When it comes to wine, we rarely consider its journey from grape to glass. Instead, we fixate on describing its characteristics, like fresh and fruity aromas, savory flavors or an elegant finish. Sometimes we complain that the complexity of a wine doesn’t correspond with the amount we paid for it. And far too often, we ponder the perfect food and wine pairings.
We readily use our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste to evaluate the quality of wine, but we seldom consider the story behind that bottle. Every wine has a specific place where it was made and the greatest ones have the fingerprints of passionate and intriguing workers all over them. Just like knowing the roasted chicken you are preparing for dinner was raised cage-free or the organic apple you’re about to bite into isn’t covered in pesticides, hearing the details of any bottle of wine can absolutely make a difference in your enjoyment of it. At least, it does for me.
Recently, I traveled to a small Spanish wine producing town called Toro, a place most people wouldn’t even be able to locate on a map. It doesn’t have an esteemed appellation name like Burgundy or Barolo associated with it. There are no huge brands like Yellowtail or Mondavi with wineries there. And the grapes grown in this region aren’t as widely known as international varieties like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay.
To many American wine drinkers, “wine” and “Toro” is likely an unfamiliar pairing. But to the people that live there, the union is everything.
Residents of Toro and its smaller surrounding villages have an intricate relationship with their wines. Most carry positions that are directly related to a winery–either as mastermind wine makers, business-savvy export managers, hospitality staff in tasting rooms, or laboring hand-harvesters in the vineyards.
I arrived in the little Spanish town on the cusp of the most important time of the year–the almighty grape harvest, which directly impacts the life of the town for months to come. The amount of grapes grown, the success of the harvest, and the quality of the year’s vintages determines not only whether or not there will be another harvest season next year, but also the finances of the families involved in the town’s largest industry.
Needless to say, the entirety of Toro relies on its annual harvest, and this year especially a flourishing one was desperately needed by most wineries. After a measly two days of rain in the entire growing season, grape yields were significantly lower than last year’s and with a financial crisis and unemployment rate of over 25% in Spain looming over their heads, the pressure to succeed was higher than before.
Luckily, the most widely grown grape in the region, Tinta de Toro, a strain of tempranillo, has adapted well to stress before. The vines planted here are rumored to be the oldest in the world. Many have been producing rich fruits for over a century, and were some of the very few to survive the destructive Phylloxera plague that destroyed vineyards across Europe.
Everything about Tinta de Toro is huge, including the grape itself. With a very thick and dark skin, it produces wines with deep red colors, rich tannins, higher alcohol content, explosive aromas and distinctive flavors expressive of the dry terrain of the area. In fact, the wines have personalities that are so big and bold, that food should be required with a glass.
On the eve of harvest season, I sat watching the lively small town center in Toro at 11 at night. This evening was different than the Sundays before. Many of the bars would not reopen the next day, or any evenings after that until the following weekend, when workers would seize the opportunity to unwind before harvest activities resumed again on Monday. As the sun rose the very next morning, the town would bid farewell to the long, hot days of summer and welcome the beginning of the most important time of the year.
Early the next day, I accompanied Antony Terryn, wine maker at the small producer Bodega Dominio del Bendito, as he directed harvesters working in the vineyards. He told me how hopeful he was to introduce his wines to the US market in the upcoming year. Antony must have been feeling intense pressure to produce a quality wine with this year’s grapes because he was deeply involved in a grape-picking frenzy during my entire visit.
One of his workers even called him “Einstein of the Grapes”–a little manic in his methods, but genius nonetheless. Instead of harvesting all of his grapes at once, he selectively picks small plots in bunches as they are approaching or are at their absolute ripeness, but never any later.
“I would rather pick two days early than two days late,” said Antony as I struggled to keep up with him. “Too many growers lose good grapes by waiting too long–it’s stupid.”
One of the wineries still anticipating an official declaration of harvest season was Bodegas Fariña. When I pulled up to their winery prepared to pick grapes the very next day, I was decked out in laboring attire, but quickly found out I was a bit ambitious too early in the week.
Manu Fariña, part of the third generation of the family to carry on the winemaking traditions, met me at the door. “We’re waiting any minute for the grapes to be ready,” he said. “Their ripeness has to have the perfect levels of sugar and acidity, but it’s not there quite yet. Harvest should begin in just a couple short days, though.”
Instead of spending my morning hand harvesting as I had planned, I assisted Manu in monitoring the winery’s many vineyards and the humidity status of their grapes. The calculations he made later would determine the perfect first date, when the vines would meet a pair of clippers, and the grapes would finally make the journey from the vineyard to the winery. Until then though, Manu remained concerned about the possibility of forecasted rain.
“If it’s been such a dry summer, shouldn’t a little bit of rain be helpful this week?” I didn’t understand why a little bit of water was anything to be so worried about.
“No, no, no! Less water is needed in September compared to other months,” he corrected me. “We want high quality grapes when we pick and rain changes the humidity levels in our vines.”
Continuing with the trend of a not-so-lucky growing season, it drizzled later that night, and Fariña’s harvest was delayed a bit further. The risk of picking grapes during bad weather conditions or when they aren’t ripe enough impacts the wines-to-be. And with a drastically smaller amount of harvestable grapes this year, the chance just couldn’t be taken.
While the grape harvest is nothing to be taken lightly in Toro, it isn’t always so stressful and demanding. The people of Toro know how to take pleasure in and carry on their wine traditions, too. My friend Nicola and her family, who all work in some sector of the wine business, grow their own grapes in order to create their own vintage for the year. They keep two stainless steel tanks of it in their garage to be drunk with meals throughout the year. Instead of feeling the intense pressure to make an award-winning and profitable wine, the family reminded me that wines from Toro are first and foremost, for the people.
“Look—English, American, Romanian and Spanish,” said a young girl Cassie as she smiled and pointed to a range of people included in the group. She had noticed the diversity of all involved and seemed to be impressed by wine’s ability to bring people together.
The end of the first week of the harvest was a monumental moment, and the nearby village, Morales de Toro, celebrated with their annual harvest festival. Wineries from the Toro area set up tasting tables for their wines and local meat, cheese, and bread shops offered samples of their food. Children of the village volunteered to pour wines from the stands.
“You’d never find this in America,” my friend Nicola laughed as she drank wine from her husband’s winery, “A day-long free wine tasting, all being served by children.”
She was right. It’s uncommon to find employees of competing companies peacefully and happily gathered together to celebrate the one and only product they are all trying to sell. But that is exactly what is so special about the wines of Toro. The greatest qualities of these wines aren’t their gripping tannins, earthy and leathery aromas, or tastes of blackberry jam. Instead, they lie in the dedication and devotion of the people that helped craft them with care and attention.
Many people say that a glass of wine has the ability to take you back in time to when you last enjoyed that bottle. But it can also bring you places you’ve never been, merging your life with the lives of people you’ve never met before. I know I will forever hear the story of the town and its people when I drink these wines from Toro. Anybody can really, should they choose to listen.