A globe trotter who’s passion brought him home
For a man to have lived an exciting life is a joy, but to have lived three is a blessing...and one that Manuel Lopez Dominguez, the man behind the Pasos Largos wine, knows too well.
Manuel, affectionately known as Manu among his friends, is a well known character in the Andalucian town of Ronda. Wine production wasn’t always his passion though, once upon a time Manu travelled the world playing Flamenco guitar and singing.
“My love for the guitar derived from what could have easily have been a huge tragedy. At the age of six I fell in to a large smouldering bonfire on the beach and burnt my hands very badly. I was in hospital for a long time and lost all the skin on my fingers, in fact doctors were worried that my fingers would start to fuse together. My doctor gave me exercises to keep my fingers moving and suggested I may want to start playing the guitar. I did, and not only did my skin grow back without a scar or any medical problems, but I also developed a talent that would change my life forever and show me the world.”
It’s not always easy to leave behind a family from a young age and begin such an exciting adventure when you are so used to being safely tucked away in the Spanish hills along a tight knit community, but Manu embraced it with the same fervour as all the other ventures that followed.
“Living in Ronda all of my life I have been surrounded by locals who truly believe that this is the belly button of the world, and I am always having to remind them that your own isn’t always the best. We should always be learning from what other cultures and techniques and people we meet. Ronda is a beautiful place, a historical landmark and it produces some of the best produce in the land...but I am lucky, I have seen the world and I know what’s out there.”
From the age of eighteen Manu was performing Flamenco in countries all across Europe, in the United States, Canada, Japan and Africa. “I have seen beauty, I have tasted excellence and I have been constantly surprised from a very young age. I never take for granted the experiences I had back then and I feel that they have shaped and influenced my life and made it what it is today. Do you know what it is to be a young Andalucian playing guitar in Tokyo? It was a crazy fun time and it really opened my eyes!”
Once Manu reached his twenties he returned home and started the second phase of his life, following in his family’s footsteps and helping to open Ronda’s first Michelin Star restaurant Tragubuches. “That’s how I slowly entered the world of wine,” he explains, as we arrive at one of his vineyards below the striking cliffs of Ronda. “My family has always owned restaurants in the area, but this one was a huge success. I got to meet people like Tony Blair and Kofi Annan, along with getting to travel a lot and taste a lot of wines from around the globe,” he says. “But running a Michelin starred restaurant is hard work, really hard work. It’s a 24/7 business that leaves you little time for your interests or your family. I really yearned to return to nature.”
In 1998, alongside wine veteran Vetas, Manu created one of the first vineyards in Ronda and entered the third and final phase of his life. As pioneers of the new wine revolution, together they paved the way for others wine producers of the area to follow. “We needed a place to start,” he explains. “So we bought the plot of land and the hotel that stands where Lunares vineyard is now. It was one of the only places at the time where there were already vines.” In 2002 they opened the Juncal hotel, which architect and fellow wine maker Flavio from Descalzos Viejos helped build and his wife interior designed. “It is a tight community here,” Manu laughs. “We all help each other, like our vines we are all intertwined.”
Such as his restaurant before it, the hotel was a huge success and was once awarded the accolade of being one of the top 25 hotels in the world. But in 2009 the recession hit Spain hard, and Andalucia worst, and Manu’s restaurant and hotel closed for good. “Some may have seen it as a bad thing but I saw it as a sign,” he says. “I knew my heart was no longer in the tourism trade and I wanted to return to wine, and this made making that decision easier.”
Pasos Largos is now fully independent and Manu no longer works alongside Vetas or Lunares, although Pasos Largos and Lunares still share their storage and production areas. Manu says he finally feels like a free man and has found his calling.
“Moving from music to food and then this has been a huge learning curve for me,” he explains. “I am so happy here. I love the countryside, people are enjoying the wine that I produce and I’m living a life that I have chosen. You can’t get better than that.”
As we talk Manu continues to check each individual plant, picking off dead leaves and tying up lose vines. “It’s all about the manual work, every day I am down here and no day is the same. The quality of the wine is found in the field, not in production. I have plans to buy more vineyards and expand a little, but not too much. Next year I will hope to produce a Tempranillo and a Rosé, but I want to maintain my quality so I will never get too big. Who knows, I may also produce olive oil from the trees on my land one day.” With Manu you feel that anything he sets his mind to is possible.
Pasos Largos currently produces 30,000 bottles of wine a year, all red. Wine is now the new family business, and his daughters have clearly been inspired by their father and are looking to follow in his footsteps. One works in tourism and speaks three languages, while the youngest is studying oncology and chemistry. “From a young age my youngest daughter would stand on a crate and help me sort through the grapes. This has been part of her life, but she also enjoys the technical side of wine production. To be honest I believe women have a better nose for wine anyway!”
He talks us through his approach to wine making and his love for the land. “Being ecological is in your heart and mind; it’s not about the stamp on the bottle or the awards. That doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in prostituting my wine for money, I simply want it to taste good and know that I have created it in the most natural way possible. In fact I am the one who has tasted my wines the most in the entire world – I drink it at every tasting I give and at every meeting I have. So I know what it needs.”
A man who has dedicated his life to giving joy to others through his passion for music, food and wine, Manu has found his peace among his vines and his land.
“I finally have the time for me. I enjoy playing tennis and travelling to other countries to ski. I spend time with my family, living a slower way of life and being among nature.” He pours me another glass of his 2008 red and smiles, a smile of a man who has travelled the world and found everything he was searching for right there on his own doorstep.
“There is a saying in these parts that couldn’t be truer,” he tells me. “The happiest man is not the one who has the most, it’s the man who needs the least.”