For a Friday morning we got out of bed pretty early and got down to the bar for a couple of double espressos made like they should always be made – strong but not bitter and hot enough to stay that way for more than a minute. Northwest baristas should spend some time in Spain so they can learn to serve a proper pull. I’m not disparaging all baristas, but you slackers know who you are. Now we are ready to jump into the shuttle and off to the airport to get our Avis rental car.
When we arrived back at the airport to pick up our rental car, I was impressed with Pamela’s decision to go with electronic navigation. It later proved to be a lifesaver. It was more like, “I’m not getting in that car with you without one”. Pamela hates maps. I can find anything. However, the Tom–Tom was a coveted accessory by the time we made it to Ribera Del Duero. The lack of clearly marked road signs and the use of rotaries at every intersection made navigating while driving a stick shift (the first time in over 17 years) slow, awkward and near impossible. If I do not say it enough I am lucky to have married such an intelligent woman. Spending three weeks driving around Spain made that last statement even more relevant as the trip progressed on.
Leaving the airport en-route to Valladolid, we took toll roads that made you pay every couple of miles. It wasn’t the amount it was just the annoyance of stopping that often that was making it irritating. I was ready to do some serious driving in my fine Renault Clio and just a few moments out of the Madrid suburbs we started to climb. Soon we could see snow accumulated on the side of the road. It was not so threatening until I pulled into a service plaza on the toll road and realized it was two degrees Celsius. I am thinking I need to be a bit cautious with my driving then I witness something inside the restaurant-bar that really makes me sit-up and take notice. The server is pouring a shot of Brandy into the coffee of a truck driver and it’s only 10:30 AM. Now I know to be very careful around the trucks. Hopefully he had just finished a long night of driving and was ready to sleep.
As we headed down the other side of the mountain the terrain started to change to a significantly more rugged landscape that made you realize anything that survives here is tough. This explains why the wines from Ribera Del Duero are so huge in flavor and have so much character. Our first appointment was at Tinto Pesquera it was pretty easy to find but once we got there finding the reception area proved to be a bit daunting. After being greeted and introduced to the wife of Alejandro Ferdanez our host Eliza led us to a room across a windblown courtyard that was maybe (and I am being kind) four degrees Celsius. Absolutely too cold for any kind of hospitality activity to take place and hey we are from the Northwest where 60 degrees F marks the get out the shorts weather.
Once we were deposited in this god-awful cold tasting room (slash retail sales area) our host disappeared and did not come back for 15-20 minutes, I think they were hoping we would just leave. Just about the time we had given her up for lost she appeared and then the coveted wine tasting begins. It was pretty apparent our host wanted to be somewhere else and could not be done with this tasting soon enough. We tasted five wines and hastily purchased a couple of bottles. As we drove away, we discussed the afternoon appointment at Bodegas Condado de Haza and we really wondered if they would be a bit more gracious. We had reviewed some of their wines and arranged to visit quite a bit in advance so I am pretty sure they knew how serious we were about getting accurate information to pass along to all who take the time to read through my meanderings.
When we asked about where to go to lunch, Eliza was kind enough to let us know of all the lamb you can eat in Spain – the town of Peñafiel produces the best. I of course asked which restaurant and Eliza was quite adamant that we could choose any of them and it would be the best Lamb ever. She was correct on that. We entered Restaurante Maria Eugenia, a very non-descript family run establishment where there was one table and the bar as you entered. I’m sure they thought we were lost as they acted like non-locals never ventured into their establishment. The son of the owner was the maître d’. His name happened to be Marc also and he was quick to let us know he had spent a good amount of time in Southern California so he spoke a little English.
This roasted lamb meal turned out to be the culminate hospitality event of the entire journey. The house wine could compete with anything we had just tasted at Tinto Pesquera and the lamb we were served had been butchered no less than a couple of hours prior to being cooked. Once again, though Pamela was the only woman in the restaurant other than the employees. All other tables were occupied by working men who from time to time would glance our way with a look of curiosity. Shortly after we began our meal, a single young gentleman sat down and it was clear he was a regular. Turns out, he worked for the city of Peñafiel in the capacity of what we here would call economic development and his English was very good making our conversation with the owners much easier. As we departed, I felt no matter how long it would be before we returned, we would be greeted like family, and experiences like that are priceless.
We found our hotel relatively easy to find because of the huge billboards for Hacienda Abascal and its two starred Michelin restaurant Darius River Cafe that were featured coming and going between Valladolid and Peñafiel. Now making it down the driveway was a bit harder. Our little Renault Clio had maybe a couple of inches to spare on either side. This is a luxury hotel/vineyard/ winery and looks quite large as you approach. Turns out, they have only five rooms. When you enter, you have to be buzzed in like a New York apartment. I would have expected at a luxurious hotel such as this you would be greeted at the driveway by a doorman. Not so here.
