A favorite of Winston Churchill's, Spain's Vega Sicilia wine is still as coveted and collectible as it was 60 years ago
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004
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Vega Sicilia began winning medals in national and international competitions soon after. (Several honors from the 1920s are still advertised on the print-heavy label today.) Only a few thousand bottles of Unicos were produced in any year, and demand far exceeded supply.
In 1952, just as the winery was gaining prominence in the world, the Herreros sold it to Prodes, a seed company. Businessman Miguel Neumann Swaton purchased the winery in 1966 and held it until 1982.
David Alvarez, who is now 76, had founded Eulen as a janitorial service in 1962. He was the sole proprietor and the only employee. He grew it into a complete business services company that does everything from landscaping to security for its clients in Spain and South America. Today it employs more than 50,000 people across two hemispheres.
Like most Spaniards of his generation, David Alvarez was a wine drinker, but his interest in wine didn't extend much beyond what he found in a glass in front of him. He didn't buy Vega Sicilia because he wanted to own a winery, but for its position at the forefront of Spanish consumer goods. "It represented not merely a business, but something more," Pablo Alvarez says now. "It was the prestige and the quality that attracted him."
Pablo Alvarez was charged with maintaining that prestige, and he has made it his life's work. That he didn't grow up in the industry may be something of an advantage. He has been able to learn about wine without preconceived notions. "Because of the way he got involved in the business, Pablo didn't have the anchor of the tradition weighing him down in the way some of the French and Italians did," says Mondavi. "When you ask him or his winemaker, 'Why are you doing this?, you will not get the answer, 'Because this is the way we've done it for five generations.'"
Unico is made only in better vintages, perhaps four to six times a decade. Alvarez guards the equity so zealously that the selection of which years are worthy of the wine is even stricter than before he ran the estate. The production varies from 48,000 to 70,000 bottles, less than a fifth of that produced by each first-growth Bordeaux. A percentage is shipped to England, the European continent and the United States; individual clients—including Spain's royal family— buy up much of the rest.
That means most consumers, even in Spain, never have the chance to taste one of Vega Sicilia's premier wines. It remains a luxury for the elite, which further explains its allure for radical nationalist groups that seek to disturb the existing order. Beyond that, too, the winery maintains little contact with the outside world. Its employees exchange greetings with those of the other properties that have proliferated along the highway, perhaps over a strong coffee and a slice of Spanish tortilla at the Hostal Sardón a few miles to the west, but their special status in the community creates a distance with the others that is difficult to bridge.
Alvarez wants it that way. Veteran winemaker Mariano Garcia Fernandez, who had started with Vega Sicilia in 1968, was found five years ago to be aiding his family property, Mauro, in the production of its wines. He was summarily fired. Such moonlighting is a common practice in Spain, but not, Alvarez believes, for the winemaker of Vega Sicilia. Such exalted duty should be occupation enough.
For years, Vega Sicilia was the only winery of note between Valladolid and Aranda de Duero. Now it sits in the midst of the Ribera del Duero appellation, along what has been officially designated a wine route. Nevertheless, it continues to exist as it did three decades ago, when only the occasional car would rumble past on the rudimentary highway. If a visitor arrives without an appointment, or during October when the grapes are being harvested, he will not be welcome.
But if he has taken the time to write ahead and inform the winery of his sincere interest in its wines, and he arrives punctually at the appointed time on the appointed date and shows his passport at the guard house, he will be treated to a tasting and a tour. His host will either be Alvarez, the owner, or Ausas, the winemaker. There is no reception staff.
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