What Five Visionaries Taught Me About Resistance & Wine

The Gratallops Project, Priorat & A Celebration of Resistance

Resist much, obey little.

Walt Whitman

From the cellar of Clos de L’Obac

The current war in Ukraine has had me thinking a lot about resistance.

Being an American and a student of history, the concept of resistance is deeply rooted in my DNA. Without resistance, the country I live in would not have been born.

Americans take great pride in their history of resistance.

And much of the world is celebrating the resistance of the Ukrainian people today.

Resistance is one of our most celebrated human qualities, not the the least of which because resistance is a key ingredient in growth. 

But the war in Ukraine is not my topic here today.

Neither politics nor religion—the two topics my mother taught me were of poor etiquette to discuss in unknown company—will find a voice in this blog.

But resistance is and has always been a fascination of mine, and so I wish to give that some of my time here.

Indeed, it was embracing resistance to the status quo, resistance to living inside of a comfort zone, that allowed me to experience the last several years—learning wine, traveling Western Europe and meeting with and learning from master wine makers, purchasing and converting to Airbnbs our current properties, moving from New York to Texas and meeting my beautiful partner.

I would credit resistance as being responsible for everything I consider to be good in my life today, as what preceded resistance—for me, at least—was a complacency, an acceptance of the present rather than a rejection of, or resistance to it. It is resistance that I continue to embrace today.

Resistance to the obstacles and problems and adversities that any new entrepreneur would be familiar with. It is a quality—if not first modern physics—that to resist is to be human.

And some of the humans I celebrate today are those who resurrected a small province in Catalonia, Spain, and delivered to the world some of the most exquisite wine.

Phylloxera Almost Makes Wine Extinct

Wine is a history of resistance.

For without a cultivation of resistance, the world would not have any wine. That is by no means an exaggeration.

In the late 1870s, the phylloxera insect—native to eastern Northern America— was introduced to France and in the span of just 20 years systematically decimated the majority of the world’s grapevines.

There was so much panic over the unknown killer, that the French government offered the equivalent in today’s dollars of a $800,000 reward for the the discovery of the cause and cure of the epidemic (despite the cause and cure being identified by a viticulturist from Texas, the reward was never paid).

The solution was to graft European vines onto American rootstock, which were resistant to phylloxera. The people and vines of the wine world resisted the global war the phylloxera insect was waging, and saved wine as we know it.

Nearly every vine of wine grape today, with few exceptions, is a resistant vine, grafted onto American rootstock.

So you can say without humor that resistance is in wine’s DNA. Resistance is the only—the ONLY—reason any of us know what a glass of wine tastes like today.

Gratallops, Resistance & Rebirth

Now let’s fast forward 100 years and cross the Pyrenees from France into Spain, and where there is waiting for us a remarkable story of resistance I wish more people outside of the wine world can know.

It is your classic rags to riches story, a Rocky Balboa origin tale, where an unknown pauper albeit with natural and exceptional talents finds itself among the elite princes of the wine world.

It is a story of resistance in a municipality of just 225 people in the Catalonian region of Spain, where five friends decided the land under their feet was orders of magnitude more special than anyone else thought, and refused to allow this special place to go gentle into that good night.

The municipality is Gratallops, in the heart of Priorat, a two-hour drive east of Barcelona.

The winemaking history here dates back to the 12th century, though wine growing has been a principal activity since the 18th century, along with almonds and olives. But for most of the 1900s the agricultural region was in decline.

Phylloxera arrived in the 1880s, and in less than a decade not a single vine remained alive.

Priorat’s environment is quite unforgiving, with rocky terrain and long, hot, dry summers and frigid winters, and the soil was ultimately left untended by workers departing for work in cities like Barcelona and Tarragona.

In the last fifty years of the 19th century the population of Gratallops declined by nearly 40%. And that was after the first fifty years of the century witnessed a 50% decline. By the late 1970s the wine made in the region was mass production, the antithesis to the quality the region had before phylloxera a century earlier.

But resistance was brewing.

In 1979 five friends who knew better than to disregard the gold that lay in the soil formed a cooperative and replanted old vine Garnacha, Cariñena and Tempranillo (and by “old vine” we are talking about vines north of 60 years old and sometimes as old as 100 years or more).

Old vines produce low yields, and as a result the wines here are deep and dark, powerful and structured, with dried red and black fruits, licorice, tar and lots of rich minerality, and capable of aging well for decades and more.