As you enter on the first floor, there are no guest facilities on that floor. The winery barrel room and production area take up the entire first floor. Right inside the front door is the elevator and stairs that go up two more floors. The lobby, restaurant, tasting room and hotel rooms is all on the second floor the third floor has a beautiful lounge area and a rooftop vineyard with restaurant seating outdoors on the courtyard overlooking the vast landscape that is Ribera Del Duero. As you exit the elevator to check in you are literally at the front desk. You are also a couple of feet from the dining room of Darius River Café. In fact, if three rooms tried to check in at the same time someone would have to wait in the parking lot. Beautiful place – odd configurations. After checking in, you drag your bags through the dining room/lobby down a long hall that overlooks the cellar barrel room, which is open for viewing and very beautiful. As we continued towards our room at the end of the hall was the tasting room for the winery was also on the second floor too. The room was absolutely beautiful. The amenities and design were minimalistic and high-tech blending into luxurious comfort. The view was to the West towards Peñafiel exposing a vast panoramic picture of vineyards and mountains in the background.
Being there in March it was still cold so they were not very busy and that was a good thing. We were worried the restaurant might be too busy being a Friday night and we hoped to see the chef at his best. Sergi Arola, a disciple and contemporary of Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame, who is somewhat of a big deal when it comes to chefs from Spain if having a few Michelin stars to his credit means anything, Sergi conceptualized the Darius River Café which is in the hotel. This was probably one of the biggest factors in making our decision to stay at this property. That and it sits right across the highway from the Vega Sicilia winery, probably one of the best in all of Spain.
After our wonderful lunch at the small local restaurant, we checked into our room and totally spaced our next winery visit that was supposed to be at Grupo Pesquera’s other Ribera Del Duero winery Bodegas Condado de Haza. Our forgetfulness might have been caused by the first winery we visited earlier that day. It was probably not so nice that we did not call to say we were not coming. Condado de Haza’s marketing person Conchi was concerned when we did not arrive or call. Out of her concern that we may have been lost or fell into nefarious circumstances she called her partner at Pesquera to check on us, the only one who knew where we were staying was Eliza from Pesquera and she obviously related the location to Conchi the contact we had for Condado de Haza.
Once we checked in, the front desk that had already been called by Conchi who was worried for us, called Condado de Haza back to let her know we arrived safely. About the time, we were headed up to the third floor deck and lounge the front desk phone rang as I was walking by and I was quite surprised when the concierge handed me the phone and said this is for you. It was our contact at Condado de Haza. Being somewhat embarrassed I accepted the receiver and made my apology for not calling to cancel. I thought it a very sweet gesture that they would go to such lengths to make sure we were OK. If you want to buy a wine that is readily available in most American markets from Ribera Del Duero you cannot find a better representation than Condado De Haza. We enjoyed the property where we were staying. Despite the configuration, it was luxurious and comfortable but beware in Spain if they say they have Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. It generally means it will only work in shared spaces, not in your room. But hey, at least we could get a signal and that’s more than we expected. As the evening approached, I was getting excited about dinner. They were offering seven courses with wines to match for only 75 Euros per person – a bargain I thought for a two star Michelin restaurant.
Now this next part comes in as part of what I previously referred to as configuration. When we walked into the dining room, I was a bit surprised to be seated by the same young lady who had checked us in. I probably should not have because when we arrived at the hotel there was only one other car there and this place is not exactly close enough to any residence where you could walk to work. How I knew there was only one other car there is because from the rooftop you can walk the entire circumference of the building.
We had called earlier to make reservations and let them know we would be ordering the tasting menu. Again for some odd reason we thought the place would be busy. As we dressed for dinner, we sampled a bottle of Tinto Pesquera and again I say our lunch carafe wine was just as good. They both serve really good wine however, the Pesquera was quite a bit more expensive.
The restaurant entrance was so close to the hotel hallway, we opened the door and we were in the restaurant. I was quite surprised when the first course came out without an amuse bouche preceding it and the young lady who served the food was the same person we watched cleaning the rooms as we arrived. We placed our order for the tasting and wine and courses started to appear. The first course featured a flatbread with local cheese and Iberico Ham. It was supposed to be wood fired but there were no char burns on the crust and the whole pie was way undercooked. My thoughts were “Well we are the first guest’s so maybe they will pull it together on the second course”. We were not quite so lucky. The second course was a consommé that was cloudy and luke warm. It was served with a Verdejo Blanco that was really good. Just as the soup was delivered, the phone at the front desk rang and our server left the dining room to answer it. Meanwhile the third course was about to arrive which meant we would also be changing wine. Our server was still on the phone, so out of the kitchen comes the same young lady who checked us in. She brought out the Hacienda ’05 Abascal Crinaza to be served with Hojaldre de verduras de la veg del Dureo con foie Micuit (puff pastry stuffed with local vegetables).
