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Pressure Is On as Spaniards Put Cork Back in Cava

Times Staff Writer

Cava is Barcelona’s bubbly.

The pale sparkling wine is to Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, as Coca-Cola is to Atlanta or Chianti to Tuscany: a beverage that defines a region and culture.

Inevitably, then, politics and the latest attempt by the people of Catalonia to press for greater independence have spilled over into the production and consumption of cava, one of the autonomous region’s most precious industries.

Shortly after the Catalan parliament voted overwhelmingly in late September to declare Catalonia a “nation” within Spain, furious Spaniards from other parts of the country declared a cava boycott. It was an especially dire move just ahead of the holiday season that accounts for an enormous portion of cava sales.

“Catalan businessmen have found themselves in the cross-fire,” Josep Lluis Bonet, president of the best-known cava, Freixenet, told Spanish newspapers, adding that the situation was “unfair and painful.”

Boycotting Spaniards, especially from the more traditionalist political right, are fearful that granting more autonomy to the wealthy northeastern region through what they describe as an “anti-Spanish” charter reform would be the beginning of the end of a united nation.

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Proponents say that rather than trying to break away from Spain, they are seeking to update the autonomy rules that have been in place for nearly three decades. They complain that Catalonia gives more than it gets, subsidizing less affluent parts of the country.

More deeply, the Catalan move comes at a particularly polarized moment in modern Spanish history. Thirty years after the death of Fascist Gen. Francisco Franco, festering tensions from the dark years of dictatorship and a long-ago civil war seem to be infusing today’s debate over national identity.

Franco repressed regional differences; many adult Catalans remember being forbidden to speak their language in public. But after his death and the advent of democracy, decentralization was enshrined in a 1978 constitution that gave limited autonomy to 17 zones, including Catalonia, the Basque region, Galicia, Madrid and others.

Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, head of the nationalist Catalan Republican Left party that backs the autonomy push, said governing the region with the old constitution was like trying to access the Internet with an outdated word processor.

“There has been a sacredization of the Spanish Constitution as though it were the Bible, the Koran, the Torah: untouchable,” Carod-Rovira said at his Barcelona headquarters. “Laws have to be modernized according to the times.”

To be enacted, the charter approved by the Catalan parliament in September must receive the blessing of the Spanish parliament in Madrid, a lengthy process whose success is by no means guaranteed. As written, it would transfer to the “nation” of Catalonia greater powers of tax collection and control over seaports and airports and large infrastructure projects.

The leftist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has voiced qualified support for the measure, in part because Catalan parties help sustain his narrow ruling majority. Zapatero wants amendments, however.

The rightist opposition, including the political heirs of Franco, are outraged at what they see as an assault by a dangerous independence movement.

“This draft law ruptures the constitution and means the breaking up of national sovereignty,” former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose party was ousted by Zapatero in last year’s election, said in a speech. “It sets up a new system -- unheard of anywhere in the world -- which goes beyond federalism.”

Carod-Rovira dismissed such comments as fear-mongering by politicians who use what he called “Catalonia-phobia” for electoral gains. One of the remnants of the Franco legacy is an “allergy” to too much pluralism, he said.

Like most of his fellow Catalans, Carod-Rovira is a big cava fan. It’s a beverage appropriate before, during and after both lunch and dinner, he says, the drink of choice at receptions, book launches and museum openings. He is such a connoisseur that the greeting on his cellular telephone screen says, “Cava i llibertat,” Cava and liberty, in the Catalan language.

Asked if he was worried about the boycott, which has been organized largely through websites, text messaging and word of mouth, Carod-Rovira said the best way to counter a boycott was to avoid talking about it.

He should know. Carod-Rovira provoked a boycott of cava last year when he opposed Madrid’s bid to play host to the 2012 Olympics. (He later had to back down.) This year’s boycott is expected to hurt sales far more.

“I am not buying cava,” said Jose Manuel Rodriguez, 34, a lawyer who was strolling through downtown Madrid recently. “I check the labels. I don’t like the way the Catalans are. They think they are superior.”

Raul Gomez, an executive at an international corporation, said shunning cava was “a matter of loyalty.”

“I used to buy cava, because I considered it ours, a Spanish product,” Gomez, 33, said. “But if Catalans say they are not Spanish, I give up the cava.”

Worries about the boycott prompted a top Freixenet official to declare that cava was “just as Spanish as anything else.” That move backfired in Barcelona, where senior officials at the Generalitat, as the regional government is known, scolded the official for betraying cava’s identity.

At the Vinya del Senyor, a cava and wine bar in Barcelona, no one doubted cava’s identity or popularity. The menu, which changes regularly, listed 20 brands of Catalan cava.

“People here begin with cava,” bartender Lorenz Gueze said, “and they end with cava.”

Times special correspondent Cristina Mateo-Yanguas in Madrid contributed to this report.


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