Drinking The Chef Travel Wine

Howard Roark Sipped

My travels this summer were rich with first time experiences. My premier visit to Bordeaux, time trial for the Tour de France, El Bulli (more on that later), many vignerons, great wine, plush landscapes, and fabulous meals – the classic road trip.  As a follow up to a recent NYT article on small family Bordeaux winemakers, the meeting of one Monsieur Jean-François Fillastre is one of my fondest summer memories.

After arriving from a beautiful drive to St. Julien, passing famous chateaux and estates, laced with breathtaking vines under vast blue skies and golden sunshine, is a sleepy town where Mr. Fillastre resides.  His house is difficult to find.  The house number is curiously skipped as if part of some plan to keep him from interruption from outsiders.

Looking like lost tourists, an older woman emerges and asks if she can help.   After announcing our intentions, she disappears, acting as a screener of sorts.  Another interested party opens her shutters and points to the rear of the alley, where perhaps the domicile is located.

Having sufficiently made it through two checkpoints, Mr. Fillastre reveals himself.  He is a tall man with impressive forearms, a sun-soaked visage and wry, discerning smile.  He is dressed in khakis, an Izod polo, and work shoes, sooted from fresh soil.

He leads us to a garage, thus truly defining the term “garagiste”, and the moldy frost and cobwebs on the walls reveal a room full of barrels and old bottles, a treasure trove of labor in the vineyards.

Mr. Fillastre seems a bit distracted and is not overly chatty.  His tone is measured and seemingly cryptic at first, as if he had yet to trust our motives.  But reading between the lines, there stood a man with great passion and sense of duty to the vines.  It seemed the only important virtue to him at all.

Domaine Jaugeret is a story about a family of winemaking tradition, an historic continuation of  viticulture and expression of terroir, a practical, agricultural labor of bringing the best out of the earth naturally.

Indeed, it is evident that Mr. Fillastre is concerned with making wine for himself and his own pleasure.

We taste wines from a few recent vintages using a pipette that he made for himself when he was a young man learning the glassblowing trade.

How about technology?

It is not bad, to a point.

I don’t demand of the wine, it demands of me.

Just before lunch, he asks us to choose two among three select bottles.  Standing side by side on a wine crate – ’82,’90, and 2001 vintages.  I sheepishly point to the ’82 first, and then the ’90, naturally.

As we sat at a nearby restaurant with classic Bordelaise fare, duck, gratin, veal kidneys, and cheese, Mr. Fillastre opened up, offering opinions under direct questioning, revealing more and more of the man behind the wine.

When you are not drinking your wines, what do you drink?

I like to drink my wines.

How about rosé?

That is not wine for me.

What about Champagne?

I love Champagne with oysters, a tiny bashful grin.

What type?

It doesn’t matter.

After tasting the ’82 and the ’90, we discussed its power and finesse.  Mr. Fillastre remarked at their purity, but did not let on if one was better than the other, only that the ’82 is more ready to drink.

I am a bit maniac.

True to form, Mr. Fillastre looked a bit mad at his admission.

But you have to, to be a winemaker.

Do you know that you are gaining popularity in the United States?


Do you drink other Bordeaux?

Not really.

Do you collaborate with other winemakers?

Not really.

No man is an island, but Mr. Fillastre works the land without concern for anything or anyone but the vines and his duty.  The result is wine with such purity and soul, only a “maniac” could have achieved such great results.

Mr. Fillastre has no heirs, just a brother who he claims he wouldn’t let near a vine, and so Domaine du Jaugaret is certainly in danger of being snapped up by a large corporation, which would indeed be very sad.  Just as the mom and pop joints in New York City have turned into a Starbuck’s, bank or Duane Reade, Bordeaux will also be a lesser place if many of the small farmers fade into history.

After lunch, Mr. Fillastre had one more surprise for us, an unlabeled bottle of some age.  A 1943 offering, peak and pure St. Julien, a testament to his father’s skill in an unheralded vintage, his birth year.

We left Mr. Fillastre as we envision him, sipping on his wine, enjoying the fruits of his father’s labor, having sent us away in astonishing gratitude.

The guardian neighbor emerges from her porch to bid her farewell.

Do you understand how great a man he is?

