Text + Photos: Mike Blanchard
Spotlight | Before there were plastic bottles or metal canteens or glass bottles there were three types of materials used to make vessels to hold liquids: leather, wood and clay. Wood and clay vessels are somewhat difficult to make depending on your regional resources but leather was a very common resource. Hence the bota. You may be familiar with the bota as the wine vessel of gypsies and hippies.
This vessel has been a large part of Mediterranean culture and goes back before the Greeks and Phoenicians. It was made in a number of sizes from small canteen sizes to large vessels, calledpellejo in Spain, made from the whole skin of a goat. At the ancient Olympic Games the winners received a wreath of laurel and a skin of wine.
Julio Rodriguez-Rodriguez is a worried man. He has made botas by hand in his family’s shop since he was a young man. There are only three shops left in Spain making botas in the traditional way. “There are no young people taking it up. There is no future,” said Rodriguez. “I do not know who will take up the craft when I am done.“ According to Rodriguez it will probably end up just closing. The vast majority of bota are made in Asia and use a plastic liner inside the leather.
Rodriguez, 61, Is a master of this ancient art. Rodriguez Boteria was started by his grandfather Anastasio in 1909. “With papers” as Rodriguez is at pains to point out with a wink. Anastasio apprenticed to a maker of bota so the line probably goes back a coupe hundred years.
The form we think of now, a tear drop shape holding about a quart, is over 2000 years old in Spain. The traditional Spanish version is made out of goat hide turned inside out with the hair on the inside. The inside of the bota is sealed with pine resin mixed with olive oil. The hair of the hide holds the sealer, gives it strength and keeps it from separating from the hide. Originally the bota was sewed using waxed thread made from the hair of wild boars. These days Rodriguez uses cotton thread. Then the outer seam is whip stitched with leather to get the seam to curve and give the vessel volume when turned inside out. Traditionally horn or wood plug forms the mouth of the vessel.
Rodriguez makes the bota with the same tools that his grandfather and father used. The small shop has the patina of years of work done by hand. With tools and patterns hanging from the walls. And amarble topped work bench. There are some modern concessions such as a heavy duty sewing machine to do the cotton stitching and heavy duty plastic mouthpieces instead of horn or wood. But other than that these vessels are made in the time honored way. By hand.
The bota is perfect for holding wine in the saddle bag of a motorcycle or bicycle. Also perfect for the backpack. It can’t smash and cut you in a tumble. Nor will it still be there with the cockroaches ten thousand years from now like the plastic water bottle. Properly cared for Rodriguez bota will last 30-40 years. As long as you keep wine in it. Not a heavy burden.
If you find yourself in Madrid look up Rodriguez Boteria in La Latina and get your hands on one of these hand made wine skins.