We later found out there are only two people working at the property during the slow season and they do it all – check in guests, cleaning rooms, giving wine tours, pouring wine in the tasting room, bringing room service, and yes, even cooking in the kitchen. In fact, these two lovely ladies are immortalized on the hotels website. On the home page to the upper left, their likenesses are silhouetted. A lot of responsibility and too many hats to wear to accomplish what was being asked of them in a luxury setting (five star rated) where expectations will be high. But let’s get back to the Sergi Arola conceptualized menu.
As it turns out he is never there but he did train the maids to make the food. As the first red wine was being removed to ready us for the next course the bottle was knocked over by our cook/server which spilled all over the table and me too. Luckily, I was wearing a navy blue sweater vest so I was fine but the server/cook was very embarrassed. From there on out she would top my glass off every time I took a sip.
Our next course was served with Durius Natural Reserve Syrah and as with the whole meal, the wines shined as the food struggled to be as tasty as it was pretty. But the cheese and the dessert were really good and the Durius Magister was also a standout. As the wine flowed and my realization I had made it to a somewhat remote part of Spain in a car with manual transmission and had not run over anybody or gotten lost I began to realize how special this all was despite the disappointment in the food that evening. Interestingly enough, I found out the restaurant has been replaced by another venue, “La Azotea” restaurant, overseen by Chef Javier Prieto (of the Momo, in Salmanca).
Our local lunch was emblazoned upon my taste memory like a calf being branded so the shoes to fill for my next meal needed a real team of culinary masters who cooked because they cared and not because it’s a routine in their day of many tasks. We retreated to our room after dinner and morning came with the results of a seven course wine dinner especially when your glass was never empty. I needed an espresso so I call to order and wow to my surprise the server who brings the breakfast is the same young lady who poured wine all over me the night before. Great coffee and pastries. We decided to venture into Valladolid because it was Saturday and no winery would see us. Seems it is a rarity to have Spaniards who will work on the weekend at least that is what the wineries claim. As we enter the city of Valladolid, I realize that it is a really big city, which surprises me because I never hear about anything happening in Valladolid. As we are driving around I spot this huge mall and it looks like they are busy so I guess I have to retract that will not work on weekend’s statement I guess that only applies to winery people and Lawyers.
But once again we get to shop like locals and this place has everything. I mean like a Macy’s like dept store to a food court and even a Burger King, Beer was .5 euro and the supermarket had a wall of Hams 12ft tall and 75ft long. Some were around 115e per kilo – is that actually possible? Why yes it is in fact that is in the upper range but nowhere near the top for us Americans that’s about $75 a pound for a ham with the bone, hoof and all in the purchase. I was wearing Nike tennis shorts and a Nike Olympic tennis jacket but either I had the whitest skin anyone had ever seen or they were wondering why I wore shorts at the end of winter. They were long shorts and very striking at that so it must have been the legs. I was intensely being observed and commented upon by old and young alike. So I think it was either the outfit (not yet released to European markets) or the fact that I am portly and mature.
We ate and shopped and it was wonderful. The supermarket actually had so many charcuterie offerings and then there was the Pan (bread) cheese, olives, roasted peppers, artichokes, wine and lest we not forget the foie gras.
We also grabbed a chocolate creamy dessert that was too good to even think about eating but when we got back to the room, our surroundings affirmed the zeal for a quality hotel room culinary experience. I am somewhat known for my ability to accomplish this feat as anyone who attended the Langtry Estate Hospitality Suite at the Princeville in Kauai around 1997 can attest to which includes most of Southern Wine and Spirits staff. I’m quite sure they thought the hotel provided the spread. So back to 2010 when we retreated back to the room after clothes shopping with slim results, and a boot investigation that would have made the Pink Panther proud.
I think the girls back at the Hotel were pleased we did not show our presence in the dining room. They were onto us as we took notes the night before and the habitual photography of all the dishes. I am quite sure there was a party in the community after we left Ribera Del Duero everywhere but the workingman’s restaurant where we had the lamb in Peñafiel with Marcos. Our Journey to Bilbao lies next. And I worry if the Clio will traverse that narrow driveway once again without incident. Maybe it is their sobriety test: a good one I must say because had I not been sober I would not have been able to traverse it.