Growing up in Logroño, in the heart of Rioja, acclaimed classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas was surrounded by wine from an early age—though his first taste of Rioja wasn't a gran reserva, but a vino joven served with tapas. Since then, he has performed around the world with greats like Plácido Domingo and recorded multiple albums. And his musical and vinous lives have been intertwined. He oversees La Rioja Festival, more than a week of concerts, wine tastings and culinary experiences showcasing Rioja's cultural heritage.
To Sáinz-Villegas, music and wine are part of the same emotional landscape: "They're about senses, about subtleties, about enjoying those hedonistic parts of experience that make life more beautiful."
Sáinz-Villegas will play Joaquín Roderigo's Concierto de Aranjuez at Festival Napa Valley's opening concert on July 14, at Charles Krug winery. The festival's 17th summer season also features country star Carrie Underwood, singer Matteo Bocelli, a performance of Donizetti's Don Pasquale and much more, including events at Nickel & Nickel, Quintessa, Duckhorn and others.
Sáinz-Villegas chatted with editorial assistant Kenny Martin about his introduction to the wines of Rioja, the emotional connections between wine and music, and more.
Wine Spectator: What was it like growing up in Rioja?
Growing up in Rioja means being around wine culture. Wine is part of our history and cultural identity, and it's very much still a family tradition. The landscape is defined by grapevines, and that creates a spectacular view throughout the different seasons, especially fall. You grow up with all these emotional impacts of the landscape when you're a kid, but you take it for granted, all that beauty.
How are wine and music linked in Rioja?
There's a type of traditional folk music called jota, which is played during the festivities celebrating the wine harvest during the feast of San Mateo. It's a whole show: There are mandolins, guitars, singers and snare drums. You sing, you dance, and usually there is a solo singer—traditionally a farmer, and they have these noble, deep voices. It's about giving thanks for the harvest and celebrating with wine, and it's been like that for thousands of years.
How did you get into wine?
In my late teens, I started to try wines. In Logroño, there is the Calle Laurel, a traditional street where there are dozens of small tapas bars. All of them serve different wines, and many of them are vino joven, which is young wine from that year from local producers. Sampling wines from these family producers is a natural way to be introduced to the wine and to wine culture.
Young people also drink calimocho in Logroño, and in the north of Spain in general. Calimocho is a blend of red wine and Coca-Cola. It sounds so strange, right? But it's a way of developing your taste and then transitioning into more refined, better wines.
One of the great wines I remember is a Fernando Remírez de Ganuza gran reserva. I became good friends with him, and he had a 2004, which was a great vintage. I met him, and he invited me to a restaurant, and he went into his cellar and grabbed a bottle without a label and said, "This is my best wine." He told me the whole story around the wine. Trying it was a celebration, and that kind of thing sticks in your memory.
What sorts of wines do you collect?
I have a bigger wine cellar in Madrid, and a smaller one in New York, and I mostly collect wines from Rioja. I used to be a cultural ambassador for Bodegas Vivanco and their Museum of Wine Culture, and I maintain a wonderful relationship with them. I basically have all the different wines they offer, and then I always have some Fernando Remírez de Ganuza because those are some of my favorites. I love Bodegas Muga—you can't go wrong with Muga. I'm also fond of Bodegas Roda, Ramón Bilbao and many others.
What makes the wines of Rioja special to you?
In Rioja, you feel the soil, the terroir—there is something earthy and passionate, and you can feel the personality of the family that has dedicated itself through the centuries to that wine. You sometimes even get a quite raw impression of the wine. They have such a strong sense of personality, which I identify with. I think it's good that a bottle of Rioja tastes like Rioja, Napa tastes like Napa and Bordeaux tastes like Bordeaux. That sense of place enriches the wine world very much.
Tell us about your La Rioja Festival, which is now in its second year.
It's the largest classical music event in Rioja, and it's a project of experiences that revolve around wine, gastronomy and nature, including the Camino de Santiago and various cultural heritage sites. We harmonize all these different elements with music, and ticket sales support music education for students in the region.
This year, a group visited from California, including winemakers and chef Charlie Palmer, who curated a personalized experience around food, music, wines, nature and cultural sites. We've also created a nonprofit to create a kind of sister city relationship between Rioja and California wine country. The idea is also to give back to the Napa and Sonoma regions and collaborate with local foundations that are focused on the guitar and music in general.
You're playing at Festival Napa Valley this summer. What excites you about being back in Napa?
What I admire about Napa is the vision. The wineries are united around the whole concept of what Napa means. In the long term, they think as one, and they do a fantastic job of integrating the whole visitor experience. Festival Napa Valley is also a great gift to the region. Like La Rioja Festival, it lets visitors experience top-notch restaurants and wineries while immersed in the best music and art from around the world.
How are wine and music connected?
The sophistication of classical music is very much like the sophistication of a good wine. Both put you in touch with many different levels of yourself, and they're great ways to inspire people and bring them together.
I like to make an analogy between the wine barrel—where the alchemy of wine happens and the vision of the winemaker takes shape—and the process of making music. Winemakers are artists, and like all artists, they have a vision. My guitar has a sound board and a body, and the inside is like a barrel. It's where the transformation of the sound happens, and my vision is created there.
In the end, it's about emotions. When you taste a great wine, you can feel the depth of the process, the emotions, the journey. Like any art, wine needs your full attention and sensitivity. You need to surrender to the moment so you can be seduced by the wine. When you go to a concert or exhibition, you have to be vulnerable to the moment and open to being surprised.
A wine that touches my heart, that's my wine. In music, we are working with things we cannot see or touch, and those are the most profound things we can experience. And with wine, of course we see and taste it, but there's so much more that we don't see that is within every bottle, within every grape: the moment it was harvested, how it transformed into wine. That's part of the magical process. And that approach is what can transform a great wine into a sublime experience.