Atxondo, Spain—We sent our Spanish friends—a couple devoted to food, architecture, textiles and various other sensibilities of living thoughtfully—an e-mail announcing our imminent arrival in San Sebastián. "Free for lunch or dinner?" we asked.
Their reply was what food and wine lovers around the world dream of hearing: "We've booked a table at Asador Etxebarri for 2 p.m. See you there."
Let me be honest: These Spanish friends are connected. The likes of you and me cannot easily, if at all, get a table at this small, sought-after restaurant deep in the Spanish Basque countryside an hour’s drive west of San Sebastián.
“We receive 1,000 e-mails a day requesting a table,” reports Agustí Peris, the sommelier who’s more-than-a-sommelier at this unique restaurant. Far more casually dressed than one might expect in an expensive, high-end restaurant, Mr. Peris freely offers that Asador Etxebarri is not meant to be a shrine nor anything other than an awfully good place to have lunch. Unusually, it is not open for dinner.
Actually, quite a lot about this restaurant affords the qualifier “unusual.” The chef-owner, Victor Arguinzoniz, cooks nearly everything, including desserts, over wood-fueled grills in a tiny, two-person kitchen.
What’s more, far from being a trained chef, Mr. Arguinzoniz, who was born and raised in the small village of Atxondo, previously worked in a flag factory. Self-taught, he designed the bank of grills in the small kitchen to incorporate manually operated rotating levers that raise and lower separate sections of the bank of grills, each supplied with coals of different sorts of wood. Think of one of those one-man bands where the guy plays a tuba, the drums, a flute and seemingly everything else all at once and you’ve got it.
Because Mr. Arguinzoniz has his hands full in his little kitchen, with one helper, he does not appear in the dining room. (The kitchen is in fact a distance from the dining room, located in the basement of the structure.)
Consequently, Mr. Peris serves as more than just sommelier, overseeing the service and checking in at various tables to ensure that guests are content.
That Mr. Peris does this seemingly effortlessly, with casual ease, is explained in part by his personal warmth and, to be sure, by his years-long experience as head sommelier of the legendary El Bullí, the now-closed Spanish restaurant that virtually reinvented high-end cuisine and transformed chefs into magicians in professional kitchens worldwide.
As you might imagine, the wine list at Asador Etxebarri is truffled with all the expected French jewels and—Mr. Peris being nothing if not open-minded and very far from snobbish—wines you would hardly expect in a rural Spanish village, such as Cayuse from Washington state.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the wine list was immediately thrust into my hands by our Spanish friends. And I, for my part, immediately thrust it right back into the hands of Mr. Peris, saying “Oh no. You choose.”
Over the course (or rather, courses) of a four-hour lunch, Mr. Peris ferried glass after glass of white and red wines, each more obscure and esoteric than the last, almost invariably “casually” neglecting to mention anything about the wine, such as the name or the producer or even the grape variety.
Eventually, when pressed—and usually after I willingly took a stab at guessing what I was drinking, with unfailing inaccuracy—Mr. Peris would identify a wine that neither you nor I nor pretty much anybody who doesn’t speak Basque or Catalan could obtain—or even know about.
One wine did stand out, if only because it came from a place that I actually knew, or thought I did.
Of course, at first I didn’t know anything other than it was a bright, beautiful, medium-garnet shade of red offering a captivating, mineral-inflected scent with a mulberry-ish perfume. It was medium-weight in body, with a beautiful—dare I say it?—Burgundian delicacy with a crisp yet still somehow gentle acidity.
What was my guess, you ask? I thought it was Mencía, probably from Ribeira Sacra, which I confidently submitted to Mr. Peris, citing the aforementioned characteristics. (This, of course, was a classic performance of the “often wrong, but never in doubt” school of blind wine guessing.)
Mr. Peris was kind. “I can see why you would think that,” he said. Then he brought the bottle: Telmo Rodríguez La Estrada from Rioja.
“Rioja!” I exclaimed. “Why, that’s no more a Rioja than I’m Brad Pitt. I mean, it doesn’t even taste like a Tempranillo. What’s more, what about that beautiful acidity? And I won’t even mention the absence of any apparent oak.”
Mr. Peris was clearly enjoying himself (as was I). “Well, the reason it doesn’t taste like Tempranillo is because it’s a single vineyard with what you would call a field blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and probably other varieties. The vines were planted in the 1940s. And that delicacy and minerality you so like is because it’s grown in one of the highest elevations in the Rioja zone on chalky clay soil.”
I lingered over that wine during the rest of the lunch, marveling over its uniqueness and its multiple, equally contemporary expressions—all Spanish, by the way—of obscure grapes, creative blends and newly revived ancient vineyard sites.
Lovers of Spanish wines surely know well how revelatory these Spanish wines, white and red, can be.
The best part of lunch was, ironically, the reminder that what we think we know, especially in a food-and-wine revolutionizing country like Spain, we very likely don’t know at all—unless “we” are among the few insiders like Mr. Peris who’ve had a privileged front-row seat to the Spanish culinary revolution.
So that was a Rioja, eh? It’s always time to start over yet again with wine—and not just in Spain, either.