George Parker: fine sherry, fighting bulls and the days when Cannes was really about advertiisng

In which our hero continues his forays around Europe – taking in Domecq sherry, fighting bulls and the glory that was the Cannes International Advertising Film Festival.

Escaping from the frigid and rather smelly atmosphere of Ornskoldsvik, let’s head south to warmer climes.

Southern Spain, to be exact. As I seem to have worked on (and sampled) every booze account known to mankind, it should come as no surprise to learn that I used to do a ton of work on the Domecq Sherry account. For the benefit of my American readers, you have to understand that sherry is a big deal in Britain, and is drunk in a completely different way than it is in America.

In the US, sherry is either a cocktail, served on ice, or an after dinner drink served with coffee… “Never serve the coffee without the cream… Harvey’s Bristol Cream!” Yeah, as it was a Heublein brand, I was involved in that too… Long before most of you were born. Back in those days, cheap American sherry was the preferred tipple (inside a brown paper bag) of the guys who used to hang out on the Bowery before, like everywhere else in New York, it became trendy and full of high priced hotels, clubs and ad agencies full of snot-nosed poseurs.

Moving on, the essential fact you should understand is that just as true Champagne can only come from Champagne; Cognac can only come from Cognac and Port can only come from Portugal, so true Sherry can only come from Andalusia in southern Spain, and the area around Jerez de la Frontera in particular.

Produced and matured in soleras that have been in existence for generations, the idea is that as new wine is added each year to the top barrels, it blends with the existing wine, a portion of which is then drawn off to the next lower level of barrels, so that, in theory there is always some of the original wine from the beginning of the solera in the mix. This is why there are no vintages in sherry.

At the time I was working on it, Domecq was still a family business, although, in common with many other producers of fine wines and spirits, it was subsequently swallowed up by a big British brewery. And the family was very much under the control of its patriarch, Don Alvaro Domecq y Diez (left), an archetypical Spanish aristocrat who had distinguished himself as a fighter pilot on Franco’s side in the civil war. Apart from becoming Spain’s largest producer of sherry, he was also a very big deal in the business of the “sport” of bullfighting, and eventually became the largest breeder of fighting bulls in Spain.

When I first met the man, I was initially impressed by the size of his nose. On a later occasion he explained that this was caused by years of sherry blending which placed equal emphasis on both taste and aroma, so that like Pinocchio, his nose kept growing. I think he was either taking the piss, or lying, which would explain the expanding nose.

As with all booze companies, it is obligatory that visitors should do a “tasting.” Something I am in complete agreement with. My first one with the Domecq Company took place at seven in the morning. This is because in Southern Spain, most of the serious work is done early in the day, you take a siesta in the afternoon, then go back to work for a few hours, followed by dinner, which rarely takes place before ten in the evening.

I’m sure a lot of this has changed now, but I was there back in the early seventies. In fact Franco was still in power, so Spain was still a fascist dictatorship, and it was long before the invasion of Coke, McDonald’s, obesity and all the other various Adverati supported pleasures of a “Free Society.”

When you enter the sherry bodega, the first thing you notice is the smell, but unlike Ornskoldsvik, this one is really pleasant, ‘cos it’s caused by the centuries of booze that have gradually soaked into the clay floors of the buildings housing the soleras. We proceeded to taste the many dozens of different and wondrous sherries Domecq creates. Consequently, before eight in the morning, I am semi, if not completely smashed and wondering why it doesn’t seem to be affecting everyone else.

Then it dawns on me that, before they taste the sherry, they aggressively swirl it around in the glass (a tulip shaped “copita”) to get lots of air into it, which causes most of the contents to fall on the floor… And that’s why the place smells so great; eighty percent of the fucking wine has been soaking into the floor for centuries. I quickly picked up on the trick and learned to swirl like crazy. Although I have to admit, it broke my heart to see all that great booze being chucked away.

Don Alvaro decided that I should have a special treat and be taken to see the famous fighting bulls at one of the many Domecq breeding ranches outside of Jerez. I learned later that there was one ranch visitors were never taken to view, this being the one occupied by the notorious black sheep of the family, an uncle, known locally as “Il Pantero,” who apparently stocked the ranch with a large collection of exotic wild animals, and an even larger collection of exotic wild women! Unfortunately, I never got to meet the “Uncle Panther.”

I assumed that my viewing of the bulls would be done safari style from the back seat of a Jeep through a pair of powerful binoculars. Ha… My mistake. Instead, they put me on a horse, and in company with a couple of Vaqueros, or Bullqueros, or whatever the fuck they’re called in Southern Spain; we galloped off into the fields. It wasn’t until we got close to the creatures that I realized how huge they are, with some growing to be over 600 kilos, and they are really, really mean.

Blood red eyes, gobs of snot spraying everywhere and horns the size of giant hat racks. Throughout this nightmarish experience, they are snorting, pawing the ground and sizing you up for breakfast. For some unexplained reason, they seem to be pissed at everyone, including each other. And the Vaqueros don’t help, ‘cos they keep shouting, whistling and prodding the evil buggers with the long sharp poles they carry. I am petrified and the horse I’m on, for some unexplained seems to be enjoying the whole thing, ‘cos it because it doesn’t want to move, even though I’m yanking on the reins and kicking the shit out of it to get me the fuck out of there.

The Vaqueros are laughing and probably telling each other what a wussie the English wanker must be, ‘cos he can’t even drive a horse in manual. Eventually, one of the semi-sober fucktards comes over and leads me away, just in time to prevent me wetting myself. After that, there was only one thing to do… Have a tasting. Which was never a problem in Jerez, because no matter where you were, or what you were up to, there were always a few dozen handy bottles around.

In common with most of the places in Europe that I enjoyed through the seventies and eighties, a great deal has since changed, mostly in the tourist traps and fleshpots that cater to the yobs from Britain, looking for cheap lager and fish and chips, or the Yanks doing ten countries in eight days who must have their Bud Lights and Big Macs. (The Japanese stay on the bus and are no problem apart from the continual popping of flash bulbs).

Once you get off the beaten track though, you can still enjoy some parts of Europe that are relatively unspoiled. A good rule of thumb is that for every ten kilometers you get back from the coast, you go back ten years in time.

But if you are truly a masochist and looking for the ultimate European nightmare experience, I would suggest jetting off to attend the Cannes International Advertising Festival in June. Now renamed the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, to expand its continually growing number of categories to liposuction even more enormous entry fees from idiots, this is an opportunity for several thousands of people who work either in, or are on the fringes of the ad biz, to spend outrageous amounts of their clients money, getting totally fucked up and making complete arses out of themselves.

I have to admit, I’ve been a few times, but mostly in the early days, when there were a measly couple of dozen categories, it lasted just three days and only a few hundred people actually attended. They were virtually all from Europe, most of whom you actually knew and had worked with, so you could spend three days getting wasted with your pals at someone else’s expense. I am forced to the conclusion that it seemed to be more civilized than now when it appears to go on and on in a blur of crass, over-the-top parties hosted by various media companies trying to outspend each other.

The truly pathetic thing is that most of the winning entries have never actually run on any kind of media other than YouTube, or the agencies’ web site. And even if they did, you have wonder why all the entries are produced in English when they were originally created for audiences in Brazil, Botswana, or Bratislava.

Makes me wonder… But, then again, what do I know?

Time for a “tasting!”

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