Embracing what’s good about another culture without following blindly
Sometimes I wonder if my Hispanophilia colors how others perceive me. Many of us have known people who studied abroad in college, only to return as snobs: “Everything over there is better. Everything here sucks.” I can’t help but think that my friends and family grew tired of me constantly talking about how great everything in Spain, Argentina, and Mexico was after my travels there. Luckily, most of them put up with me. I know this isn’t a unique phenomenon to Americans who travel abroad. In my 18th century Spanish literature classes in graduate school, for example, I recall discussions about afrancesados, or Spaniards who thought that everything French was superior to what was typically Spanish. They would dress like the French and approve of everything the French did. Many of them didn’t speak fluent French, but they would incorporate French words into their conversations anyway, even though the equivalent words in Spanish existed. And the reverse phenomenon also could be observed, as castizos embraced everything that was Spanish, insisting that Spanish culture and language should be completely free of foreign influence.
I was reflecting on this topic recently as I was shopping for a bottle of wine. I’m not really much of a drinker these days, as it’s rare for me to consume alcohol that isn’t communion wine. I do, however, occasionally enjoy a calimocho, a drink I learned about in Spain that consists of red wine and Coca Cola in equal amounts, served over ice. To many Americans, this drink – also written as kalimotxo, from the original Basque language – sounds like a horrible thing to drink, but it’s actually quite refreshing, especially on a hot summer day. The warmer temperatures of late have caused me to crave one. While the recipe is simple enough with its two ingredients, I know almost nothing about choosing a bottle of wine, so I vacillated as I ventured to the store. I don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to appreciate the subtleties of different varieties. Luckily, a lot of the guesswork is removed when making a calimocho, as the nuances of fine wines would get lost in the Coca Cola anyway. As my Spanish friends have told me, it’s best just to get the cheapest red wine for a calimocho.
Nonetheless, as I go to my local grocery stores, there are still a lot of inexpensive reds from which to choose. Naturally, I found myself gravitating towards those from Spain. In my small town, there are a few vinos tintos from Spain, but not many. During my time spent in Spain, the only brand I remember is Marqués de Cáceres, which my host family recommended. Currently, we don’t have that brand in stock here. I also recall from my travels that La Rioja is perhaps the Spanish region most famous for its wines. On my first stop, I didn’t see any from there. So, I settled on a brand called La Cornada from Valdepeñas (Castilla-La Mancha), which cost less than $5 at Aldi. The brand is clearly marketed to those who embrace Spanish cultural stereotypes, as the label includes the colors of the Spanish flag in the background, and a bull in the foreground. The word cornada refers to a wound from a bull’s horn. I asked my friend from Cartagena, Spain, Sergio, if he knew this wine, and with his usual good humor he answered: “Seguramente ese vino es una cornada.”
For a calimocho, La Cornada was perfect, but it’s certainly not a fine wine. I enjoyed my first batch so much, that a few weeks later I wanted some more. On another trip to a different store, I bought Castillo San Simón, which is from Murcia. This wine is something of a contradiction. The label includes an outline of what looks like a medieval castle under a crest with the letters CSS and two animals, one of which looks like some type of bird, while the other is maybe a mythological creature or perhaps a lion; it’s not quite clear. Over the castle, in fancy lettering it reads: “Ripe strawberry and cherry flavors burst forth from Spain’s signature Tempranillo grape. It is the perfect everyday wine to drink with pizza, burgers and fried foods.” This wine, which has a twist-off cap instead of a cork, costs maybe $4 at the most at my local HyVee. It’s definitely not targeted to discriminating connoisseurs, meaning that it’s perfect for calimocho.
My latest purchase was Campo Viejo, which was a bit more expensive. This Tempranillo wine is from La Rioja and it cost me around $15 for the bottle. The label design is maybe a bit more minimalistic than the others, with a gold background and red lettering, a more subtle way of recognizing its Spanish origin. Although I can’t articulate what about this wine that makes it better than the other ones, I do like the experience of drinking this one more than the others I mentioned previously. As an ingredient to calimocho, however, it’s not really any better than those cheaper alternatives.
