Meet Your Makers: Dominio del Aguila

Up a hill that your car might not be able to climb, on a street that you’ll never find in a tiny town that your GPS will have no idea about — where finding a fellow human to ask for directions can take upwards of an hour — there’s something special and, dare we say, “artisanal” happening.

We know, we know: Artisanal is a word that’s thrown around haphazardly lately in the hopes of scraping up foodie credibility. Still, there isn’t an argument in the world you could make that could deny that Jorge Monzón and his wife Isabel Rodero are nothing short of artisanal (… and  organic … and special…) at their Dominio del Aguila — “Domain of the Eagle” en Español — winery in Ribera del Duero.

Given the setting, you might expect the winemaker to be a barrel-chested, suspender-wearing old-time fellow in his seventies who was born on that street and never left. What you’re not expecting is a wide-eyed, ambitious thirty-something couple who make wine in a winery that’s essentially the size of a tiny New York City studio apartment — but instead of a couch or a fridge, wine barrels line the walls. Sure, they could have built a new facility somewhere (Isabel is an architect! … but more on that later), but what would fun would that be?

Oh, and back to that artisanal thing: They still crush grapes with their feet, because hey, why wouldn’t they?

“We think that they’re [the Dominio del Aguila wines] truly a representation of this land, because they were here from ages ago,” Isabel says, giving away her passion and optimism in the bright glint of her hazel eyes. “So it’s really very artisanal, and like our ancestors would do it. But obviously, with the control and with the knowledge that Jorge has of how to make wine. And it’s very simple. I mean, we don’t intervene too much in the wine elaboration. We try to listen to the nature and how the wine is asking to work with it.”

Here’s the thing about Jorge’s winemaking creds: Don’t let his current in-the-middle-of-nowhere locale fool you. He learned the process studying at the Universities of Bordeaux and Burgundy, then worked at Domaine De La Romanée-Conti — yep, “DRC,” universally considered one of the greatest wines in the world. His next winemaking stint? No big deal, he then spent a year at Vega Sicilia Group before honing his craft for nine years at Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro. In case you’re not a wine-obsessed person, here’s a basketball metaphor: He’s worked for the Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James’ of the wine world.

In case you’re not a wine-obsessed person, here’s a basketball metaphor: Jorge Has worked for the Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James’ of the wine world.

“We have the principal that is all about the vineyard and knowledge of these lands,” Jorge says, explaining what brought them to the off-the-grid location of La Aguilera. “Knowing that, we’re calm and tranquil. … Our intention was to keep all that we had in the vineyard, but also try to transmit what the winery has to offer. It’s the image of the wines, tradition, a thing of love. Real feelings.”

There’s no doubting his winemaking chops, but what about Isabel? Well, she spent years as an architect and didn’t come up in the wine business at all, but it’s now her full-time job — professionally and emotionally. It was a big adjustment, and still is. They’re essentially a two-person family operation, and all that fancy stuff called technology and machines that others rely on, moving barrels and other things that might seem common among winemakers is quite a task for them. Still, she’s not deterred, telling us with a smile: “Everything is hard work. Physically, and mentally sometimes, too.’How am I going to organize this mess?’ you know? We put in all this all this hard work, all this effort, and really, it’s worth it.”

That’s the thing most people might not get. Why would giving up a career as an architect to rough it in a tiny town, foregoing everything that has made winemaking easier over the past 50 years, be worth it? When people drink wine, your wine that you’ve bled, sweat and stressed over, it’s a very romantic notion, and that’s been the most inspiring part.

“One thing that I’m surprised about is how much people appreciate the project,” Isabel beams. “They support you because really they believe in you, and I am actually surprised about this — about when people really love wine, and consumers or producers, the producers, or people who sell the wine … when they know the project, and if they really love wine, they really say, ‘wow.’ And I was surprised. And it was like, ‘This is working.’”

And there’s that infectious smile again.

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