Those who know David can attest to the fact that he marches to the beat of his own drum. He’s always had that trailblazer gene, finding it difficult to conform to societies norms even in his younger days. He is unafraid of doing things differently and speaking his mind, which for the most part has served him well. But while his boldness helped him build a uniquely beautiful life, the reality is that the intense passion behind the causes he champions often creates challenges for him. Here are just a few of the stories he’s shared with me over the years:
During his university days, David decided to get involved in politics and worked for the mayor of his village, Elvillar, located in the Basque region of Spain. This was during the Basque movement and the ETA separatist group was conducting random terrorist attacks throughout Spain. David publicly opposed the attacks and soon found himself with 24-hour police surveillance due to death threats. After only one day, not enjoying being subject to constant observation, he signed a waiver to release the police of their responsibility to safeguard him. His need for independence simply outweighed the risk of being targeted.
While David was working towards his masters in oenology, he questioned everything he was taught. He understood the need for formulas, labs and recipes, but felt the use of these structured tools suppressed the true art of winemaking. Rather, wine making was a creative process that should involve the use of man’s senses and emotions to create something interesting and with personality. These ideas formed who he is today, but he knew he needed experience in all different schools of thought in order to test his hypothesis in the world of wine.
David began his career in winemaking at some of the larger and more traditional wineries in Rioja. While he basked in the newness of it all, the work only confirmed his personal theory — that he wasn’t interested in following the status quo of local winemaking styles, which often involved heavy use of new American oak. David was determined to produce a more elegant, fresh wine with a focus on the terroir of his vineyards — a novel approach that was seen as a risk at a time when many of the wineries were producing wines to meet a market demand. Meaty, full-bodied wines were all the rage for many wineries looking to earn high ratings, but David had no interest in catering to fleeting trends.
Taming his rebellious nature proved increasingly difficult as he honed his craft. At one point in his career, David worked as the winemaker for a bodega in the village of Abalos. Noting that some of the barrels were negatively affecting the wine, he requested replacements from his superiors. They denied his request, stating that they wouldn’t replace the barrels unless they were damaged. Not wanting to be associated with a faulty wine, when no one was looking, David would carry the empty, defective wine barrels up to the second floor landing and “accidently” drop them, effectively meeting the requirements for replacement.
In 1999 against all advice, David planted one of the first 100% Graciano vineyards in the cooler area surrounding his village. As a child, David remembered his grandfather telling him that for viticultors, Graciano meant, “gracias, no” due to its low yield and high acidity levels. Graciano typically is planted in the warmer region of Rioja Baja since it needs higher temperatures to mature properly. David, enamored with the grape and looking for a different style of wine from the norm, was unconcerned about the comments from his nosy neighbors. This was just the beginning of chatter amongst the community about his unconventional ways.
In the year 2000 when organic farming was rare in Spain, David continued to defy convention and changed the way he cared for the land. He stopped using all traditional treatments in the vineyard and converted his vineyards to organic viticulture. He learned more about the philosophy of biodynamic farming and applied these principles to his land over time. His vineyards started to stand out from those of his well-groomed neighbors and looked wild in comparison, as he allowed herbs to share space with the vines. Catching wind of the rumors circulating in the village that David was “killing his vineyards,” his concerned grandmother scrutinized his motives. Upon hearing that he preferred to farm the land like his grandfather had before pesticides and herbicides were prevalent — and his wish to one day return to farming with horses — she sided with the villagers and jokingly questioned his sanity.
David stubbornly pursued his dream of using his vineyards to make a wine on his terms. Starting from nothing, he and his old rugby friend started the project together, but once again David’s inner rebel that screams for artistic freedom started to surface. Little differences such as work ethic, winemaking style, barrel preference or the use of a thick, heavy bottle — which David despised due to the environmental impact and increased shipping costs for customers — finally caused David to take his vineyards and separate from the project. David preferred to let the wine inside the bottle speak for itself, rather than hype up his plans. Once again he was on his own, with only a few hectares and a lot of dreams.
Following rules is difficult for a rebel, and David couldn’t support the strict rules of aging wine in Rioja. The appellation requires the use of 225 liter barrels and the placement of “Crianza,” “Reserva” or “Grand Reserva” on the labels to indicate the oak aging. But from his initial partnership to his first bottle of Phincas, his flagship wine, he preferred the use of 500 liter French oak barrels to ensure the wood had minimal contact with its contents. Once I asked David if he would ever change this wines to fall into the Crianza system and he answered, “Yes, if the appellation changes its rules.” He didn’t do it to go against the rules; he just didn’t want to be told how to make his wine.
Life with a rebel is hard. Life with a rebel who is also an artist is even more challenging, but one thing is for sure — life with David will never be boring, and nor will his wines. It’s an adventure living with and loving a constant agent for change who is more concerned with trying to better things for those around him rather than following rules. With every new dawn, David writes his own playbook.