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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

A Fly on the Wall

Wine and Dine
in Old San Juan
By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
San Juan, Puerto Rico
As I walked down the streets of Viejo San Juan, a huge flash back came into my mind. I first was here 42 years ago and arrived to this Colombian city the day the Bobby Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Except for the assassination the remembrance was warm and friendly. I found myself in a great Tapas bar and found a fabulous wine list.


Forty two years ago I would not know what to do, but this time I knew exactly what to do. With all of the years of traveling Spain and living in Colonial Iberoamerica I felt that I was in chez moi as the French say. It is Bodega called Toro Soloa and it fits like an old comfortable shoe.

As I observed the little restaurants, I decided that if I ever wanted to have a Spanish designed restaurant for me this was it. The ambience: Flamenco, the fiesta taurina, the sherry, the port wine, the vinos de mesa blancos y tintos. The reservas and the Spanish brandies and cognacs. I just have walked back in time.

As I looked around the streets of old San Juan, I can picture the restaurant I would want to open if I could get the money together in the old French quarter in New Orleans near the plaza de Armas (Jackson Square) as being just like this. Sometimes I feel New Orleans ignores its Spanish history. My father always told me, tell me where have you have been and I will tell you where you are going.

I guess Americans –- the Anglo Saxon branch of the Europe immigrants that settled the USA and gave us our values -- do not see their Spanish side when they look in a mirror. Yet the French quarter like Old San Juan has soaked up Spanish history in all of their buildings in their old section of their city. The Spanish were there for almost 60 years; Nueva Orleans under the Bourbon Kings of Spain.

As I looked over the menu it consisted of hot and cold tapas: strictly traditional Spanish cuisine. There was no nouvelle fusion cuisine on this menu; the tapas did have the new world ingredients that the forefathers who came over with Columbus and Ponce de Leon had mixed the old world with the new world by blending their cultures. The Cantinero is working on his sommelier certificate and knew his wines and really made us feel part of the glowing ambience. He recommended a Mauro from Toro, which was 90% Tempranillo and 10% Shiraz. None with me knew about this wine so we plunged ahead. It was red and rich, and complex but with a smooth silky balance. Even though it was a full bodied wine it did not over power the tongue or food: very delicate and velvet in texture.

Later, I looked up the wine on the internet and found that it had a great pedigree. The vintner of MAURO was none other than the former oenologist of VIGLIA SICILIA of Ribeiro del Duero fame, who went over to the area of Toro to open his own vineyard. The renowned Robert Parker identified it as a 90 rating and when that happens the bottles elevate in price and fly off the shelf.


As I was doing business and measuring the economy, I get the feeling that the US economy and the North and South American Economies are still trying to wind their way through the economic storm when it comes to wine sales. I have no clue who is buying those wines but they are not necessarily on the shelves of wine retailers. I looked for a bona fide pinot noir Burgundy from France’s Cote d’Or the other day, and found none. I asked the staff why they did not carry more, and the answer was clear, no one is buying them anymore.

When I walked through those streets of Viejo San Juan, I was interested in what the American tourists or the local young students were drinking, and I noticed the MOJITO – a Cuban item that replaced the CUBA LIBRE as the Cuban mixed drink is very popular. 42 years ago we use to say a Cuba – because Cuba is not libre anymore The use of white rum is popular in making the Brazilian drink CAIPIRINHA. White rum drinks seem to be in now in Puerto Rico.

What I learned is that the Iberoamerica culture latches on to Spanish tradition and cultural roots, as in the case with wine. The Spanish wines dominate and over shadow California, France, Italy, and Chile and Argentina. The Tempranillo varietal which comes from Spain’s western side is a leading red wine with famous reputations of matching the Cabernet Sauvignon of France in style and grace.

It reminds me of the way I was taught in the ‘60’s: the Socratic method. Ask a question and use the answer to teach the class. I cannot imagine how many US Americans visit Puerto Rico, and try their foods and beverages. The word Spanish food in Florida and in the northeast is synonymous with Puerto Rican food, yet Puerto Rican food does not equal Spanish food. Puerto Rican food has Caribbean ingredients that have been used since Columbus found Puerto Rico in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. In Looking at the micro economies and cultures of Caribbean Spanish America, Puerto Rico stands out a US Commonwealth. Although bi-lingual it mother tongue is Spanish. It is its own Persona.

The Viejo San Juan area is a wonderful place to start one’s education of Iberoamerica history. The food and wine are excellent and the ambience warm and friendly. It is a great place to learn about yourself and your culture.

(Don Merlot is Ron Alonzo's nom de plume. Contact him at Writers.Clearinghouse@comcast.net)

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