Michael and I sat watching the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.  Michael was cheering for Argentina and Messi, as he is a well-documented FC Barcelona fan. Me? I’m really anti-Argentina after the whole “hand of God” episode as a supporter of the lions of jolly England; I was forced to pull for Germany with Van Gaal’s magical Dutch side eliminated. We won’t discuss England’s distressingly pathetic turn.

One of the locals found it interesting I was cheering for Germany, especially as we live in Messi’s land. He came over to have a chat. Through the course of conversation it came up what we do, and he began to ask more questions about how we present the Catalan wine region. The more we talked, the more excited he became.

“It’s about time,” he said.

“Why? International promotion is being done by the various organisations representing the vineyards,” I replied.

“I’m not sure if we really know how to do that very well. International promotion is still a new concept,” he responded.

Again I asked why, and his response was a telling one.

“In my opinion, Franco ruined this country as nothing was allowed to be exported for so long. Franco destroyed the Catalan wine industry. They could only sell inside the country. Two generations lost international business exposure. We’re really behind the rest of the world even though we’re part of the EU.”

Camp Bram where 30.000 republican refugees were held.
Camp Bram where 30.000 republican refugees were held.

Prior to his comments, I really never thought about the impact of General Francisco Franco on daily life in Spain or in Catalunya, other than some of the stories about what was done to those who were part or sympathetic to the Republican coalition.

Catalans make the exile from Catalunya to France in 1939, captured by iconic photographer, Robert Capa.
Catalans make the exile from Catalunya to France in 1939, captured by iconic photographer, Robert Capa.

I spoke to three Catalan vineyards about this, carefully and gingerly. All three really didn’t want to discuss the subject of Franco, but all three acknowledged the wine industry did struggle in Catalunya prior to the 1980s. Many vineyards sold their grapes to cooperatives producing a lower quality, lower priced product for sale domestically in order to survive.

Franco and Eisenhower
US president Eisenhower towers over Franco.

Franco was a teetotaler, only occasionally imbibing one glass of beer or wine during dinner, while also declaring wine’s primary use was for sacraments during church services. However, the Rioja region did enjoy moderate exposure nationally and internationally during his time in office, and the region hit the international spotlight after his death. Overall, Franco had a significant impact on the industry countrywide, not only in his attitude, but punctuated by his actions when he had the removal of vineyards in the Viura and other regions executed by his forces.

There is an undercurrent to this day of trepidation while discussing the topic of Franco and his politics with locals in the region of Catalunya, as noted by those three vineyards wishing to skirt the subject and move onto other, more technical discussions about their operations. It is almost as if they don’t want to invoke any bad luck by outwardly discussing the variety of ills Catalans had to endure for all those decades.

The shadow cast by Franco’s diminutive physical stature (he stood a mere 160 cm in height) still echoes today, in thought and in actions by those here in the region. The influx of foreign immigrants well-versed in the wine arts, along with long standing traditions by those locals who have maintained historical knowledge of production has created a vibrant industry with a high level of quality.

Still, the world has hardly heard such recollections, and even the government of Spain has chosen to attempt to avoid Franco history. With time, I hope to see this industry continue to learn lessons from the past, continue to graft the old ways with new ways, old grapes with the new, to propel its new history of a golden age of Catalan wine production.

Wine Tasting!

In a short time, I’m sure we will see more and more innovative marketing, PR, and sales techniques from this region, putting the rest of the world on notice DO Catalunya is a force to be reckoned, as I have already observed in social media.

Maybe a focus on the current positives will end the reflection of the negatives of a bygone era, in turn giving many insecure vintners in the region the confidence to say their wines are as good or better than their competition in Provence, Bordeaux, Stellenbosch, or Tuscany. As a close friend of mine said, only new activities can erase the memory of old activities.

The ghosts of Franco hopefully can rest in the Valley of the Fallen, where they belong, as a new history is forged today.

*For an interesting historical perspective on Catalunya and the Spanish Civil War, we recommend reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, sometimes overlooked due to the popularity of Animal Farm, and 1984.

Tim Brown (aka Timmer on social media) has been involved in marketing for over 20 years and a wine enthusiast since his first exposure to Duck Pond Winery in Newberg, Oregon, back in 1995. After coming to Europe in 2012, he made his home in Catalunya in 2013 and became enchanted with the wines and winemakers of the region. Now he shares his experiences so international visitors can enjoy the region’s wines, while continuing his work in the marketing world. Sommeliering and wine snobbery isn´t his thing, and he continues to learn more about wine from a Catalan perspective on a daily basis.