It was a decade after those first replantings that each of the group of friends pooled all of their wine and released their first vintage (in 1989) and sold it under five different labels (they wanted to showcase the region and what it was capable of, rather than focus on individual wine makers….oddly, there was some variety in the reviews the wines received despite all being exactly the same content in the bottles).

They did the same in 1990 and 1991 before operating independently.

Besides their care of the wine making process being exceptional to anything the region had seen in 100 years, they also had the fortune of having their first vintage in 1989 reviewed by the famous wine critic Robert Parker (whose simple comment on a wine can decide a family’s ability to (or not) earn a living off of their passion).

He raved about the wine, Priorat was (back) on the wine map and was ultimately awarded the highest category in Spanish wine designation (Rioja is the only other region in Spain to have the honor), as the region’s wines began commanding hundreds of dollars a bottle (if not more in some cases), and the rest as they say, became history.

Vall Llach & Porrera

What to do with a wine barrel when past its prime

Roger walked me through the Vall Llach cellar as he told me the story of their founding. But not before telling me that they don’t do tours on weekdays unless they have clients in town.

He said only because I had written to them about recently passing my sommelier certification that they made an exception for me.

It was early on a Tuesday, and I found him smiling behind the small shop’s counter. He was excited about the birth of his daughter just a few days ago. He sounded as proud to share the news of his daughter’s birth as he did the birth of the winery.

We are twenty minutes west of Gratallops in the town of Porrera, population 440.

Vall Llach’s story is beautiful.

A renowned Catalonian singer returns to the home of his mother and decides he wants to invest in the small and struggling town.

A local cooperative had been buying from the farmers the town’s principal crop, wine grapes, for about twenty cents per kilo and paying the farmers out years later when the crop was finally released as bottled wine.

This was both onerous for the farmers and one should argue, unfair, and so they began to turn to almonds and hazelnuts which paid more than grapes, and sooner.

The singer brings in a partner, and together they rent out one of the buildings of the cooperative and begin buying the grapes from the farmers for $2-3 per kilo and paying immediately.

Wait for it…

Yes, the farmers now abandon almonds and hazelnuts for grapes again because grapes are now a decent living.

This all happens a year after the five friends in Gratallops release their first celebrated vintage.

While the population hasn’t grown much in the thirty or so years since, there are now seventeen wineries in Porerra. Looking at old photos of the town, it looks like it hasn’t changed at all in a hundred years. But it’s still on the map.

Like Gratallops, it didn’t die because a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens decided they wanted to change their world, decided they would resist.

There is nothing I love better than a good comeback story. Stories of resistance, of refusal to let a town or a population perish, of invigorating life and investment back into an area that is naturally rich in resources and potential.

Visionaries who are able to see past the history and present and imagine a future they believe they can build.

“They’re Beautiful, Aren’t They?”

A view of the Priorat landscape from my car

At the conclusion to Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Santiago, the boy protagonist of the story, after experiencing a wild journey that takes him from his home and across the deserts and where he is almost killed, he returns to his home and shouts up at the sky.

“You old sorcerer! You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of  gold at the monastery so I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you [what your journey would involve], you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Sometimes we don’t understand or appreciate the full story, our story, the story of the place where we live.

Sometimes we need to leave where we are, for a time, so that we may have the opportunity to return.

So that we may see and experience something important, something beautiful.

The Priorat region of Spain is incredibly beautiful. And I would never have experienced it had I not decided to leave where I was for someplace I had never been.

Mountains always in the immediate background.  Steep slopes of green and yellow and brown.  Tracks that bend around the mountainsides, ascending and descending steeply like a stadium.

The drive is often a bit frightening—the lanes just not feeling wide enough for the car, no guardrail on the right separating you from the edge of an almost straight descent down hundreds of feet.  

Priorat is like stepping back in time decades with its tiny villages and lack of technology (good luck getting a cell signal in most of it).

And I enjoyed everything about it—its remoteness, having to drive 25 minutes along the aforementioned roads to find a grocery store, having to go less than ten minutes in any direction to find wineries with rich history and delicious wine.  The Serra Major mountains watching over it all in austere silence.

It’s something when you can find a part of the world still resisting the seemingly endless march towards what passes for modernization today, and instead, honors what has always made and continues to make it beautiful.

And just maybe the devastation of phylloxera, the obsession with profits and the abuse of the ever dwindling population, for a hundred years, was the requisite journey for what Priorat has become today–a study in resistance, and how without it growth is impossible.

The next time your time permits, why not pour yourself a glass of Priorat, raise it high, and make a promise to yourself that you are going to resist something tomorrow.

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Published on: April 26, 2022  -  Filed under: Wine & Food  -  Tagged: , , , ,

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