Vina Cava

1. THE CAPELLADES

Vinas Vilafrancas could trace its history back to early in the Sixteenth Century, to a time when a distant ancestor of the present owners cleared a patch of virgin forest and planted the first vines in the locality. The poor, stony soils of the area provided a meagre existence for the peasant farmers who worked them for vegetables but proved to be eminently suitable for the cultivation of the vine.

The hot sunny climate produced copious yields of the finest grapes, making a wine that became renown for quality far beyond Spain’s northeastern province. Records show that wine from Vilafranca accompanied many Spanish explorers on their voyages of discovery and colonisation.

The Capellades family grew steadily richer and more powerful through the centuries, acquiring property throughout Catalonia until it was one of the largest landowners of that province. The Civil War of the 1930s resulted in a temporary setback to the family fortunes - life was hard for Catalans under the Franco regime.

Things started to improve in the late 1950s and prosperity returned with the boom of Spain as a mass package holiday destination. It grieved the Capellades that they were reduced to producing third-rate wine fit only for planeloads of tourists from Birmingham and Dusseldorf but things soon changed in their favour. The Spanish wine revival, led by the rich reds of Rioja, brought them the recognition they’d been sadly lacking for two generations.

They never ceased to produce quality wines but most of it remained within the various branches of the Capellades family. Among those wines was cava, the traditional Spanish sparkling wine. Initially regarded only as a substitute for its better-known French equivalent, cava soon achieved a reputation in its own right and that from Vinas Vilafrancas was among the best.

Most of the sixteen hectares of the home plantation was given over to the grapes used to make cava. The best red wines were made from grapes grown at one of the Capellades’ southern holdings and these were transported by tractor and trailer to be pressed and vinified at Vilafranca.

Despite his wife’s protestations, Mateu Capellades, the 82-year-old patriarch, still insisted on supervising each year’s harvest, joining the grape pickers each morning at first light and working alongside them. Nowadays this work consisted of shouts of alternating encouragement and derision at the efforts of the harvesters, mainly teens and twenties Antipodean backpackers working their way around Europe.

Mateu’s two sons were actively involved in the family business, as was his unmarried daughter. His grandsons were on the payroll but did little to justify their comfortable salaries or the Mercedes convertibles that were provided for them every two years. Swanning around at international wine trade fairs was more their style than the hard graft of the vineyards or the heady aromas of fermentation in the winery buildings.

Regarded as something of an oddity, Rosa Capellades was the only one of the granddaughters to have any involvement in the business. This she did in spades, working alongside the pickers and producing her tally of baskets of grapes with the best of them. With her broken nails, clad in jeans soiled with grape juice, a check shirt and a battered straw hat, Rosa was the despair of her female relatives. But old Mateu loved her best of all his grandchildren. Unbeknown to anyone apart from the lawyer who drew up his will, Mateu had left his controlling interest in the family firm to her.

2. THE MANAGEMENT

The alarm bell rang and interrupted Jesus Rey’s slumbers. As foreman of the winery, he was the last person who ought be late at the vineyards - he had an example to set. Those young Australians thought they knew everything about making wine, just because they’d got a degree from the University of Adelaide or somewhere. Probably the sons of motor mechanics, he thought, no winemaking in the blood, only playing at making wine. His father and grandfather before him had worked in the vineyards, and earlier generations too.

His father - now just a memory - had left him, his two sisters and his mother without warning. Something to do with his political activities, not long before Franco had died, but enough to make him flee the country. Spain was a very different country then, before King Juan Carlos came to the vacant throne and oversaw the reintroduction of democracy. At least Catalonia was now an autonomous province of Spain and governed itself, albeit under the guidance of Madrid. Jesus had sprayed independence slogans on walls and bridges in his youth but had mellowed to accept the status quo as the only practical solution, at least in the short term.

But that didn’t mean he had to like Castilians, the Catalonians’ traditional antagonists, especially when they came in the form of Sergio Rodriguez, Vinas Vilafrancas’ winery manager. A Castiliano of the worst kind, he was a leftover from the henchmen that Franco had installed all over Spain to run local government and do his bidding in general. Sergio’s brothers still held senior positions in the Civil Guard that maintained local law and order.

