The Montilla of Señor Cobos

FINE rain is falling on the campaña. The yellow waters of the Guadajoz have flooded the clay foothills. A black wing of cloud slides across CÓrdoba and the Sierras. The wheels of the car sink deep into the morass that is the main road or bounce over an endless line of potholes. We are on our way to Montilla to visit Mr. Cobos Ruiz, who manufactures the famous Montilla sherry in his grandes bodegas. My companions are an official secretary of the Social Democratic Party — dressed in well-cut riding clothes, closefitting gray breeches, brown riding boots, black coat, white stock under a carven wooden profile sporting a pointed waxed moustache — and a former Monarchist deputy, to-day the editor of a church newspaper, whose proletarian clothing and general air of neglect symbolize the new-time compulsory impotence of his class. In localities which have not yet witnessed hot-blooded social encounters, such political enemies can share the apéritif hour, belong to the same clubs, remember each other to the same girls. But the moment their principles are challenged, and opposing creeds stand face to face on either side of the barricades, all harmony is at an end and the fight is resumed with personal rancor and malignity.

We pass Fernan Nuñez; grapes and olives are growing in the fields on each side of the road. Ahead of us on the fading horizon, clustered on a hilltop, is the little town of Montilla, and the gray silhouette of the castle that belongs to the Dukes of Medinaceli. Mr. Cobos welcomes us at the gate and conducts us into his office. We are frozen to the marrow. I, for my part, feel the journey is worth a bottle of the very finest montilla. But of course we must wait for Ilya Ehrenburg, the great Russian writer, who is following in the second car.

We have, however, reckoned without our host. Mr. Cobos loses no time, but calls for three bottles of montilla, fills three glasses to the brim, hands them to me, and invites me to drink them one after the other. I am given only a small piece of bread between glasses, and then Mr. Cobos asks me in a serious voice, with a twinkle in his small fat-embedded eyes: —

‘Which one do you find the best?’

‘This one,’ I decide.

Mr. Cobos gives a satisfied nod, rolls his puro from the rightto the left-hand corner of his mouth, calls for three new bottles, rinses the glasses himself, fills them, requests me to drink, and again demands my verdict — only this time without speaking, with a questioning forward thrust of his blue chin.

‘The second glass,’ I say.

Mr. Cobos’s anxiety vanishes. He thumps me vigorously on the back, beams at his Spanish friends, and buttons his coat across his round stomach.

In the meantime Ilya Ehrenburg has arrived, and no sooner arrived than Mr. Cobos begins to try the wines on him. He watches Ehrenburg like a lynx, marking every detail — how he lifts his glass; whether he swallows the wine at a draft or sips it connoisseur fashion, letting it run slowly along his hollowed tongue; the expression of his eyes, which may either open wide or narrow judiciously. Nothing escapes Mr. Cobos. The ‘trial by water’ of the Middle Ages by which the will of God was said to manifest itself could not have been more severe than this wine test. No word is spoken until at last Mr. Cobos signifies his satisfaction. He leads us to the sheds where the grape juice is put to ferment, shows us the gigantic vats that hold five and ten thousand litres apiece, and takes us into the bodegas. He opens a bunghole, inserts a long-handled ladle, and fills our glasses. Sweet and sharp montilla, wine of good vintage years and of bad, some that is five years old and some that is fifty — we taste them all. And each time when we think the ritual must be at an end Mr. Cobos says, ‘We’re only just beginning,’ and leads us to another bodega.

The cellarman brings in plates of smoked spiced ham, yellow paprika sausage, olives, and goat’s-milk cheese. The wine begins to mount to our heads, our Spanish friends click their tongues, their eyes twinkle. We drink and drink, and whenever Ehrenburg or I speak they nudge each other and repeat what we have said approvingly, finding us to be fine fellows that understand life and the world. Again, they are beside themselves with admiration of Ehrenburg’s wife because she makes a quick mental addition of the contents of two barrels. They cannot curb their amazement. ‘What a miracle of intelligence!’ they cry in wonder. ‘She can reckon in figures! Hombre, what a woman! ’

Later we find ourselves sitting once more in Mr. Cobos’s office. It is bare save for an old table, a few rickety chairs, a bookcase. Mr. Cobos calls for a box of fat habanos, the kind that are sold in every village shop, winds up the gramophone, puts on scratched records of wailing Andalusian dances, followed by a flamenco. It is plain to our friends that these Andalusian dances please us, and the Social Democrat and the clerical drink each other’s health with a sigh of purest contentment.

‘We have n’t drunk anything yet,’ protests Mr. Cobos, ‘nothing at all.’

Some very old and dusty bottles are set upon the table; Mr. Cobos draws the corks himself. Ehrenburg is sitting hunched in his chair, wordless, sunk in gloom; he is a real Russian peasant, drinking, smoking, brooding. Mr. Cobos watches him with a tender eye. An hour passes, perhaps two, then Ehrenburg begins to recite, to declaim with splendid gestures and a voice strong with emotion all the Spanish poems he knows — Citroën and Deterding are forgotten. Mr. Cobos jumps up and thrusts a bottle into his arms. Curious how alike Russians and Spaniards are. The others are singing and laughing. We are sitting in a Spanish bodega; it is the time of Cervantes; in a minute Sancho Panza will come in and demand quarters for the gentle Knight of La Mancha!

Mr. Cobos — Gonzales & Co. What a world of difference! Here the patriarchal capitalist of the old days, a connoisseur of his wares, one who is overjoyed if he finds others who appreciate them, who works year in, year out, never spending his money on costly villas, luxury, fine clothes, freaks of fashion — and there the modern capitalist, impersonal, without love, without feeling for the wares he sells, the figurehead of a Board of Directors and a yearly Balance Sheet.

Before we leave, Mr. Cobos presents us with corkscrew knives made in Germany. The cars are already packed with bottles of montilla.

‘Adiós, Señor Cobos,’ there are not many men like you left in the world to-day. You like making money as well as any of your neighbors, but you do not make an idol of it; you remain what you are, and you understand the art of living.

Outside, a group of workmen have gathered. They have heard who we are, and they call out a greeting to us. We awake with a start in the twentieth century.