Friday, January 31, 2014

at a temple of sherry

Back to business. School's been tough, as usual; the academics, I can (more or less) deal with. The other stuff? An absolute waste of time. Why can't we just go about our business, put all the self-righteousness aside, and stop judging others? Evidently a difficult concept to grasp, even for (some) MBA's. We're a silly, boring, unimaginative group. I'm sad to say that Jose's opinion of us is very justified.

Who's Jose? I have to first back it up a bit. It's been a while since I wrote - travelling photos don't really count. We want to think that what we're writing has meaning, has depth, has soul. We're allowed to have our delusions of grandeur - thank you, dear reader, for indulging this wino for so long. What do I always say about wine? What do I always say? The great wines are the wines that speak not only to your tongue, lips, and head, but also to your heart ... your spirit. I've been thinking about this for a long time, because the owners here aren't too crazy about being written about, but I have to share it with you. More than the wines here, it's the soul of the place that left my head spinning and my heart racing.

La Venencia, a magical little sherry bar in Madrid. Named after the traditional wine thief used to draw a measure of sherry out of the bota. A friend of a friend took us here, and stepping inside was a step back in time. Old wood everywhere, dusty posters from what looked like the early 1900's, dark barrels along one wall, and the distinct feeling that a bar full of (Spanish) eyeballs were suddenly starting at this group of 4 Asians and 1 Venezuelan. Crowded and noisy and local. My kind of bar. We sort of half squeeze, half push our way into the middle, where there stood (I swear) a dead ringer for John Malkovich. Darker hair, moodier, but an absolutely uncanny resemblance. They apparently purchase sherry by the barrel here, filling up their own bottles to pour. There's a selection for each style - fino, manzanilla, palo cortado, amontillado, and oloroso. Who cares about producer. Who cares about vintage. The manzanilla and amontillado were simply stunning. They mark your order in chalk right on the wooden bar, where you stand, adding it up when it's time to pay. The tapas is good too - the cecina was excellent, as were the olives, but what was most surprising (and delicious to my Japanese colleagues) was the cured cod roe, above. Yeah, those huge orange strips. Cured in huge blocks (not unlike sopressata salami), it's from Andalusia, and per Jose, one of the owners, not even the Spanish really know about it, much less eat it. And I can see why. It's fishy like you wouldn't believe, and the sticky texture certainly doesn't help. Wow, does it have length.

This place is such a one-off. From the ambiance to the curmudgeons behind the bar (who will warm up to you if you're nice), this place is authenticity and honesty. The second night we were there, the bar was a bit quieter ... just a bit quieter. So we had a chance to talk with Jose. He's one of those characters from another time, when people seemed more sociable, more jovial, more relaxed, more human. Quotable, even in another language, he complained that speaking in English makes my throat itch. He explained the solera system (pictured above), he talked about cecina de vaca, he talked a bit about why sherry was an interesting wine, to a point (I don't believe in counting the age of wine ... it can have a teardrop of a wine of 15 years). But man, we went deep that night ... deep and real heavy.

We went all philosophical. Jose has this rule that you can't take pictures inside the bar. Everything else seems to be laid-back, free for all. So why no photos, why do phones need to be put away? The answer turned out to be simple, really. It's a matter of principle, of the deep belief that Jose and his comrades have - that the most important thing of La Venencia isn't the wines or the food, or even them for that matter. The only thing that matters and is worth protecting is something he likes to call the soul of the place. Allowing photos and other incivilities robs such a beautiful place of that indefinable quality.

Why is it important, this whole notion of soul and spirit and principle? Is it even a real thing? We met one of his regulars, Javier, who coincidentally is also an IESE graduate. He put it simply - look at this place. There is no business model in the world that can explain why it is success. It makes no sense. But now that you are here, you can see it for yourself. This place is alive, where people can take a sherry and talk with friends, and enjoy life. Jose has a unique perspective on his bar, business-wise. He told us, I'm no worried about customers. We do fine. That's why I don't want people go to computer, type type type, and all other people come. Poor business sense? Narrow-minded and stuck in the past?  Spanish? Perhaps. But we need more people like Jose ... dreamers, hedonists, artists, and idealists. We need them to protect these noble ideals, to preserve imagination, courage, and authenticity in wine.

You MBA's? No, I won't explain to you. You don't understand.


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