The epitome of old Spanish values, Alvaro Domecq, who has died aged 88, was an aristocrat and sherry magnate who devoted his life to the family estates, to bullfighting, and to cultivating the personal style of an English gentleman. Don Alvaro as he was known, was legendary for his exquisite manners. Favoring tweed jackets and silk ties he combined cultured elegance with the Andalusian aristocracy’s main pastimes horseriding and bullfighting.
Such was Domecq’s devotion to the status quo that he fought against the republic in the Spanish civil war and owed subsequent political to the General’s patronage rather than democratic elections. While, from the 1970s, Spain began to modernize around him, Domecq continued to flourish in a social and religious timewarp he belonged to Opus as a scion of an upper-class family of French origin, which had found fortune and fame in the sherry trade-in Jerez, in one of the poorest regions of Europe.
The family concern, Pedro Domecq, was for most of the last century the biggest drinks enterprise in Spain, producing brandy and sherry from the grapes grown on the chalky soil of the family’s huge estates. Among other brands, Domecq owned Fundador brandy and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. In 1994 the family was bought out and Pedro Domecq became part of UK-based Allied Domecq.
Alvaro Domecq’s role was woven into his family’s cultural and commercial tapestry from birth, though his interest in horses and bulls turned him in a slightly different direction. He was sent to Jesuit boarding schools in Madrid and Bordeaux and then studied law. After his father died in 1937, he became for a while managing director of the family business. He was just 20. However, his passion was for horses, and two years earlier, he had made his debut in the bullring as a rejoneador, that is a bullfighter on horseback who carries a lance to fight and kill the bull.
In the 1940s, Domecq revived this almost obsolete bullfighting skill. He placed his horse in front of the bull and provoked the bull’s charge. This needed nerve and outstanding control of the horse, which had to be galloped away at an angle to escape the horns. He was present at the goring and death of his close friend Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of his generation, at Linares in August 1947. Domecq himself retired from the bullring in Linares in 1949.
Domecq refused to accept money from bullfighting and donated all his fees to charity, in particular to a Catholic children’s home in Jerez. To survive bullfighting needs large estates for bulls to roam. Domecq defended his and his family’s enormous privileges against the threat of land reform which would have benefited the peasant class, by fighting on Franco’s side as a pilot in the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1939. For five years, from 1952, he was mayor of Jerez from 1957 to 1967 president of the Cadiz regional council, and from 1967 to 1973 a member of the Spanish parliament payback from a dictator.
Domecq married Maria Josefa Romero in 1938, but 14 of their 19 children died at birth because his wife’s blood group was Rhesus-negative. Of those who survived, only two lived to adulthood. Domecq leaves these two children, Alvaro and Fabiola. Alvaro Domecq y Diez, bullfighter and landowner, born July 1, 1917, died October 5, 2005
After three months of clashing schedules, I am finally in the realm of Don Alvaro Domecq although even as I stand in the courtyard of his country estate, the 66-year-old patriarch of the sherry family dynasty remains elusive. Los Alburejos, the 2,000-acre farm outside Jerez is used by the Domecqs to rear and train fighting bulls. Their cattle are called Torrestrella after the ruins of a nearby castle and are renowned throughout Spain for their bravery. It’s a Saturday morning and there is a buzz of activity children play on the grass, household staff hurry about their duties and the odd horse and rider trots past. The only creatures that aren’t moving are the bulls.
Don Alvaro’s niece, Isabel, arrives and tells me her uncle has some work to do at another farm but that we can join him there. She drives me to Martililla another estate owned by the family. In the field in front, a group of riders is chasing a young bull. Isabel unloads a quad bike from the trailer we zoom out to the pack of horses and catch up with the riders’ quarry, a brown calf and ride along beside it. Then, from behind, a huge horse moves in to separate us. The rider is carrying a lance. He presses it against the calf’s rear and it crashes to the ground. The rider tips his cap at me, then rides off. My uncle says, Isabel.
The felled calf is held down while a man with a hot iron brand him. Isabel explains that what we have just seen is called acoso y terrible, where the riders test the bravery of young cattle. In essence, if the calf gets back up and chases the riders, he or she is considered brave. As I watch Don Alvaro perform equestrian acrobatics with one bull after another, I begin to worry that he may fall off or become too tired to give me an interview. After a morning in the baking sun, we retire to the house, where everybody takes a seat at long wooden tables. The family meets like this every weekend, to tackle bulls and to eat together on the shaded terrace. After lunch, Isabel tells me her uncle will not see me until I try some of the family’s sherry. The cool fino is a perfect antidote to the Andalusian sun.
Don Alvaro and I move to the sitting room, where he slumps into a leather armchair. His most distinguishing, and aristocratic, characteristic is his large nose it leaves his face, then, half-way, bends sharply towards the ground. Don Alvaro begins. The family of my father has always been involved with wine. They came from France attracted by the sherry business and added great dimensions to the wine in Jerez. In 1818, the young French aristocrat Pedro Domecq Lembeye inherited the bankrupt wine cellar of his uncle, Juan Haurie, and set about restoring his family’s commercial honor. Under the banner Pedro Domecq, the cellar went on to become a household name around the world. By the early 1990s, however, dissent was fermenting in the family. The Domecqs who were running the business decided to sell the company because of financial problems. Some family members bought shares from others so that they could hold the majority says, Don Alvaro.
