23 May 2012

n.d.p. in barcelona: monvínic

This past fall my friend / colleague R and I were sent to Barcelona to install a display in a department store. I was delighted to at last get the opportunity to travel for work – until it dawned on us that, due to insufficiently devious planning on our part, we would be staying in the city only 24 hours, and the nature of our task obliged us to work through the night, denying us even a single night out to explore the city, drink heavily, pee in the streets, wear funny hats, solicit hookers, etc.

There was nothing for it but to reflect, ruefully, that this is why it’s called work travel.

Nonetheless, after arrival and check-in at our hotel we had a solid six hours to kill before installation of our company’s stand could begin, and I was hell-bent on packing in as much questing semi-informed wine tourism as possible. Our first stop was to Monvínic, a place my friend Cesar Pou of Terroirs Santo Domingo Imports had described to me as Barcelona’s premier wine bar, the ground zero for wine geeks in the city. Aware of my tastes, he had warned me it was a little futuristic – a disclaimer that, in the case of Monvínic, is like saying the Vatican is religious-affiliated.

Monvínic, opened in 2008, is the project of Sergi Ferrer-Salat, a fantastically wealthy and evidently quite forward-thinking wine geek. The amount of money sloshed into the space is staggering. Everything from motion activated doors to an in-built projector in the dining room to proprietary tablet software for the electronic wine lists. There is a multilingual library of wine reference books on the premises. Dozens of glass-pour selections are locked and loaded in a dramatically-lit oenomatic apparatus behind the small service bar.

A rowdy tapas place this is not. The crowd at early apéro hour seemed principally to be well-heeled locals who preferred tables, soaking in the overdesigned nightclubby décor before an unconscionably late Spanish dinner elsewhere, and then perhaps a real nightclub…

Monvínic, in sum, is the sort of project into which I’d usually pilot a critical bulldozer.

If in Monvínic’s case I will instead just valet the thing and go enjoy myself, it’s due to the project’s manifest good intentions, and the tremendous goodwill of the staff. Monvínic’s wine director Isabelle Brunet remembered my friend César from his days as a regular there – before moving back to the Dominican Republic he’d lived in Barcelona for years – and she gave R and me a marvelous tour of the establishment, including the vast cave.

Brunet explained that even with the capacities of their tablet wine lists, they only display a fraction of the wines available, and even those constitute only a portion of what’s on premises - Ferrer-Salat stores his private collection there, too. In total there are 20,000 bottles in stock at any given time, and some 3,000 different references. 

There’s a dining room, open for dinner, but also regularly booked for private events, cooking seminars, product launches, and so forth. Ferrer-Salat is a great fan of jazz, and occasionally puts on concerts in the space.

Walking through all this, I couldn’t help viewing it through the lens of Spain’s present (even then) economic misfortunes. Work on wine palace that is Monvínic began as far back as 2004, during a period of unprecedented Euro optimism and mass investment in marginal economies (Greece, Spain, Italy) that were seen as greatly strengthened by the Euro bond. With national unemployment in Spain now hovering around 24%, a place like Monvínic can't help seeming tragically ostentatious. The tablet wine lists become uncomfortably symbolic of something – designed just before the release of the iPad, they’re slow, cumbersome, and frustratingly unresponsive.

From this I’d extract a general-use maxim of restaurateurism, which is that one should never be futuristic. Given the infinity of possible futures, the odds that the one which arrives will correspond elegantly with the one a restaurateur has envisioned and for which he or she has visibly prepared are slim to nil. Even to use iPads for wine lists strikes me as folly, since their design will invariably get updated every few years, saddling a restaurant with generations of expensive gadgets that prove too embarrassing for floor use, since they connote a not-quite-newness. 

Fortunately for Monvínic, the wines it presents are for the most part as timeless and classic as the surrounding environment is outdated. R and I sat at the service bar, the better to chat with Brunet, and we nibbled an array of well-selected tinned tapas indulgences, following it all with a plate of sharp Spanish cheeses, of which I remember no names as is typical.

In Barcelona one is not far from Cava country, so I had glasses of a bottled-aged, undosed Cava called "Balma" by a newish producer called Mas Bertran

It was marvelous stuff, yeasty and briny, its white fruit cut through with notes of green olive. I know dreadfully little about cava as a genre, only the basics of varietal (macabeo, xarello, and parellada in varying proportions) and production method (the good stuff is bottle fermented, otherwise mostly its tank fermented). But on the evidence of Mas Bertran and certain others producers I know (notably Recaredo) I'd offer the suggestion that Cava, as a genre, possesses drastically more quality potential than its Italian rival in the not-Champagne market, Prosecco. (Discuss.)

R, for his part, polished off two glasses of R. López de Heredia’s reliably magnificent "Vina Gravonia" Rioja Blanco, the presence of which older wine on a glass list for me almost manages to justify the use of those soulless oenomatic pump gadgets…

It would have been nice to stay on for dinner (not the menu pictured above), which I hear is all market-menu, souced locally, etc. But R and I had a great deal of exploring to do, and almost no time to do it.

(I should mention also that Brunet was a terrific help in organizing our further explorations– no sooner did we start running addresses by her, than we had in our hands a printed A4 paper containing a comprehensive list of her favorite wine bars and restaurants and wine shops in Barcelona. I’m tempted to reprint it here, but instead I’ll just suggest everyone go talk to her immediately upon arrival in Barcelona.) 

Carrer de la Diputació, 249
08007 Barcelona, Spain
Tel: 932 726 187

Related Links:

A pretty fusty 2011 review of Monvínic @ CoaltrainWine, in which the author is blown away by the concept of a digital wine list
A 2010 interview with Isabelle Brunet @ RobertGiorgione
Jay MacInerney considers whether Monvínic is the greatest wine bar in the world, circa 2010 @ WallStreetJournal
A 2009 write-up of Monvínic @ Boston.com, in which the author betrays ignorance of her subject by referring to a 2500€ bottle of, ahem, "Spanish Madeira." (A contradiction in terms, like "California Chablis.")

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