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A Gehry Hotel in Basque Wine Country

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Photo: Javier Salas

"I’m not a connoisseur of hotels, though I stay in a lot of them and could easily spend the rest of my life at the Gresham Palace, the Four Seasons in Budapest," says Gehry. "I designed this as a place I’d like to go myself. The rooms are all about the windows. These open, and there are window seats that follow the zigzagging contours of the glass, and a little desk, all creating a private niche. The view is part of the room. My hope would be that hotels can be more of an experience that feels like the architecture of the building. Maybe this one will open someone’s eyes that things can be done differently."

Alas, Gehry’s room description applies only to those in his building, where I was booked for my entire stay. But at the last minute I decided to also test-drive the annex (not exactly gumshoe reporting, you’ll say, but I was already in my pajamas and had to carry my toothbrush and eye mask across the bridge). Because they face the village, the most desirable rooms in the main wing are 101–104 and 112, 114, and 115. Those in the annex are boxy and endowed with less personality, though 116, 117, and 118 have thrilling reach-out-and-touch views of the mother cell; 128–144 turn their backs on it, and 119–127 have partial views.

In both buildings Gehry and his associates have occasionally forgotten that they were designing a small hotel and not a public institution. Many of the materials and fittings were selected to withstand the wear and tear of maybe 10,000 people a day, numbers Riscal will never see. Only four rooms have terraces—a curious choice in a Mediterranean country hotel with an explicit tie to the outdoors. The fluorescent lights that blink on when you open a closet door and the elevators that operate with magnetic key cards do not feel very luxurious. If as a result the hotel can seem a little businesslike, a little chilly, the service picks up the slack. The staff is young (everyone seems gloriously under 30) and touchingly determined to prove themselves worthy of working in Gehry’s temple to wine and, close behind, food.

The restaurant serves ancient, soul-stirring Riojan dishes like croquetas bechamel and monkfish, clam, and chickpea stew, as well as wizardly, off-the-wall creations like sea bass with crystallized red wine and Iberian ham-and–tomato seed ice cream (croutons on the side). Francis Paniego, who survived two apprenticeships with that mad-scientist-who-if-you-have-to-hear-his-name-again-you’ll- scream, Ferran Adrià, was hired for his possibly unique ability and willingness to deliver ancestral preparations alongside the kinds of anarchic ones that, in recent years and for better and worse, have made Spanish cooking so fashionable. Paniego has a funny story. In Spain, his mother, Marisa Sánchez, is a legend. Echaurren, the hotel-restaurant in nearby Ezcaray where even after retirement she is still an appraising presence, has been in her family for 400 years. In 2000 Paniego opened his own place, El Portal, under the same roof, sharing a kitchen with Echaurren. Señora Sánchez’s menu flies the flag of tradition. Paniego, who shuttles between El Portal and Riscal, where he will oversee the cooking school that opens next year, peppers his with dishes incubated in a Freshlife Automatic seed sprouter (not a joke).

I had always thought Caudalie’s wine- and grape-themed products and treatments one of the hokier concepts in spa-dom, but my beauty-editor friends tell me I can’t totally dismiss it, so I’m bowing to them. In the mid 1990’s the company pioneered oils and unguents with polyphenol, found in grape seeds and shown to be effective in fighting free radicals in things like cigarette smoke and sunshine. I still think the Barrel Bath, which is nothing more than a whirlpool tub encased in planks, is dumb. But hats off to the Riscal spa, which, even after you’re done ogling the hotel, still produces a wow. Every treatment room has a burnished or charred liana—a woody vine from the Amazonian rain forest—rising sculpturally in a moodily lit vitrine from a carpet of stones. Cranial massages and reflexology are offered in a square, freestanding "mystery" enclosure of chunky wooden slats, the whole lifted on blocks above a floor of tiny turquoise tiles. Dozens of bamboo poles, hung to waist-level on cables from a wire grid, surround a circle of wet rocks. Walking on these stones is prescribed as a remedy for "heavy legs" (a peculiarly feminine complaint, apparently), if you can stand the pain. The curtain of poles contributes nothing, not even a shield from the humiliating regard of other curists when you fall off the rocks and cry "ouch." But they do look great, a triumph of mise-en-scene.

If, like me, you love wine but usually find winery tours dull and same-y, with little regional variation in the script from Sonoma to St.-Émilion, Riscal’s could change your mind. Maybe it’s the elevator that speeds guests directly (and exclusively: day-trippers use another entrance) from inside the hotel through one of the supporting columns to the four-million-bottle aging cellar and a plant that pumps out more than 845,000 gallons of wine a year (only a fraction of it grown on land owned by Riscal). A command center you half expect to see an Ian Fleming villain enthroned behind is furnished with a mile-long computer console that looks as if it could launch a space shuttle, or at least blow up a small mountain. Ground control, fermentation achieved, check.

Famously, Riscal has preserved bottles from every year since the vineyard’s inception. I’m not normally vulnerable to wine porn, but the hoary subterranean vaults where these historic vintages are stored really are amazing. In 1999, a single bottle of the 1871 brought $3,870, more than four times the high estimate, at auction at Christie’s London. The Wine Spectator heaped 99 out of a possible 100 points on the 1945. Riscal’s biggest export market is the United States, where it is associated with easy pours like rueda verdejo, a young white that sells for as little as $7.99. But the company also wouldn’t mind becoming better known for its premium wines, such as Baron de Chirel Reserva, a limited-production red made only in years when the grapes—manually selected from vines over three decades old—are judged eligible. This, of course, is where the hotel comes in.

To help persuade Gehry to accept the job, Riscal gave him a gift of a bottle from 1929, the year he was born. "It was very sweet of them," he says. "It’s not the best, but I’m not a wine expert. I liked it. The hotel would never have happened if it weren’t for the Guggenheim, which, I have to remind everybody, people were very upset about when it was first presented. One guy said they should kill me. It scared the hell out of me. But all that went away. Now when I walk down the street in Bilbao people want to hug me. I hope that happens in Elciego. The hotel is a very small building. The critical mass of the winery is huge compared to this little flowering thing. Maybe that’s what I would ask the locals to call it: ’the flowering cosa.’

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