One result of these high connections was that Sergio was virtually bombproof and he knew it. He regularly broke every speed limit in the district and frequently exceeded the drink-drive limit after his binges into the early hours. Sometimes a new patrol would pick him up after he’d driven the worse for wear but the charges were always dropped.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if his immunity had ended with motoring offences. Not content with terrorising the local roads, Sergio terrorised the local population, especially those who were female and attractive. Young girls were his particular fancy and he deluded himself into thinking his advances were welcome and reciprocated. The reality was that he was a middle-aged rapist with carte blanche from the local police.

Sergio’s main source of female flesh was the multinational coterie of young women on working holidays at Vinas Villafrancas. He ran the winery as his own personal fiefdom and treated old Mateu Capellades as his equal. No wonder he felt able to take his pleasure at will without fear of retribution.

Most of his victims were too scared of losing their jobs to make a fuss - apart from one grape picker, a New Zealander who’d suffered Sergio’s primitive technique a few years ago. She’d gone to the police and made a formal complaint. Before it could be investigated, an irregularity in her work permit was noticed and she was deported before the day was out.

It was rumoured that the Capellades family had been “invited” to employ Sergio as general manager. It certainly wasn’t because of his winemaking abilities; his mornings were usually spent nursing a hangover and he disappeared for three hours at lunchtime, returning at four to bark orders at those who’d been quietly getting on with the work in his absence. Much as his employees might wish otherwise, Sergio Rodriguez wasn’t about to leave Vinas Vilafrancas, at least not of his own accord.

Jesus finished the last of his breakfast coffee, picked up his coat and hat and locked the door of his estate cottage. Little more than a large shed, it was a place to sleep and suited his bachelor existence. He coaxed his ancient Renault 4 into life and drove the two kilometres to the field where he’d start working. The sun was just beginning its ascent in the sky. Today would be hot - was it ever otherwise at that time of the year?

3. THE GRAPE PICKERS

Jesus arrived to find a huddle of yawning humanity at the corner of a field of parellada vines. His quiet manner and authority were sufficient to get the best out of the majority of the pickers. There were times when he had to chide some of them and put a stop to the inevitable horseplay but most of them recognised a fair man when they saw one.

His unofficial lieutenant was Rosa, already allocating pickers to rows of vines. Her easy manner and lack of sophistication made her popular with the team. Jesus carried a torch for Rosa but knew in his heart that the Capellades family would never view him as a suitable match - even for the Cinderella of the family - but they couldn’t stop him dreaming.

This year’s crop of pickers came mainly from Australia - fresh-faced youngsters, outdoor types straight from the teenage soap operas. Jesus never knew how the firm found its temporary workers - it was more a case of them finding the firm. Word of mouth and mentions in various student publications brought the applications flooding in year after year.

The belle of this year’s vineyard ball was Charlene King, a bubbly blonde from New South Wales. This young Kylie Minogue look-alike knew everything about making wine, or so she thought, and loved to point out what Vinas Vilafrancas was doing wrong. The grapes weren’t good enough, the fermentation temperature was too high - the list of shortcomings was endless.

At first, Jesus thought it was just talk but he soon realised she knew what she was talking about. Apparently her father was winemaker at a prestigious Hunter Valley vineyard and she would return home to a job as assistant winemaker at a neighbouring winery. Jesus respected her knowledge but wished she’d keep a lower profile. However, that didn’t seem to be in the Australian’s psyche. Charlene was a popular member of the crew and pulled her weight, unlike some of her compatriots who were clearly there for a holiday. Rosa liked her and that was a good sign; they were both countrywomen and they recognised each other’s qualities.

Charlene had attracted the attention of Sergio Rodriguez and Jesus had asked Rosa to keep an eye on her. He was worried that history might repeat itself but he had more pressing matters to attend to, specifically bringing in the red grapes from the outlying plantations. With picking firmly in progress, Jesus felt able to leave Rosa in charge. He said goodbye, squeezed her upper arm and walked to his car. As he got in he noticed that Charlene had been observing them. She gave him a knowing look and smiled.

