Sheltered from the imposing heat of an Andalusian afternoon, we gathered around the tasting table, beneath the verdant canopy of an impressive avocado tree. A spread of delicious Spanish tapas — figs, jamon, crumbly filo pastries, crusts of bread, and local cheese — to taste while we sampled the house-made wines, was set before us. The conversation slipped from Spanish to English to something in between, a jovial attempt at communication in which no party had the upper hand, but laughter and free flowing wine made friends of us all. Looking around the table, at companions old and new, as they drank and ate, talked and smiled, I felt a sense of calm and contentment settle in. Maybe it was the heat and the wine, maybe it was the often alluded to ‘magic of Spain’, but under this tree at a winery just outside of Ronda, I felt at home.
Known for their relaxed, good-natured enjoyment of life, the people of Andalusia were wonderful hosts — interested in sharing their happiness and showing off the beauty of their land. From the moment I stepped off the train at the station in Ronda, I knew I was in a special place. During the short car ride from the station, I looked out over the rolling fields of the valley, an enchanting landscape quilted with grapevines and olive trees. Our destination, Bodega Descalzos Viejos, is a beautiful historic monastery turned winery. From the original chapel featuring hand painted frescoes of Andalusian saints (which now holds vats and barrels of their delicious wine) to the gardens filled with fountains, low rock walls, and ancestral fruit trees, there are captivating sights around every corner. Located on a hill with a breathtaking view of the surrounding vineyards, Descalzos Viejos seems an ideal spot for a winery. A tour of the property from our host and one of the owners, Flavio Salesi, was full of good humor and historic details about the structure’s origin as a 16th-century monastery. Originally an architect, Flavio and his business partner Paco purchased the crumbling structure and surrounding property in the late 90’s and have turned it into an icon of the area’s wine scene. Hosting conferences, events, and concerts, this bodega has become a cultural center for the region.
I visited Descalzos Viejos while collaborating on a project with Two Birds One Stone, a Spanish eco-tourism company, and The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance (another incredible story for another day), with the goal to experience the place and capture our time there in photographs. Our group was a jovial bunch — lovers of Spain both Spanish and American in origin, interested in the history and beauty of the place, but most importantly, the wine. As we sampled their offerings (my favorite was the DV Aires 2009), our host Flavio became preoccupied with the Google GLASS my husband was sporting and beta-testing at the time. The offer was made for him to try them, but Flavio demurred and went back to pouring wine, laughing and speaking of the trials of technology when raising two teenage daughters. When our group finished yet another bottle, Flavio excused himself to the main building, returning a few minutes later with a wine cork banded to the side of his sunglasses in a light-hearted caricature of the GLASS. Flavio unselfconsciously wore his glasses that way for some time, eliciting fresh bouts of giggling with every turn of his head.
Several hours and bottles later, with only crumbs remaining on the tapas plates, I excused myself from the tasting room under the tree and wandered a bit to get a fuller sense of the location. Cozying up to one of the free-ranging dogs of the property (there are always dogs in Spain and I always find them right away), I sat beside an ancient stone wall, carpeted with vines perhaps planted centuries ago, and looked out over a magical landscape. Though the heat was immense, the light was perfect, and the breeze refreshing. The unnamed pup and I sat that way for awhile, taking in the iconic view as I lazily scratched him behind the ear. I had already been in Spain for over a week, but after a few blissful, laughter-filled hours beneath an avocado tree on a tall hillside, I fully fell in love with the magic of the place. For me, it was perfection.