The Spanish Notebooks

By Albertina Torres

In 2005, having lived in London for ten years, Albertina Torres moved with her husband, British-Canadian film maker and artist Zev Robinson, back to the small village in rural Valencia where she was born. Three years later, while walking through some nearby vineyards, Robinson came to the realization that many people would have very little knowledge or understanding of the process of making wine. He was inspired to make a short video showing just how the grapes from the vines become bottles of wine on supermarkets shelves in London, in order to show people how much toil, risk, economics and care are involved in the making of wine.

This ‘short video’ quickly progressed, turning into an all-consuming labour for Robinson and for Torres who produced it, eventually becoming an 80 minute documentary called ‘La Bobal and other stories about wine’. Bobal is the name of the grape grown almost exclusively in local vineyards and with its own socio-economic history.

Armed with their enthusiasm and a new appreciation of the mysterious world of wine which links the contrasting yet interdependent cultures of subsistence farmers with expensive restaurants, Robinson and Torres travelled throughout Spain. They interviewed and filmed owners of wineries, co-operative members, wine makers and wine writers along the way.

These travels provided the material for two more films: ‘Dinastia Vivanco’ and ‘Arribes: Everything Else is Noise’. ‘The first film traces the evolution of a family winery founded by Pedro Vivanco, who began by delivering wine door to door on his bicycle and went on to become the biggest provider of wine in La Rioja. He then founded one of the world’s best wine museums. It is an inspiring rags-to-riches story, and also serves as an example of the brilliance of Spain in this sphere.

The second film ‘Arribes: Everything Else is Noise’ looks at the relationship between food, agriculture, and sustainability in Arribes del Duero, an isolated region of NW Spain along the border with Portugal. Here, people maintain a traditional way of life, producing more than 80% of their own food. This not only raises questions about the values and priorities of modern urban life, it also provides a portrait of how most of Spain would have lived 50 or 60 years ago.

During their trips, Torres took photographs of the people and events that they came across, and of Robinson as he worked on the documentaries. These photographs evolved into ‘The Spanish Notebooks’, a project in which she documents people, objects, festivals and food which make up the lives of people living in the villages and which reveal the hidden depths of a country often stereotyped and known only for its sunny beaches, paella and flamenco.

mini_GardenerThe photographs provide an archive of the last half century of Spanish history, showing how people once lived and to an increasingly lesser extent still do. Small, rural villages with a sense of community continue to be dependent on agriculture while the small plots of land mean that farming is still managed personally, with family and perhaps a small seasonal crew helping out during the harvest. The grapes and olives go to the local co-operative, and part of it is returned to the farmers in the form of wine and olive oil. Vegetables are grown and used in the home, and some families still have chickens, even pigs in certain areas, which provide them with meat throughout the year. Then there are the festivities and rituals which bind villages together.

Torres has examined these details of daily routines and objects without romanticising them. Rusty tools which are no longer in use are shown, as are the aging, weathered faces of villagers who remain in the villages while the younger generations leave. Celebrations, festivals, communions and weddings also feature.

By contrast, Spain has simultaneously produced some of the finest restaurants and most celebrated chefs in the world. Much of what they create can be traced back to the same culinary traditions found in local villages, albeit transformed in grand kitchens and taken to another level. As this is part of Spain’s most recent history and marks its evolution, Torres has taken photographs of the cooking processes.

Echoing these themes, Robinson is currently working on his documentary ‘Cultivating Tapas’ in which he explores the ways in which Spain’s culture is reflected in its gastronomy and architecture, with a particular focus on how the processes in farming and home cooking compare with those of globally acclaimed restaurants and wineries.

The much admired cinematography has been influenced by Robinson’s fine art background. His films complement Torres’ photographs as an audiovisual time-based equivalent, documenting the lives of village people and showing the extent to which things have changed and evolved, either for better or worse.

“The Spanish Notebooks” bring together Robinson’s four documentaries with photographs by Torres as an art project, demonstrating the diverse, complex and fascinating culture of Spain. Much of ‘Cultivating Tapas’ has now been filmed and is currently being edited. In the meantime Torres and Robinson have resumed their travels in order to gather more material and they hope the project will be completed in 2014. There are plans to make ‘Cultivating Tapas’ into a television series and food and wine tastings are being arranged to accompany an exhibition of the their work. It will be essential viewing for those who want to understand the country’s culture beyond the usual tourist attractions.


Albertina Torres’

Cultivating Tapas

Dinastia Vivanco

Arribes: Everything Else is Noise

La Bobal and other stories about wine