When they moved from the Twin Cities to Spain three years ago, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz didn't know anyone, spoke very little Spanish and didn't have jobs.
But their biggest problem was that they were without "el enfouche." Literal translation: "an outlet plug." Real-life translation: an acquaintance who connects you with a job, which, they learned, is virtually the only way an outsider can procure fulltime employment in Spain. "You could be the King of England, and it doesn't matter," said Opaz.
Gabriella found part-time work teaching English to businessmen, and Ryan did what any unemployed 30-year-old wine geek would be expected to do:
He started blogging.
Three years later, Catavino is among the most popular and respected wine blogs around, with 15,000 unique visitors a month, and the Opazes are even making a few Euros helping wineries set up English-language websites. Along the way, they've added Portugal to their "beat" and the food and culture of both Iberian nations to the topics at www.catavino.net.
Covering Spain's 68 wine regions and sampling Portuguese signature snail dishes is a daunting job, and the Opazes are just the ones to do it.
"When I started in wine about 10 years ago, Spain was the up-and-coming wine region -- and it's still the up-and-coming wine region," Ryan Opaz said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. "In that period of time, South Africa up and came, other regions up and came. Spain just seems to be still climbing.
"And Spanish food is amazing. It's all about ingredients. I have a friend who says 'Italian cooking isn't cooking. It's grocery shopping.' And Spanish is the same. There are no sauces. I have a Spanish cookbook, and one of the recipes is 'grab fish, put on grill.' "
Catavino is not one of those writing-in-your-scivvies enterprises. The Opazes travel all over the Iberian Peninsula, visiting wineries and delving into the vastly differing cuisines and cultures of each region. They're particularly enthused these days about sherry, having both become Certified Sherry Educators.
"I'd love to see sherry hit big here," said Opaz, his intense blue eyes lighting up over lunch at Sapor. "But it's a hard wine because if it's not fresh, which most of it that gets here isn't, it's really different."
"When you drink it straight from the barrel or after it's been in the bottle for one month, your mind explodes -- amazing, amazing flavors," he added.
"Education of the retailers would be good. Most retailers just know they need to have a few bottles on hand for the crazy old person. But it's a real eye-opener when you have a fresh one."
Nothing happens quickly
While Ryan lived in Minnesota his entire life before decamping for Iberia, the Opazes' peripatetic life fits Gabriella perfectly. She bolted out of Winnetka, Ill., the day of her high-school graduation and lived in Colorado and New Mexico before a friend from Plymouth, Minn., called. "I had no idea where Minnesota was even located on a map," she said.
She spent 10 years in the Twin Cities, working at restaurants such as Nami and Nicollet Island Inn and earning a master's degree in education from the University of Minnesota. She also met and married Ryan, who was in the restaurant biz before managing a Cellars wine store in Minnetonka for three years.
Then came Spain, a markedly different environment from the Upper Midwest. "First of all," said Gabriella via e-mail from the Opazes' home in the town of Terrassa, just outside Barcelona, "to survive here, one truly has to come to terms with the fact that nothing will happen quickly, efficiently or politely within government or corporate circles.
"But I adore the people. They are gregarious, boisterous and opinionated, willing to entertain with music, food or dance at a moment's notice. I adore the rich history that surrounds us, the lush natural surroundings, the rich cultural diversity, the fresh produce, meats and fish, and of course, the wine."
Ah, the wine. Gabriella has a fondness for juice from Bierzo, Cava, Pais Vasco, Ribera del Duero and the Dao and Duoro regions in Portugal. Ryan has that sherry affair going on and a recent passion for the regions around the coastal city of Valencia (Valencia, Alicante and Utiel-Requena).
While they love to talk about and assess wine, the Opazes have stopped using ratings and detailed tasting notes at the site.
"When we started, I thought I needed to do points," said Ryan. "And then I would have 10 wines rated 87, and I like each one for a different reason. They scored the same, but they had nothing in common. At this point, if someone asks about a wine, I'll tell you what I think, I'll give it a thumbs up, but I won't do points.
"And I think the tasting note should die. You know how many wines have lemony notes? Every single white. Plus, they tend to make people intimidated."
Now, can the Opazes, three years in, say all that in Spanish?
"If I'm talking about wine and food, I'm probably about 70 to 80 percent fluent," said Ryan. "If we're talking about cars, I'm probably zero."
Gabriella said she was "pathetic on a bad day and decent on a good day. We are functional."
Even without "el enfouche."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643 Read Ward on Wine at www.startribune.com/blogs/wine.