WWC23 – Elena Pacheco, by Karin Rockstad

Blue-grey silhouettes, via Vectorig via Getty Images

Wine educator Karin Rockstad has written this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition on Elena Pacheco, the proprietor of a winery in Jumilla. See this guide to our competition.

Karin Rockstad writes I teach WSET and WSG certification classes, lead public and private tastings, write the blog for Vine Lab, and help Spanish and Latin American wineries showcase their wines and express their content in English. I also do English-language editing. I am a voracious traveler and have studied six languages

I drive north towards the northeastern corner of Murcia, an area tucked snugly between the giant Castilla-La Mancha and the long and lean Comunidad Valenciana regions in southeastern Spain. This is the Denominación de Origen Jumilla and I’m headed for the Marín Straight. No, not out to sea, but a narrow valley in the southern part of the appellation where I’m about to live and work for a few days in the family home and winery of Elena Pacheco. We’ve never laid eyes on each other.

I’m a wine educator and translator. In all my years of learning languages and the language of wine, I had always wanted to work a harvest or go behind the scenes to see the nitty-gritty of how a winery operates, but who would give me such access? A fellow wine translator had met Elena at a women entrepreneurs’ conference in Madrid a few years back and suggested that I get in touch.

Bodegas Viña Elena was founded in 1948 by Elena’s grandfather Francisco, with just a simple winepress. The winery grew when Elena’s father Paco took the reins and now, she, the youngest of four sisters, is at the helm. I was thrilled with the idea of working in a winery where so many women are a part of the process. Elena’s sister Emi and Emi’s two daughters work in sales and customer service, Pilar is the enologist, Pilar’s daughter works in the cellar, along with many others.

When I arrive, I’m warmly greeted by the whole family. I’m amazed and grateful that these people are taking me in, sight unseen.  

It’s September 2021 and harvest is in full swing. The days are long, and the tasks are many. Emi shows me around a bit while Elena talks to a small tour group. Her nephew leads another group into the tasting room. Afterwards, Elena introduces me to a couple of the “cellar rats,” and they put me to work, helping them rack a tank of Monastrell. At the other end of the winery, several more loads of grapes are coming in, and later, I get to see how they are weighed and how they keep track of each plot. Next, I clean one of the smaller destemmers while the others wash out one of the larger tanks. Then, my new co-workers and I grab some squeegees to send all the purple-hued water down the lengthy floor drains.

I look around part of the original building and where long-time customers still drive up to buy large-format wine, either for local restaurants or home consumption. Viña Elena also provides wine for special events, so Emi and I label and decorate several dozen bottles for an upcoming wedding, chatting away as if we had known each other for years.

At lunchtime, the whole family heads to the large kitchen and they treat me as one of their own. It’s a great way to get to know them better and learn about their different roles in the business, as I’m tucking into fried goat cheese, made from a local breed of goat’s milk. 

Later, Elena takes us out to the different vineyards to select grape samples. We’ll test the sugar levels and decide when those parcels should be picked. Then, Elena shows me the back part of the winery where they also process their almond harvest. She is absolutely committed to the region and everything that comes from it, including olive oil, which Viña Elena also produces.

Another day, I help harvest grapes alongside a group of developmentally disabled adults. The winery donates time and resources to various organizations in the community. Picking grapes is backbreaking work, as the plot we are working in consists of Monastrell bush vines. We are stooped over, losing our footing now and then due to the uneven, rocky soil, and trying to keep cool in the mid-morning heat. Climate change is on everyone’s mind these days, and Elena has had to adapt as well. She told me that the Malvasía was picked in August, which didn’t happen during her father’s and grandfather’s times.

Elena is always looking for ways to improve, whether it’s picking earlier in the season, picking early in the morning to keep grapes fresh, aging skin-contact Airén in demi-johns to make a neutral native grape much more interesting, or testing grapes from abandoned vineyards for quality. A family friend came by one day to ask her to do just that. We piled into the 4x4 to check out a plot that had been left to grow wild after the death of the owner. The heirs didn’t want to work the land, so this friend thought Elena could save it. I could see the gears turning in her head as we checked the elevation, soil, wind, the health of the vines, etc., her eyes darting around, taking in everything. She tasted the grapes, studied the leaves, dug up handfuls of dirt, and walked up and down and back and forth, getting a feel for this little bit of earth to see if it could result in quality wine.

Just like wine, Elena balances tradition and modernity. She has one foot in the past, like restoring parts of the original family home to be used for special events and welcoming guests, and one foot in the future, by attending international wine fairs and opening up new markets for the winery’s top-notch products.

Elena Pacheco is my favorite wine person for her relentless pursuit of improvement and quality, for her commitment to the community and region, for keeping the past at heart while striding toward the future, and for being a champion of, and role model to women in the wine industry. I was a beneficiary of her generosity when she allowed me to be part of her family for a short time, just so I could learn about and appreciate her slice of Spain. From small Jumilla comes this towering light, and one I will continue to seek out and share with the world.

Thank you, Elena!

Image: Vectorig via Getty Images.