Now I do.

Dad's car 1927
Dom. Jaugaret Cave
Le Coq
Le Coq
Domaine de Jaugaret
1982 & 1990
Foie Gras
Le canard
Gratin Dauphinois
Official seal - Dom. Jaugaret
Monsieur Jean Francois Fillastre

Drinking Eating Experiences The Chef Travel Wine

Pais Vasco (Basque Country)

This is the second year that El Capitan and I have made a pilgrimage to Spain, in search of good food and wines.  Last summer, Galician culture in Ribeira Sacra, drinking delicious mencia and godello crafted from impossibly terraced vineyards along the Bibei river.  This time around donned our best berets to sample Basque culture along a breathtaking countryside surrounded by mountains and ocean vistas along the Cantabrian coastline. If not for the Spanish language, you would think you were in a different country altogether.  But the Basque share a love for food, wine and adventure too, a very Spanish, if not global virtue.

Visiting the bodegas that produce txakoli requires skilled driving and expert map skills, and we persevered by making most of our appointments with only a slight fender bender.  Anyone who has driven throughout Spain knows of its narrow streets and small jutting dividers, perilous for any driver.  But the long drives and wrong turns from time to time was well worth it.  If the view and winding turns are not enough incentives, then the thirst for txakoli during a hot and humid summer would serve as the reward for our efforts.

Txakoli is consumed mainly in the Basque country and is made up of hondarrabi zuri (white) and hondarrabi beltza (red).  The mostly white wine is meant to be consumed young, and often exhibit a slightly carbonic quality specific only to txakoli.  The wines are often tart, with racy acidity, and are quite a match for fresh seafood, although some Basque claim they drink txakoli with meat dishes as well.

Txomin and Ameztoi, in Getaria, are situated atop the mountains overlooking the beach, the water, and the French frontier.  Winemaking looks incredibly challenging, except for Bulb, the Txomin dog, who enjoys fetching sticks thrown over the rail into the abyss of vines, only to return shortly with tail wagging,  prize in mouth.   The style of txakoli in Getaria is decidedly more carbonated, and enhanced so by tall pours from high above the glass, to encourage further bubbles.  Young, tart, refreshing and delicious is the name of the game.  Txakoli is meant to be consumed within two years, and some wineries bottle to order to preserve freshness and peak drinkability.

In Bizkaiko, the style of txakoli vary considerably, and are not crafted for the sake of bubbles.  On the contrary, the aim is still to produce young tart wines, but with a bit more finesse, an attempt at a distinctive white wine without much carbonation. A good example can be found at vineyards such as Uriondo, which are located on more manageable hilltops, but have the benefit of being included in part of a natural ecosystem of other plants and animals.

Some projects are new, such as at Gurrutxaga, and are still honing a particular style.   At Doniene Gorrondona, they are branching out with a tinto (red) wine which is delicious and spicy.  Nextdoor neighbor to Txomin is Ameztoi, who produce the only rosado, and happens to be one of my favorites.  The contrast of styles from Arabako to Getaria to Bizkaiko are intriguing, but the result is definitely txakoli, and Basque in spirit.

Our home base was Bilbao, where, after glimpsing the Guggenheim and the famous dog, makes one hungry.  We sought out pintxos and txakolinas, as well as tippled aged Rioja which is on every wine list and reasonably priced.  At Casa Rufo, we enjoyed a LDH Blanco 1991 for 21 euros!  The real highlight meal was at Etxebarri, a renowned asador with masterful smoking techniques.  Located in the ancient town of Axpe, the restaurant is faced by a soaring mountain.  I am not a huge of fan of smoked foods because often the dishes are oversmoked, flavors of the ingredients lost in a sea of black char.  But at Etxebarri, each dish is masterfully misted with smoke, like a soft cloud enhancing the natural juices.

Txakoli has become quite accessible in New York City and other parts of the U.S., and I believe it is a great addition to any wine list, not just for Spanish restos.  At Pata Negra, I rotate producers every couple of months, as I feel txakoli can be consumed year round.  After all, it matches quite well with jamon iberico.

Next stop on the journey, Barcelona, where tapas is on the mind.  Please check out the feature on Txakoli in the NYTimes as well as the ensuing photo gallery for highlights.

