Shortly after I’d begun to write about wine, I signed on for a group press trip to the northern Spain regions of Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Toro and Cigales. I arranged to rent a car and do some additional winery visits at the end of the week to support a feature story I’d pitched on Ribera del Duero.
Like any trip in Spain, days were long. Visits began at 8:30 am. Then we’d usually have a big regional cata (tasting) towards midday, followed by a long lunch, some free time (during which all the local stores were closed) and then more winery visits, with dinner at a winery beginning around 10:00 p.m.
There were maybe five other journalists on the trip, all of whom seemed to have beef with one another over the course of the week we were together. On our last evening, one of them cried in the backseat of the minibus, while another contentedly and obliviously puffed on a cigar into the wee hours with our winery hosts.
I was so looking forward to my own little excursion. I’d lined up visits at some of the region’s heavy hitters, including Mauro
and Vega Sicilia
, among others.
On the morning everyone else left, I walked to the train station in Valladolid to pick up my rental car. I filled out the paperwork, picked up the keys and went out to where my little hatchback was parked. I opened the door and started to get in, then reversed, shut the door and went back inside the office.
“Excuse me, there must be some mistake,” I said. “I specifically requested an automatic transmission.”
The young lady behind the counter looked at me as if I were a martian. I wasn’t sure if she just hadn’t understood my panicked English, so I played the ugly American and repeated myself. S-l-o-w-l-y.
This time, she shook her head. “This is all we have.”
“But I asked for an automatic.”
“Maybe they have those in Madrid, señor, but not here.”
Well, there’s no better time to learn than the present and no better vehicle to learn on than a rental, right? After all, I knew the principle of working a clutch and gearshift, just had never actually done it. I headed back out to the car, loaded in my suitcase and slid behind the wheel. Then I warmed up with a couple of slow laps around the parking lot.
“This isn’t so hard,” I said to myself, as I pulled into traffic and headed for my day’s first appointment at Abadía Retuerta
On the way out of town, there was a long upgrade with a traffic light. Of course, it was red. Off to the left was a paramilitary-looking base. Behind me, waiting to make that left, was a van with a couple of olive-clad guys visible in my rearview mirror.
The light turned green. I eased up on the clutch and down on the accelerator. And I stalled. Again. And again. I could see the guys behind me waving their arms.
As I was giving it another try, I heard a screech, followed by a crash. Someone had rear-ended the van behind me, no doubt misled by the green light overhead. Men in uniforms poured out of the vehicle and one approached me on the driver’s side, yelling in Spanish.
Just then, I finally succeeded in getting the car into gear. Damned if I was going to stop now.