In 1994, the Pedro Domecq business was acquired by Allied-Lyons, with the new entity becoming Allied Domecq. I didn’t like it when Domecq was sold. So I began looking for other ways to continue the business. A capital a bodega’s wine expert of my acquaintance told me if you want a bodega, you will have to buy very good quality. The Domecqs’ search for excellent musts led them to one of Jerez’s oldest wine cellars, where the traditional system of soleras and criaderas has been used for hundreds of years. This artisan system where barrels holding older wines are gradually blended and replenished by younger wines would underpin the new company’s strategy of quality over quantity.
The cellar, or Almaden, was owned by the Aranda family, who would sell some of their very old, high-quality stock to the large bodegas, whose owners would then use it to add a spark to their sherries and brandies. I didn’t even know where this store was. I met its owner, Pilar, who said she had great admiration for my father and grandfather. She didn’t feel she could do it on her own and she agreed to sell [the cellar] to me. In five minutes, the deal was done.
It was 1998 and the Domecqs were back in the sherry business. But almost immediately, they ran into legal difficulties. When the name Alvaro Domecq appeared on the labels of his new line of sherries, Allied Domecq objected. At first, I had problems using my name as a brand. But we won the case to use his name as the producer only. The motto of the bodega is Nacer de Nuevo (born again) and the Domecqs must be hoping they can breathe new life into its prestigious soleras if they are to make a splash in an increasingly crowded spirits market. I’m targeting quality customers says Don Alvaro. Today people shouldn’t drink too much, because of work commitments and so on, but there should always be a place for good wine. Each sherry has a different moment. If you have a fino an amontillado, an oloroso, you can choose the right wine for each moment. For example a fino on a summer day, an oloroso on a cold day.
Don Alvaro has combined his love of sherry with a passion for bullfighting. I went to Mexico in 1963 to fight in corridas as a rejoneador. At that time, Domecq had just started selling its products there. Then they were selling less than 50,000 cases a year but were hopeful of increasing that to 100,000. Don Alvaro’s career as a bullfighter spanned 25 years and his successes in Mexico made him a household name there. Although he had no part in the sherry operation at that time, the public associated his name with that on the bottles with a resultant surge in sales. By the time Domecq was sold, the Mexican company was selling 14m cases a year he says.
The Domecqs enjoyed a golden era that stretched from the early 1930s into the late 1950s, when their upper-class jerezano lifestyle attracted film stars such as Gregory Peck and Lola Flores, as well writers and royalty from all over the world, to the farm. No one epitomized this period of style and hospitality better than Don Alvaro’s father, Alvaro Domecq Diez, renowned for his tweed jackets and impeccable manners. It’s a gilded lifestyle but the family have had their share of tragedies. Don Alvaro’s mother, Maria Josefa Romero, lost 14 of her 19 children at birth because of a problem with incompatible rhesus blood groups. In 1991, four of his nieces were killed in a car accident.
At Los Alburejos, there is an indoor bullring. Its walls are decorated with hundreds of photographs a pictorial who’s who of the international jet set. There were several pictures of Manuel Rodriguez Manolete killed by a Miura bull in 1947. The actor Adrien Brody, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Manolete, will play the matador in a biopic to be released this year. Manolete gave his ornate costume to Don Alvaro’s father, who died in 2005, and it will soon be put on display along with many of his other possessions at a museum the family is building on the farm.
There were always good matadors coming to Los Alburejos to train. There was also the attraction of the horses and, of course, good wine says Don Alvaro. Juan Belmonte [the matador] was a good friend of my father and I got to know him very well. When I was studying law in Madrid, I would pick him up and take him to buy cigars. Afterward, we would go to eat at Casa Ciriaco, where all the writers would meet. I was the youngest there. After the meal, Belmonte would make a ceremony out of lighting his cigar. There would be lots of people there Hemingway, Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, José Ortega y Gasset. Welles was a very likable man.
Indeed, the film director became such a good friend of the Domecqs that he featured in a magazine advert for their sherry. Welles once fought al alimony but when he saw the bull in front of him He chuckles. When Don Alvaro fought his first bull aged six, Belmonte considered to be one of the all-time greats was by his side. the bull is a very dangerous animal. It has the strength of a bison but is much braver. You need to be an expert to work with them, as does your horse. You get to know the signs before it attacks he says.
In May 1975, Juan Carlos than the prince of Spain presented Don Alvaro with the Golden Horse trophy in Jerez in recognition of his dedication to and work with horses. Don Alvaro acknowledged the award by creating a show, How the Andalusian Horses Dance, which in turn led to the creation of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. He later severed his ties with the school but continues to demonstrate his extraordinary horsemanship around the world with the cast of his Magical Horseriding show. Such is its reputation that the Sultan of Oman paid to have the show flown in a specially adapted Jumbo to his palace for a private performance. I am about to ask Don Alvaro how he reconciles the many demands of his tripartite business empire when his young grand-nephew enters the room and signals the interview is over. But then the answer comes to me he sees himself as a patron of the arts the art of sherry-making, the art of bullfighting, and the art of his magical horses.