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El Cortijo: The Greatest Natural Wine Bar in the World

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Day 1: Forget Barcelona

Josh and I arrive in Barcelona just after two. We have no baggage to claim, so we sprint to Europcar, and avoiding Barcelona all together, drive straight to Tarragona, an industrial town about an hour to the South. We proceed to avoid the historic center of Tarragona (lots of traffic) and plunge into the maze of streets close to the port. We don’t have a map or working cell phones, so we lose our way. We pull over and ask a cop for directions to El Cortijo, a bar that I will soon come to know as the greatest natural wine bar in the world. The cop knows exactly where to go, because he is a regular.

We arrive. The proprietor, Santiago, is sitting outside, waiting for us. They officially close at 2pm, but he had kept the kitchen open for us. We duck into the cool bar and there’s a bottle of Mendall Red in a bucket of ice. It’s 15% alcohol and about as refreshing as anything imaginable. Already I like this place. Policemen call themselves regulars and they drink 15% Grenache for aperitif. I don’t really speak Spanish, but I understand a bit. Josh is bantering away.

santi behind bar

Santi behind the bar, with some Cuban cigars

About nine feet of food is out on the bar: pork loin slathered in homemade mustard, fried fish of various sorts, boudin blanc, arroz negro, poached pig’s ear tossed in pesto, etc. This last dish Santi says isn’t regional, but references the historical Roman presence in Tarragona. Santi just sits around, talking about the food, giving us updates on the vignerons (all news to me because I hardly know anything about Spanish wine), casually putting huge plates in front of us. It is salty and fatty and totally over the top. It’s food you need to have wine with, and the Mendall is gone in a few minutes.

He opens another bottle, this time the rosé from Alain Castex, a rare beauty even in the region. It’s snappy and alive with bright volatility and absolutely pure strawberry and rose flavors. Some friends show up: two guys in their early fifties, wearing greasy t-shirts with random English malapropisms in bold letters. They don’t order anything. They just roll cigarettes and Santi pours them half beers and gives them each a splash of the Castex.

Santi calls his wife to say he won’t be home anytime soon. He tells her that two Californians have flown directly from San Francisco to El Cortijo. Which is true. The whole bar is excited and just a little confused that we are so happy to be in this funny little place.

Another bottle gets opened. This one from further South. It’s slightly sparkling and no one takes it too seriously. Two more dudes show up with a boy that they obviously just picked up from middle school. The kid is playing with his dad’s Motorola Razor (remember those?!) and the guys are drinking what appears to be pints of red vermouth, with ice stacked up all the way to the rim and a huge wedge of orange. Santi just leaves the unmarked vermouth carafe on the bar and people help themselves.

Another friend shows up carrying a plastic bag full of little potato rolls. Josh and I are stuffed but Santi wants us to try the Jamon, which he claims is as good as Belotta but 1/10 of the price. He carves off some ham and puts it on the rolls and then drizzles it with olive oil. It’s soft and salty. This is all I ever wanted in second grade when my teacher was trying to shove bologna down my throat. Santi makes one for everyone in the bar, just as his brother Luis shows up.


pan shot of interior

Luis behind the bar, chatting with Josh, bag full of warm potato rolls in the foregraound

By this time the roll-up door has come down half-way and everyone is smoking inside. It feels like we are the only people in Tarragona not taking siesta. Josh and I think it’s a sign to settle up but Santi insists we stay until the fisherman comes through with his daily catch of prawns. We hang out for the fisherman, who shows up, plops his two buckets on the ground and meekly receives his beer and ham sandwich. The regulars start digging in the bucket pulling out translucent prawns still squirming with salty life. They explain that the ones with blue roe come from further South, while the ones with greenish flesh are from closer to Barcelona.

Carlos takes six peeled shrimp and puts them on a plate. He covers it in plastic, takes a water glass and starts pounding them into a paste. He takes the plastic off and pours oil and salt all over it, and then squeezes the raw shrimp head juices all over everything. We eat them with our fingers. The fisherman brags that he supplies Can Roca, and used to supple El Bulli.

prawns more small

Raw prawns with oil and salt, and the ubiquitous Mendall

Meanwhile we are peeling more shrimp. The second round of shrimp has a distinct petrol note. I’m praising the petrol note when I realize that the dude peeling the shrimp is the mechanic, hands all covered in engine grease. Fuck it. Tastes great. We’re drinking more Mendall.

We need to go to the train station to pick up Quinn, so we make Santi charge us. He asks for 50 euros. We try to give him two 50-euro notes. He literally throws one of them in my face and calls for one of his buddies to bring us a bottle for the road. More Mendall.

Day 2: Breakfast with Santi and Luis

Three days later we are back in Tarragona, this time for breakfast. Quinn has joined us, and we are feeling a little tired from two nights with Laureano Serres (more on that in a later post). It’s around 11 in the morning, so Luis mixes up some light vermouth cocktails for us, with a dash of gin.

luis with vermouth

Luis mixing breakfast drinks (pint of vermouth off to the left, with the unmarked bottled behind)

After a round of Vermouths, Santi sets us up with this great bottle from Axel Prüfer which is pretty much the freshest and most iridescent Poulsard-like thing I’ve ever had from the south. It’s gone in about 5 minutes.

brutal total

Totally refreshing brutal from Prüfer

Food comes out and it’s firing on all cylinders: huge mound of that delicious blood sausage, shredded pork in it’s own juices, served with mustard made from Laureano’s vinegar, a mountain of Jamon. Why is it that natural wine usually comes alongside overly formal, anemic food with searing acidity levels and no flavor? Living wines need living food. The fat and salt in Santi’s food makes the volatility in these rich Southern wines sing with precision and freshness.

food spread

Santi’s incomparable rustic food

Honestly I totally forget what we drank. Mostly white this time around. Just wine and food. No cell phones, social media, unicorn wines, Chablis verticals and crap like that. We are putting stuff in our bodies non-stop and out bodies are thanking us for it.

It’s getting late (3pm or so) and Luis and Santi are itching to get home to their wives. So we pay up (same total as last time–an arbitrary 50 euro note) and give our hugs and kisses. I’m struck for the first time by the total lack of menu. There’s a fluid understanding between proprietor and patron that would have made a menu a useless and awkward mediation. No scanning of wine lists for rare bottles. No debate about sharing this plate, or getting two of that salad so everyone has enough. Just Santi and Luis taking us in for a few hours and treating us like family.

group shot

Santi, Luis, Quinn, Josh and me


We head north to Barcelona to pick up Lara at the airport. Luis had given us a Flamenco CD and we are maxing out the speakers in our little Peugeot.  With windows down we speed along the coast without speaking. And then we went for a swim.

on the beach

Undisclosed location between Tarragona and Barcelona