Jesus was one driver short, due to family illness, so he would have to assist in transporting the red grapes. He returned to the winery, parked his car under the galvanised steel sun shelter and hitched a trailer to a tractor. Out on the road and away from Rosa, he lit a Ducados and inhaled deeply. Sure, he was cutting down but Rosa wouldn’t be satisfied until every smoker had been eliminated from Vinas Vilafrancas. Her forty-a-day father had died from lung cancer and she was on a personal crusade of vengeance against tobacco.

The rest of his day was spent travelling back and forth, carting trailer loads of red grapes to the winery. A lever on the tractor operated the trailer’s hydraulic lift and the grapes were tipped into the large hopper, in which twin screws turned in contra-rotation to extract the juice.

Only the prime juice from the first pressing was used for winemaking. The remaining lees were taken to the local family-owned distillery where it was processed to extract a thin wine that was distilled to make brandy. Even that wasn’t the end of the story - the solid residue was taken to the Capellades farms where it was used to feed the pigs that produced the celebrated dry-cured hams. Thin slices of this ham were frequently served as a starter to the family meal that was available at 2pm sharp every day, regardless of who was there to eat it.

Jesus had often been invited to join Mateu and his wife for lunch. The old man liked his company and they shared a love of traditional Catalan peasant food, unlike Mateu’s sons who preferred to drive to the smart restaurants of Barcelona for their midday meals. Jesus looked around the old hacienda and mused that he could get used to living there, given the chance.

4. THE RENDEZVOUS

The harvest continued virtually without incident until one morning when Jesus arrived at the scene of that day’s picking. Rosa tugged at his sleeve and drew him away from the assembled grape pickers.

"It’s Charlene,” she hissed, “that Castilian pig turned up at the female quarters last night. All the others had gone out but Charlene was writing a letter to her parents. It seems he committed a serious assault on her but stopped short of actual rape. Charlene’s knee-jerk reaction put a stop to any ideas he might have had of that - apparently her knee jerked up hard, right where it hurts!”

"How is she?” Jesus asked with obvious concern.

"Shocked but physically OK. I told her to take the day off - hope that’s alright.”

He nodded. “One of these days that bastard’s going to get his comeuppance, sooner rather than later, I hope!”

The tally would be down today without Charlene’s efforts but with luck she’d resume work tomorrow. He decided to take a basket himself and made his way to a row as yet unallocated. At midday he was due to meet Sergio to discuss progress and he stopped work exactly on the hour. It would take him five minutes to return to the collection point, then another five minutes to drive back to the winery. Sergio would be incandescent at being kept waiting but that was one of the few ways Jesus could get back at the Castilian.

As he drove into the yard he noticed that Sergio’s parking space was empty. Incredibly, perhaps not, Sergio got the same model Mercedes as the Capellades sons. Mateu no longer drove but had never had anything more ostentatious than a Peugeot 504. Jesus saw him entering the general office and followed him in.

"Where’s Rodriguez?” Jesus asked the old man, “We were supposed to meet at noon”.

"Not been seen today,” Mateu replied, “and he never condescends to phone in. Will you join us for lunch?”

"Thanks but not today, I’ve got an errand to attend to. See you later!”

Jesus had a shrewd idea where he’d find Sergio - in his favourite bar on the street behind the town hall. He wasn’t wrong and, as he pushed the beaded curtains aside, he saw the Castilian seated in his usual corner spot, a large glass of Fundador in hand.

"They told me you’d not been in today, thought I might find you here,” Jesus said with as much false bonhomie as he could muster. He sat down opposite the general manager without waiting for an invite and ordered a San Miguel.

Sergio grunted. “Not feeling too good - must have been something I ate last night - what do you want?”

"Have you forgotten we were due to meet at noon? Never mind, we can do it some other time. Come to think of it, why don’t we meet tonight? It’s my birthday,” Jesus lied, “ so I thought I’d ask you for a drink. What do you say?”

