro night. I walked a short ways along the deserted cobbled street towards the church and the medieval ramparts. I heard him first, standing on one of the massive stone walls, shouting out into the night, hoisting his bar stool menacingly over his head as though trying to deter some unseen foe in the darkness.
I looked at my watch then and tried to calculate how much sleep I could still get before needing to be back on the road en route to Rioja. A couple of hours? I turned down a small side street leading back to the hotel, Jean-Francois’s furious shouts diminishing with each step.