Txakoli Vines
Uriondo Vines
Ameztoi Vines
View at Gurrutxaga
View of Txomin Extaniz
Bulb, Txomin mascot
Father at Uriondo
Uriondo Vines
Doniene Gorrondona distillery for Orujo
Txakoli at Getaria Port
Gambas at Getaria Port
Almejas at Getaria Port
Fish for two at Getaria Port

Smoked Spinach soup at Etxebarri
Smoked butter at Etxebarri
Smoked Sea Cucumber at Etxebarri
Smoked Belons at Etxebarri
Smoked Belons at Etxebarri
Smoked Mussels at Etxebarri
Smoked Gambas at Etxebarri
Smoked Rape ate Etxebarri
Smoked Beef at Etxebarri
Smoked Ice Cream
Smoked Salmon at Casa Rufo, Bilbao
'91 LDH Tondonia at Casa Rufo
Chuleton at Casa Rufo
Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

NOLA Bound

After a long respite from one of the best food cities of North America, I am heading back to New Orleans for a look-see.    Follow me on twitter for the food and cocktail trail.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food Travel Wine

Ribeira Sacra Day 2

Breathing mountain air facilitates resounding rest, and shortly after an early rise and a  quick cortadito, El Capitan and I were met by a two car entourage of winemakers, led by Raul Perez, winemaker of El Pecado and Leirana, and joined by Pedro Rodriguez, who produces Guimaro.  Also present, Luis, an enologist, and Rodrigo, a winemaker in Rias Baixas.

The ride to the vineyard was even more treacherous than the day before, the highlight being a stop near a 2,000 year old Roman iter near the Bibei river.  Conditions were muggier too, and for some reason communication proved difficult.  It was hard to translate, as too much information was being rattled off at an alarming rate of speed.  Winemakers can be passionate, so much so that they want you to know everything about their wines.  But we were looking for a sense of history and place, and so much got lost in translation because they had a different agenda. Our questions were never answered directly, but this may have been just the Galician way.

Through the quagmire, however, we did corroborate much of what we had learned on day one.  Winemaking had been a family occupation since Roman times.  Each family had different parcels and made wine for themselves, any leftover to be sold in bulk.  Cultivation was difficult to terrain, and so terraces were built for safety.  Much of the winemaking process was done on site in sheds, small hillside structures for sorting and pressing.  Much of the wine was sold to people of Lugo across the mountain ranges.  After World War II, young people started to leave the agrarian lifestyle for big cities and job opportunities, leaving the arduous work to the elders.  This trend continued until the 1990’s, when some of the youth decided to return to become farmers again, disillusioned with a capitalist and urban lifestyle.  Although the quality of the wine is controlled by the DO, certain producers are resisting the homogenous style in favor of making very uniquely terroir driven godello and mencia.  These wines have a potential for fine aging and hark back to the tradition of making wine for oneself.

It was a long day of tasting and information, much of it technical and academic.  By lunchtime things were smoothed over by an invitation for a family meal at Pedro’s mom’s house.  The structure, a typical display of Galician stone masonry and wooden beams, sported a long layout of warm rooms fit for mountain lodging.  The most interesting being the kitchen, with a natural rainfall runoff sink and wood burning oven that his 90 plus year old grandmother insists on using.  Feeding the flames with vines is integral to the flavor.  As we sat down for a typical Galician feast, 27 bottles were being uncorked and prepared for tasting, a dizzying number that I was sure would be blurred by bottle number 12.  The most interesting bottle may have been the first one, a thirty year old albarino from a female friend of the family producer in Rias Baixas without a label, a lime green bottle that delivered absolute pleasure and wonder of the grape varietal.

The food onslaught was intense, and intended for us to cry mercy.  I was up to the task but finally conceded by dessert.  A plate of Rias Baixas oysters to start, followed by an alluring plate of warm goose barnacles, a task which lets you suck out the marrow of life.  It took a few squirting mishaps for El Cap and I to get the hang of these curious delicacies, even though I have had them before.  “Break the claw open and suck the life out of the shell,” Luis suggested.  The enologist was the talker of the group, a former basketball player who clearly loved food and wine, but was strangely observing a diet and always talking, or complaining, which we soon learned was the Galician way.

