Ex-rocker finds rhythm in Spain Just when you thought the wave of Year in Provence/Under the Tuscan Sun-style memoirs of psychically unfettered urbanites retreating to soul-satisfying rusticity had peaked, comes an even weirder sub-trend: Recovering rock'n'rollers-turned-journalists who head off to even more rustic backwaters to get in touch with their roots or their rugby muscles. Let us reassure you: After these two columns last month's review of sometime Lloyd Cole sideman/London Times staffer Lawrence Donegan's brief Irish sojourn and this month's gloss of onetime Genesis drummer-cum-travel writer Chris Stewart's hopefully more permanent move to southern Spain we will abjure the genre forever. Unless Eric Clapton takes up the laptop and removes to Hokkaido.
The reason for such a precautionary rant is that Stewart's book, Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia suffers from an excruciating self-consciousness that grates through the entire first third of the story. One cannot help but suspect some trend-jumping agent or editor persuaded Stewart to back into his story with an uncharacteristically clumsy preface.
Covering his discovery of the picturesque El Valero, a mountain farm in the heart of Andalucian sheep country, and more extensively his relationship with the farm's former owner, the manipulative Pedro, it's probably meant to be self-deprecatingly humorous: The narrator rube, taken advantage of by the wily peasant, learns humility and is accepted into the village scheme. Unfortunately, both the pattern and the posturing are so obvious that the reader longs for Pedro's quick dispatch.
Fortunately, once Stewart's long-suffering wife Ana takes possession and Pedro retreats, Stewart's writing style relaxes, becomes descriptive rather than theatrical, and the countryside, and the village, start to come alive. In spring the blossoming of the orange trees takes you unawares. At first only a pale haze becomes apparent across the dark green of the leaves. . . . Then all of a sudden the buds are transformed into exquisite white five-petalled stars, radiating from cream-yellow pistils and stamens. The scent is delicate and heady, and when each tree becomes a mass of white flowers an almost tangible mist of orange blossom hangs in the air. The book is primarily anecdotal, without much of the history or culture of Tuscan Sun, but it's a quick and pleasant read. Improbably, Stewart, who only spent a year with Genesis back in the late '60s, has over the years made a side living as a sheepshearer for hire, a trade that ultimately brings him into the social fold. Some of the most effective and affectionate chapters deal with his acquisition and training by, rather than of his own sheep. As Stewart's story unfolds, the almost serendipitous restoration of the two-hut farm, the creation of running water, the enduring of seasonal extremes, the plantings and preservings and mistakes and successes become increasingly endearing.
The episodic nature of the book is enhanced by the chapter headings real snapshots from the Stewarts' scrapbooks and the birth of their daughter Chloe is the book's dramatic high point. They are there still, amid the ibex, the foxes, the snakes, stoats, weasels, martens, wild cats, rats, their lambs, their friends, the guests who stay in their now-habitable outbuildings, and so on. One can only say that the self-exiled drummer seems to have found his true rhythm. Although there is very good Spanish wine to be had, somehow the setting of Stewart's reveries, the mix of ancient and primitive and not-quite-modern, seems more evocative of a Chilean wine. While the latest wave of Chilean prestige labels can be pricey (the Mondavi-Vina Errazuriz Cabernet called Sena goes for $50, as does the Concha y Torres-Mouton-Rothschild collaboration Almaviva), most Chilean wines are far more inexpensive, and impressive. Consistently among the best are the wines of Casa Lapostolle, from the (Grand) Marigny-Lapostolle family. (Say la post hole, not 'sto-lay.) The non-vintage wines are bright, clear and self-assured, making them great table wines; but the Cuvee Alexandre vintages put similarly priced wines to shame. Look especially for the '96 wines, either the Cabernet Sauvignon or the Merlot, both of which can be had for about $16, and get at least a case.
Richly colored, moderately fruity and with notes of fragrant wood, bay, anis, and something like smoldering sage, the cab can be drunk as a dinner wine now or put down for a truly embracing wine in three or four years. The Merlot is already jammy, with black cherry, currant, even a sort of wild-rosemystery a seductive swirl with a layered and plushy finish.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post. This column reflects her dual interests in travel and wine.