Since I laid my hands several years ago on a photographic book of winery dogs from California and being a dog owner myself, I have always wanted to write about the loyal companions of Spanish wine producers. After all, they are part of their daily lives and also welcome us in the vineyard or the winery when we visit their owners.
Reading over this compilation of producers and their pets, dogs seem to generally be the winemakers’ best friends but they are not the only ones. Biodynamics have turned many wine properties into farms inhabited by horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, cows, chickens, geese, bees... In some cases horse ploughing has even replaced tractors.
Our first piece is dedicated to dogs. Behind the images above there are some endearing stories.
One of the most interesting figures among the new generation of producers in Bierzo, I visited Verónica Ortega a couple of months ago in her small winery in Valtuille de Abajo where oak vats rest alongside clay vessels and barrels. She welcomed me along with her three-year-old jack russell terrier.
Verónica brought Enzo from Cádiz, her hometown, after the Christmas break two years ago. One of her brother’s dogs, they got along so well during the holidays that “on the day I returned to Bierzo I got him in the car and sent a photo to my brother when we were halfway in Cáceres, as if I were running away with my boyfriend,” Verónica explains charmingly.
Enzo had no trouble to change the southern beaches for the northern, chilly vineyards of Bierzo. “He really fits in the life of a winemaker and enjoys seeing plenty of people and activity around -it is amazing how much he loves harvest time,” Verónica says. Enzo is very sociable, so he accompanies his master almost everywhere, including on some trips. “I just cannot leave him at home when I go out for a drink with friends; he enjoys the atmosphere even more than I do,” says Verónica, who acknowledges that Enzo has become an inseparable partner. “He makes me so happy, and I guess he is also happy to live with me. He loves being looked after and I’m sure he feels very much loved”.
Fino -the name is a dead giveaway- is a cute black Labrador who has a lot to do with Peter Sisseck's new venture that has had him travelling regularly to Jerez in southern Spain. While wine lovers anxiously await the first sherry by the man who makes the most expensive wine in Spain, Sisseck called his new friend after what he considers should be regarded as Spain’s greatest white wine.
Fino was a present from Carlos del Río, his partner in Jerez, owner of Hacienda Monasterio in Ribera del Duero (this was Sisseck’s first job in Spain) and a great dog lover. It seems that both Peter and Fino fell for each other during one of Sisseck’s trips to Jerez, so the Danish winemaker took his new companion to his farm in Valladolid.
The team working at Dominio de Pingus describes Fino as a very sociable and affectionate animal: he loves to lie at his master's feet and follows him everywhere. However, the numerous distractions in the farm also encourage Fino to enjoy a few mischievous escapades. After getting lost a couple of times, a GPS on his collar allows him to explore at his leisure.
The owner of Pago de los Balancines in Extremadura has such passion for dogs that he is also a professional mastiff breeder. Whether he talks about dogs or wine, Pedro Mercado always looks for historic and nature connections. “It doesn’t make sense to produce wine if it doesn’t root you to a certain place,” he points out.
This versatile architect from Madrid highlights the role of mastiffs as protectors of the livestock that helped the wool industry to become the driving force of Castille’s economy in past times. In the Mesta treaty (the Mesta was a powerful livestock association), Alfonso X the Wise granted mastiffs the same salary as shepherds. For Mercado, this dog breed allows a harmonious coexistence between farmers and nature: “They protect flocks while also preventing predators from being killed.”
Unsurprisingly, dogs feature prominently on Mercado’s top range of wines. Los Balancines Mastiffs Collection includes three single-vineyard wines made with three different varieties: Alicante Bouschet (also known as Garnacha Tintorera), Garnacha and Cabernet. “The Alicante Bouschet was the first to be released,” Pedro recalls. “On the label was Boj, my most beloved mastiff, who died a year ago”. It was his tribute to a dog with whom Pedro had a profound connection: “Just a glance, and he understood what I wanted. He taught the young dogs to guard the vineyard, instinctively protected the children and always welcomed visitors warmly. Boj was a wonderful companion be it walking among the vines, taking samples, checking out the leaves or when I am just doing my job.”
Living with animals, particularly dogs, is a natural thing for Telmo Rodríguez. “Having dogs and walking with them in the fields has always been part of the tradition and culture at Remelluri,” explains Rodríguez, a renowned winemaker who established his own company with partner Pablo Eguzkiza and regained control of the family winery in Labastida a few years ago.