Celtic Charcuterie


27 wines

Walk into an empty Galician restaurant without reservation or warning, and the owner may look at you gloomily.  Moreover, he will err on the side of negativity, rattling off some inane excuses about being fully booked, and how you should have called.  What if I get overbooked?  Even though there is barely a soul in sight.  Then with a gleeful sigh, he will act is if he bent over backwards to seat you, and give you some time limit restriction or nudge as to what he wants you to order.  Lest you somehow figure out a way to screw him.  And that is how it appeared with the winemakers, that somehow we were there to screw them, or that we were going to report about their wines in a way that would be screwy, if you get my drift.

So the enologist was regaling us about how he went to the doctor for a rectal exam, and how he wouldn’t let them do it.  I damn near fell off the table translating the whole fiasco.  It turns out he is on a restrictive diet (four helpings instead of six-welcome to my world), and they’ve rescheduled.  Perfect dinner convo!  Every other turn of discussion had him surely taking it up the backside, and his symbol for his virginity being taken looked like a perverted version of Tiger Woods’ fist pump after a made birdie.   Whether it was town politics, or the DO, or the weather, somehow Luis was getting it, and he was going to take it, but not quietly.

At one point, after sitting next to him so attentively (grandma lost her hearing and was able to sit in the background, blissfully unaffected), Pedro’s mother tried to get a word in edgewise.  “But will you let me speak,” he erupted.  At which point I rose from my feeding frenzy to retort, “But you have been the only one speaking for the last two hours.”  That earned kudos and raucous laughter from his peers, and really loosened up the festivities.

An empanada with pork ribs (bone-in), hit the table.  “Save the pastry for the dog,” Pedro’s mom advised.  A plate of Galician choucoutre was next, minus the sauerkraut, but full of sausages and potatoes.  Tortilla from house eggs, celtic pig ham, pig jowls, chorizo, a 15 month old rooster killed in our honor served in a stew, chick peas, and more lacon.  Then a speed tasting of the twenty seven wines.  It was too hard to keep up and take notes, so I just drank what I liked.  I got the impression that this type of family meal occurs frequently, and that we were getting a glimpse of real Galician life.  Eat, drink, argue and enjoy!


By the time dessert rolled around, a bica cake, flan, cookies and a coconut custard, we were four hours into the repast and busting at the seams, a second serving of cake was accompanied with a house made espresso liqueur which was irresistible.  The highlight was a wheel of manchego cured in olive oil for one year.  What a revelation! Out came the Cohibas, long ones, and turns by the window to enjoy fresh air.  Talk turned to wine and Ribeira Sacra, and plans were made for a party later that evening, if we could survive the late siesta.


Weather was not on our side, and the party was moved indoors to a local pub in Monforte near the river.  The only cure was a cold caña, and Rocio, the birthday woman of honor, was buying the drinks, as per Galician custom.  We met so many fun people that night, and I switched to Havana Club and coke, my de facto European drink of choice.

It was under the drizzle that Pedro opened up, and communication was facile and interesting.  The informal venue away from the wine was the right environment, and El Cap and I learned a lot.  We met a German woman working as an architect and dating a Gallego.  She claimed she could not get used to the large weekly feasts.  I was of course jealous.  We turned into pumpkins by one a.m.  How entirely unSpanish of us.

We left Ribeira Sacra amidst lugubrious conditions, with a real sense of terroir and tradition, and an understanding that in Spain, under such Celtic climate and agrarian roots, lives a people who, cautious and pretending to look at life through a glass half empty, in actuality celebrating life to the fullest, a glass half full in my book.

The next leg of our journey was La Rioja, where the most familiar Spanish wine was crafted.  Our excitement was palpable, a piece of us left in Galicia.

Drinking Eating Experiences Food The Chef Travel Wine

Ribeira Sacra Day One, Part II

The journey back to the parador was perilous, in that my stomach was turned inside out from the adventurous route through the mountains.  After a splash of the face, and a heart rate return to normal after the pulpo gallego extravaganza at dizzying altitudes, Ramon was waiting in the parking lot for a drive to his vineyards.  We were already prepped for beauty and stunning views, but his vineyards (three in all) were breathtaking and distinctly different in their own rights.