Sergio was a bit taken aback with this display of friendship, the first the Catalan had made in all the years of their working relationship. “Yeah, why not?” he replied.

Jesus got in quickly. “Meet me at nine at the Barcelona, see you there.” Before Sergio could say anything Jesus drained his glass, paid for his drink and was back out in the street. He smiled. The Barcelona was a Catalan nationalist stronghold, all red-and-yellow striped flags and awnings. That would wind Sergio up like nothing else. He bought a cheese bocadillo at a bakery, drove back to the field and resumed his picking.

That evening at nine, Jesus was seated in the Barcelona, a beer in one hand and a calculator in the other. In front of him was a computer spreadsheet on which he was entering the results of his calculations. It was quiet in the bar, just a foursome of card players and a couple of German tourists. God alone knows how they’d found the place - it wasn’t a tourist joint.

Jesus worked away at his figures and didn’t realise how the time was passing. He looked at his watch - 9.45pm - Sergio was going to stand him up. He ordered another beer and went back to his work, one more page and he’d finish for the night. Some of the calculations were a bit tricky and Jesus had to redo them before he got the sheet completed. He gathered his papers, took a long draught of his beer and got to his feet. The clock behind the bar was showing ten past ten.

"Going somewhere?” said the gruff voice in Spanish, a language seldom spoken in the Barcelona. Jesus turned to the barman who was polishing glasses in a desultory manner. “A large Fundador for my friend.”

The following morning, Jesus was back hauling the red grapes. The absent driver had returned for a day but had phoned in when his father took another turn for the worse. The grape hopper was already full; someone hadn’t run the screw presses when the last drop had been made. He jumped down from the tractor, threw the switch and waited for the screws to do their job. While the grape level fell and the juice started to run, he lit a Ducados but not before he’d looked both ways to check Rosa wasn’t around. He ground the cigarette end into the ground, emptied the trailer into the hopper and drove away to collect the next load.

5. THE DISAPPEARANCE

Sergio Rodriguez was neither seen nor heard of again. His car was found in an abandoned stone quarry some twenty kilometres away but with no trace of the owner or clue to his whereabouts. The Civil Guard, no doubt spurred on by his high-ranking brothers, questioned Jesus Rey, the entire Capellades family and the grape pickers over and over again but nobody could throw any light on his disappearance.

At first, Jesus was temporarily promoted to general manager but the appointment was made permanent when it became clear that the previous incumbent wouldn’t be reclaiming his job. Mateu Capellades now had the man he wanted at the helm after years of suffering the incompetent Sergio Rodriguez. A discreet word to his favourite granddaughter and Jesus’ acceptability process was under way.

The grape picking drew to a close and the temporaries began to drift away. As one of the more useful workers, Charlene King was kept on for another month, helping in the winery, still putting perceived wrongs to right. With her work done, it was time for even her to bid adios to Vinas Vilafrancas. Jesus and Rosa took Charlene to Barcelona Airport in Rosa’s mother’s Range Rover. Rosa had made the effort and was wearing a clean shirt and pair of jeans. At the passport control barrier, Rosa and Charlene embraced; both women had tears in their eyes. Jesus had a lump in his throat but managed to retain his composure for the most part.

"Bye, you two,” Charlene said with her customary grin, “see you at the wedding!”

Jesus hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks. “Yeah,” he said in his halting English. “Bye, sister!”

That year’s Catalyud Reserva red was particularly good. Connoisseurs were very appreciative of the wine’s body and it won several prizes in competitions at home and abroad. At Vinas Vilafrancas it was drunk in the time-honoured fashion - as an accompaniment to the home-produced hams that were such a favourite at the hacienda’s large oak table.

Jesus became a frequent participant at family lunches, usually seated next to Rosa. The Capellades women didn’t know what she saw in the hitherto foreman of the winery but they were relieved that there wouldn’t be another old maid in the family.

References to Sergio became few and far between as time went by but, at the mention of the name, Jesus was inclined to lean back in his chair and pat his stomach contentedly. Sergio Rodriguez might be gone but he’d never be forgotten by Jesus Rey.

© Brian Smith 2002

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