In Remelluri the most common breeds were Labrador Retrievers and Bodegueros (they were used to hunt mice in Sherry bodegas, hence the name), but Telmo has always liked Fox Terriers. “They have a strong character and at first glance it is not easy to tell if they are pure-bred or not. Pluc, my first Fox Terrier, used to come with me when I surfed. He waited on the shore and as he has an undistinguished appearance, no one ever tried to take him away from me.”
His current companion is Spoon, a female Smooth Fox Terrier who lives with Telmo and his family in Madrid but usually travels with Rodríguez whenever he is visiting vineyards. I took the photo above in Gredos but over the last two years I have also met both of them in Rioja. “I travel a lot on my own and Spoon comes with me whenever I am in the countryside”. She is quite a character and loves to stand next to his master on the car and pay attention to every little detail. Have a look at her in this video published by Spanish daily newspaper El País as part of the feature The man who resurrects vines. “There’s no posturing at all; she is always around,” Telmo adds.
On a trip to Bierzo last June I visited this young Asturian producer in Albares de Ribera, his great-grandmother’s village. He was devastated after the death of his female Golden Retriever the day before. Uva had become an inseparable companion for the last three years -he even regained his fondness for mountain walks thanks to her. Readers who have never owned a dog may find it difficult to understand the loss, but they are part of many everyday situations and usually offer the most enthusiastic welcomes on a daily basis.
The good news this summer at the Blanco household was the arrival, almost by chance, of Pepa, a Border Collie (she is only two months old in the photo) who shows her shepherd dog instinct. “She bites our ankles to stop us from leaving,” Germán says. Pepa came to them thanks to a cattleman they met during a mountain hike in Asturias. Germán liked the idea that she was a working dog of a different breed from Uva -he acknowledges that it would have been imposible for him to replace Uva with another Golden Retriever so quickly. “The family is really excited about this new member; perhaps it’s a bit harder for me, but in any case it’s great for us. The only thing is that Pepa won’t be able to be around for harvest because we have to wait for her to have all the vaccines required.”
A leading ambassador of Garnacha from Gredos and one half of Comando G, Daniel “Dani” Landi has found a faithful companion in Lili, an ill-treated greyhound that his wife Lara rescued from the kennel and has become “the princess of the house”. Despite commanding “more privileges than the rest of the family, like having the whole couch for herself,” Dani is delighted to take her to the vineyards with him and bring up his son with her company.
“I love watching her run and sniff. She is great company. Lili warns me of the arrival of people or of any movement in the forest and it looks like she understands wine growing. When we take a rest we sit together to watch the vineyard as we drink water. And when it is hot, Lili makes a hole in the ground to lie there beneath the shade of a vine.”
Comando G take a holistic approach to the balance of nature: animals coexisting with vines and people. They have been ploughing their vineyards with two mares for six years and now have a Catalan donkey -it was a present from Pepe Raventós (Raventós i Blanc) on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. For them, the use of animals is essential in rugged vineyards where tractors are useless, but also because they avoid compacting the soil. “Vines are social beings and are sensitive to the environment. The sounds of birds, insects and other animals are part of their normal frequency; tractors are not,” explains Daniel.
A real Garnacha expert, Jorge and his father have advised many producers in Aragón. Now Jorge is better known as Contino’s winemaker although Mancuso, his range of Cariñena wines, is likely to get a few headlines in the future. His first solo wine was Cutio Garnacha, an affordable Garnacha which he first released in the 2011 vintage. The label features Jorge tasting along with his Boxer Woody on top of a mountain.
“I have always loved dogs but my parents wouldn’t allow me to have a dog in an apartment. When I was 21, I bought the piece of land where I live now and I also bought Woody.” His wife Sara had always had Boxers at home and she chose the breed. “Woody was great at tasting grapes. I remember a day when I had lots of white grape samples. He only ate those that exceeded a potential alcohol of 12% vol. and left the rest untouched.”
Jorge and his wife have always had a male and a female Boxer. Syrah was Woody’s partner. One day she watched over Jorge while he was pressing inside a tank and waited until he came out and made sure he was all right. Woody’s and Syrah’s successors are also Boxers. “Now that we have kids, it is a great breed for them, they are so playful.”. Queen is the female and Listán the male -he was named after the grape variety following the consultancy work done by Jorge and his father in the Canary Islands. When Cutio white was released in the 2015 vintage, Jorge kept the dog on the label but changed the characters: now the image shows his wife Sara tasting with Queen. For them there is no better way to show that “dogs are part of our family.”
All the photographs were generously sent by the producers except for the one featuring Telmo Rodríguez and Spoon which was taken by me. Carlos Gonzalez Armesto is the author of Peter Sisseck's picks.