By Charlie Seraphin
There is much to learn at the Spanish Wine Festival. While we guarantee that everyone who attends a festival event will learn the difference between red and white wine, it’s up to each guest to explore the subtleties of each of Spain’s 13 wine growing regions. Here are some basics.
The Spaniards started cultivating wine grapes over 4,000 years ago. I’m sure there are literally millions of people who drank Spanish wine without knowing anything about where it came from or how the grapes were fermented. The Spanish are very proud of their wines, but it was the Romans who fell in love with Spanish wine and elevated it to the top of the list of Roman exports, spreading the ‘nectar of the gods’ to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.
During the exploration of the Americas, long journeys across the Atlantic were dangerous enough because of storms, but the fact that Spanish ships couldn’t carry fresh water onboard because it spoiled in wooden barrels was a real problem. Drinking rotten water made sailors sick. They soon discovered that fermented wine traveled well, so Pedro Menendez’s ships carried wine instead of drinking water.
Today, Spain produces more wine than any country in Europe, and because of relatively low prices and high quality, it is the fastest growing segment of the American wine market.
Spanish wine is very good, but Spanish food is awesome. If you want to learn about Spanish food, you definitely need to come to one of the festival events. Local chefs like to show off their Spanish recipes (and not just the Spanish rice my mom used to burn on the stove.).
This year’s festival kicks off with a luncheon at First Coast Technical College on Sept. 9 to honor transitional homeless students and graduates of Fresh Starts. Because the luncheon is held on a school campus, no wine is served, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the event. Lunch is prepared and served by FCTC students, including Fresh Starts graduates. Helping people help themselves is always a winning recipe.
On Sept. 10, the Treasury on the Plaza hosts Vino Veritas. Eight local chefs will prepare and serve Spanish tapas. Guests will get a chance to sample and learn about five spectacular Spanish wines. And if you care to learn more about Spanish history and culture as it relates to food and wine, native Spaniards will make short presentations and engage you in questions and answers.
One of our speakers this year is a certified wine educator with emphasis on the wines of the Balearic Islands (that’s where Minorca is). And every patron gets a commemorative etched glass and a longsleeved all cotton white festival shirt to take home as souvenirs.
The Cava Reception and Dinner on Sept. 11 on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios is a lavish event featuring Spanish Cava (they call it champagne in France) and an exquisite five course Spanish dinner menu with Spanish music and dancing all under an elegant, air conditioned big top tent. Weather permitting, the evening will culminate with fireworks.
On Sept. 12, the tent will be reconfigured for a Grand Tasting of more than 125 different Spanish wines with plenty of Spanish tapas prepared fresh by Chef Tony and his team from the Publix cooking school in Jacksonville. Every patron collects another etched souvenir glass and another festival shirt. There’s a good chance you’ll be seeing these in your neighborhood when the weather turns cool.
Now you might be struggling with the question: “How can I decorate my least favorite white outfit?” At 5:30 p.m. Sept. 12, for $10, (or $250 per team if you want to enter a team in the Team Batalla competition) you can make history at the third ever Batalla de Vino (battle of wine) held on American soil. Participants dressed all in white go about “decorating” one another by squirting red wine.
Before the tradition came to St. Augustine in 2013, there had never been a batalla outside Spain. The Batalla is an old Spanish tradition celebrated in small villages in the wine growing region of Rioja. People go to church at the end of the wine harvest to give thanks for that year’s crop and a blessing of the wines, then they process to an open field where they just have fun. It’s similar to the tomato festival where people smash each other with tomatoes, but they “decorate” with wine instead.
It rained cats and dogs during the first Batalla in St. Augustine, and the 50 or 60 of us who participated all laughed until our sides hurt.
Last year we added a corporate challenge, allowing teams of five to compete against other teams with minimal rules and maximum fun.
The winning team from the Visitors and Convention Bureau won $500 for the charity of their choice, and they’ll be back in 2015 to defend their title. The final event is the Grand Batalla. That’s where everyone just lets it all hang out and squirts red wine on anyone and everyone inside the “arena”. Silly? Yes. Fun? Without question. Even if you don’t feel like participating, you’re invited to come and watch adults act like children.
Happy 450th, St. Augustine! Viva la Festival de Vinos!
Charlie Seraphin is the volunteer President of the Board of Directors for the St. Augustine Spanish Wine Festival.