He insisted on being called Moncho, and presented himself in a matter of fact fashion.  He wanted to chat about animals and his job as a veterinarian, that the winemaking was just family tradition.  He gave us a good recount of the viticultural movements by era, and before it could get too technical we were upon the caneiro river.

The plot looked like it was blessed by the river breezes and emboldened by the northerly sunlight.  The combination of shad to light to breeze surely put the caneiro vines in an advantageous locale.  But Moncho did not talk technical wine geek speak.  Rather it was about the families who have been cultivating for years, doing what they do for themselves as part of being farmers and ultimately true Galicians.

We visited his two other plots which were impressive but not as marvelous as caneiro.  The feeling on the slopes was a mixed bag of envy, and fear of the treacherous work necessary to love the land enough to continue producing wine for the family as a hobby and part of tradition that dated back to Roman times.

To understand the true meaning of Ribeira Sacra, Moncho felt it necessary to visit the religious side of the community.  He first brought us to an old church where the caretaker rocked in her chair several hundred meters away in town.  She accompanied us to the door revealing a classic expression of Galician stone craftsmanship, vaulted by a carved wooden ceiling and Spartan testament towards worship. P1000190

The next stop was a monastery, where as a boy Moncho learned to tend to the animals, and later as a doctor healing sick livestock.  For payment, the nuns would bake wondrous cakes of marzipan and local fruits.  To this day he visits them, still communicating through the old revolving portal system – contact with outsiders physically being strictly prohibited.

Transfixed on the monastery grounds under a great cypress tree in the midst of absolute solitude brought me back to the top of Dominio do Bibei, an experience of solace and contemplation, prayer if you will.  Ribeira Sacra is a sacred place because the people value family, tradition, and the power of prayer, soaking in the natural surroundings and way of life as a true gift from above.  Hence the soul of the Ventura family wines reflects these values.

A pit stop in town at Bar Caracas for a late cortadito was colorful.  The gentlemen were fiercely playing cards.  MariCarmen, the lady at the bar regaled us with stories of her days in Venezuela.  El Cap and I basked in the moment of good coffee, and especially the way of life that has not changed much for the elders present, the slow roll that is Galicia.

Back at the family winery, Moncho showed us his digs.  At the back of a very old house is a separate room with stainless steel vats and bottling assembly line.  Cases of wine from his small production not to far in the garage distance.  Mom and Pop greeted us eagerly, and we were made to feel at home immediately.  We tasted a barrel sample or two of the 2008 crop, and were promptly seated to a family style meal as if we were neighbors just dropping in at the right time.

The display of a cured Celtic ham leg lay in plain view at all times, as we devoured ham and chorizo.  His mom made tortillas to order, and it took real discipline to stop after the third one.  The farm fresh potatoes and eggs, the glistening façade yielding a runny interior – tortilla perfection.  Moncho’s dad ran around looking for old bottles for us to drink, and Moncho argued with his dad about his stash of older vintages.

The 2007 Pena de Lobo was juicy with granite character, while the 2007 Caneiro, was fresh, young, lively and a bit denser.  Both paired sublimely with the ternera (veal chops).  We finished up with a local cheese, arzua ulloa and house made membrillo, our stomachs once again expanding and challenged to fit in one last bite.P1000212

Moncho talked about being visited by his importer, who advised him not to make blends, but instead to feature single plot vineyards for his cuvees.  He did not seem preoccupied with vino mumbo jumbo, just concentrates on making honest, good wine.  His father expressed concern about the young people, and how they were not interested in hard work any more.  He seemed robust to me, and happy to still be working his land.

The darkness masked the mountains on the way back to the parador, and El Capitan and I ended the evening with two Cohiba cigars I had been gifted from my new friend in Madrid.  They burned slowly as we recapped the day.  I wondered if it could get any better.  El Cap responded that each winery visit is different, but that the exhilaration of the day ranked high on his list.  Overlooking Monforte de Lemos at night, with the Galician breeze, the luminescent stars, and shiny moon, our cigar smoke billowing through the dark blue sky, fatigue finally crept in, the emotional and mental exhaustion of a truly magical place taking its necessary toll.