So, why did I choose these Spanish wines, when American alternatives were available? There are a lot of factors that can go into the decision making process of our purchases. I didn’t choose La Cornada, Castillo San Simón, or Campo Viejo because they’re superior to wines from other countries, because they’re clearly not. I chose Spanish wines because I was using them for a Spanish drink and because I like to support Spanish companies. (Curiously, however, I don’t seek out a Spanish cola drink, although I suppose it would be harder to do so, even if I wanted to.) Yes, I know there’s an ecological impact that occurs when we purchase things that come other parts of the world, but like I said, buying wine is a rarity for me. Illinois isn’t a place known for its wines anyway, and American wines wouldn’t have made this particular drink any better. Hopefully, my preference for Spanish wines in this instance doesn’t make me a snob. Although my first forays into Spanish-speaking countries may have made me somewhat snobbish, I think I have enough experience now in various environments that I can appreciate the positive aspects of any culture. I know that the origin of a product doesn’t automatically make it superior or inferior to products from other regions.
While we’re on the topic of Spanish wines, the other aspect I want to touch on is how Spanish brands, in general, market themselves to foreign consumers. I already commented on how La Cornada’s colorful label (bringing to mind the Spanish flag) and the image of a bull might appeal to foreigners who buy into Spanish cultural stereotypes. This packaging may, in fact, pay off for the brand; on a subsequent visit to Aldi, I noticed that they were sold out of La Cornada. In other words, some cheaper Spanish brands may perpetuate stereotypes because it’s in their best interest to do so, while others that are a bit better, like Campo Viejo, don’t have to do so. Did it sell out because it was inexpensive, or because people were drawn to the colorful image of what they perceive to be Spain? It probably isn’t because they find it superior to other wines.
Sangría is another drink of Spanish origin that can be found bottled in our local grocery stores. I think that if you asked 100 Spaniards how to make a sangría, you’d probably get 100 different recipes, but they all would include red wine, fruit, and sugar. Some people include a liqueur, juice, or orange soda. The sangría found in American stores, however, won’t have fruit, although it will have hints of fruit. There are a few Spanish brands I see regularly on the shelves. One of these is called “Reál Sangria.” I use quotation marks because the name always confounds me. In Spanish, the word real doesn’t have a written accent mark and the word sangría does, but this brand does the opposite. Coming from Spain, they must know how those words are written. I suppose they include the accentuated “a” in real so that English speakers don’t confuse it with the English word “real,” which means something different. And I suppose that there’s no accentuated “i” in sangría because in English we use the same word without the accent to refer to the same drink. Their label includes pictures of fruit and a crown, the latter referencing the supposed royalty connoted by the word real, bringing to mind the Spanish monarchy. Yesterday, we celebrated my wife’s birthday. Our friends from Spain, Sergio and Yolanda, brought a bottle of sangría I hadn’t seen before, from the Spanish brand Lolailo. The label for this brand incorporates, again, the red and yellow, with yellow in the shape of the sun, behind a female flamenco dancer. I’ve tried both of these brands before, and I have to say that they’re not bad, although they don’t really compare to what you would get in a Spanish home or restaurant.
It’s easy to see, then, that a Spanish brand, even if it’s not of a superior quality, can probably sell a lot of product to foreigners if it includes bulls, flamenco, the sun, crowns, shields, and/or the colors red and yellow in their packaging. Of course, this image of Spain is mostly imagined, since it’s entirely possible to make a trip there and not see any bulls or hear any flamenco. And not all parts of Spain are sunny. These stereotypical aspects of “Spanish” culture are more typical of Andalusia, which is where many foreign visitors want to go when they get to Spain, as they’re often attracted to Granada and its Moorish palace, la Alhambra. I find this phenomenon interesting, because as a Spanish professor, I’ve always wanted to avoid perpetuating cultural stereotypes in my classes. However, we see that Spaniards themselves can perpetuate those images, although it’s often in an effort to appeal to foreign consumers and be profitable in a crowded marketplace.
Have you ever had a calimocho? Let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. Tell us what brand of wine you use in yours.
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As a bonus to today’s post, we’re embedding a video of comedian Conan O’Brien with one of his producers, Jordan Schlansky, in which they sample wines in Italy. Jordan is portrayed as a snobbish Italophile on the show. And this clip always makes me laugh. Enjoy!