The clear morning air had been replaced by a thick, purple mist. Beneath my feet, the ground gave way to rivers of rich red wine, tumbling down the once-green fields of Mount Bilibio.
Chaos reigned in Haro, in the La Rioja region in Northern Spain.
Wine came flying in from all directions; launched from buckets and barrels, spraying from water-pistols and larger super-soakers. Drenched in wine from head to foot, I finally managed to push my way out of the purple chaos, which now resembled an energetic mosh pit.
I needed to take the perfect photo of the crowd from a tall boulder on the hillside. With some help from a tall Spanish policeman, I climbed up the slippery boulder and prepared my camera for the perfect shot of the crowd, only to find myself the star of the festival. I was the perfect target: the obvious foreign female trying to get a good shot. At once, jets of red wine drenched me from every direction as the crowd unleashed their water pistols, pesticide sprayers, and every other weapon of Bacchic warfare. Shooting back at the crowd as best I could and forgetting everything else, I returned to the shouting, dancing, crimson mass of humanity.
This was my first battle in the great Wine War.
Earlier that same day, June 29, I had woken up early in the morning to a surreal sight in Haro, the cultural capital of La Rioja. A thick morning mist lay low over the green hills of the wine country, while large crowds of people were slowly moving in one direction. Some looked excited and others a little nervous. Nearly every person wore the same ritual outfit: basic light white linen clothes. Some were making their way to the front line on foot, while others crowded into flatbed trucks, vans, and tractors, were heading the same way, to the Wine War.
Spain is a country of ancient passions and some of its oldest include food, sport, and festivals. All three are united in big and messy fiestas where the season’s food itself is the sport: the eggs and flour flying at the Chupinazo festival in Pamplona and the frenzied war of tomatoes at the Tomatina in Bunol are both international tourist attractions. However, the wine-growing region of La Rioja has its own answer, more obscure but no less spectacular: a battle where the ammunition is dry red wine. The annual harvest festival of San Vino, simply called Batalla del Vino by locals, is an ancient event that celebrates the Catholic martyrdom of St. Peter, but originates in far older, pre-Roman festivals that centered on religious ecstasy and the mysteries of wine.
When our group reached the foot of Bilibio, a surreal sight out of a feverish dream met me: a red-purple river of wine flowing down the hills, filling the morning air with its rich fragrance. A long line of purple figures came stumbling down, numbed into a state of shock from the wine’s overpowering effects. For all its riotous frenzy, the wine-crazed crowd seemed to have favorite targets: journalists, foreigners, and people with cameras. Since I visibly fit the latter two groups, although I was all three, I ducked and took cover behind one of my co-combatants to catch time to breathe. Out of nowhere, an intoxicating wave washed over my head, blinding my eyes for a moment, then leaving me sputtering and coughing; my “friend” Antonio, with a mischievous grin and a bucket of Gran Reserva, had attacked me from behind with friendly fire. Unlike some of the wine veterans, I hadn’t brought any goggles or protective gear, or even a hat. I was an obvious amateur, a first timer. Only my cell phone and camera, secured behind multiple plastic zip-lock bags, were protected from the all-consuming purple rain. I was left with no choice but to hold out and endure the storm.
San Vino is superficially similar to Spain’s other seasonal festivals, yet much of the atmosphere is different: smaller, more intimate, but also far more intense. The crowd loses itself completely in the ritual, becoming an ecstatic throbbing mass. For a short period of time, all rules are gone. And yet everything is peaceful and orderly at the same time. It is not what some may think of a wine “war”; no violence, nor injuries of any kind.
Like many other sacred festivals of excess, Spain’s food-fight events are fundamentally a religious expression, the ritualized release of pent-up energies. Like the ancient pagan festival of Saturnalia, where all norms disappeared and slaves changed roles with their masters for one day, the Catholic food fight is a form of collective catharsis. It embodies the age-old combining of the monotheistic and the pagan.
Once the quiet, hard-working people of La Rioja finish planting the year’s harvest, they let loose for one day in an incredible war of waste, before returning to their normal lives and another year of productive harvest. The delicate balance between the sacred and the primal is always difficult, but Spain keeps it well.
Where to Stay in Haro
Hotel Marques de Riscal
An abstract twist of steel against a lush background of vineyards, Frank Gehry’s hotel boasts its own private winery and is one of the most luxurious in the La Rioja region. Hotel Marques de Riscal, located close to the medieval fortifications of Elciego and less than two hours’ drive from Bilbao Airport, is rightfully famous as a place of sumptuous relaxation and wine-infused spa treatments. Rooms from $280 a night.
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