There’s something quite satisfying about a good ole fashioned food fight. It’s a childhood impulse most of us never outgrow (see: the thousands of grown-ups who attend the La Tomatina Tomato Throwing Festival). But, for those who like to drink their wine and wear it too, the tiny Spanish town of Haro offers a boozier, adult alternative: the annual La Batalla del Vino (“Battle of the Wine”).
It’s heralded as the world’s greatest wine festival/food fight that most travelers have never heard of. Which begs the question: are there any competitors? Every year since 1965, the townspeople of Haro have gathered en masse to celebrate the region’s annual harvest of locally produced Rioja wine.
After a thorough liver punishing the night before, the official festival begins at dawn every June 29th. Every able-bodied person in town — tourists included — is encouraged to dress in white tops and blood red handkerchiefs before marching four miles uphill to the celebration’s “battleground.” The Mayor of Haro leads the charge on horseback. Here, near the small hermitage of “Los Riscos de Bilibio,” sits a line of trucks containing more than 75,000 liters of wine (that’s 20,000 gallons to Americans). A mass is celebrated on the hilltop just before the mayor plants a purple flag at Haro’s highest point.
Once the mayor’s flag is planted, the melee begins. There are few rules: festival-goers are encouraged to spray, throw, daub, or otherwise bomb their comrades via water guns, buckets, wineskins, or wine-filled balloons — any effective means of mass wine delivery. During the battle, copious amounts of wine are consumed. After which, anyone who’s still able to crawl or stand heads back to the center of town at midday. From there, the crowd of purple-tinted soldiers continues the celebration with another round of food, wine, and merriment.
The tradition originated from a 12th-century land dispute between Haro and a neighboring town. The former eventually won, and it was determined that the land at Los Riscos de Bilibio was part of Haro. With one catch: the townspeople were required to plant a purple flag each year to stake their territory. If they neglected to do so, the land would be returned to the adjacent village of Miranda de Ebro. This flag-planting became an annual pilgrimage. Fast-forward to 1710 when one Haro villager doused another with red wine during the event to celebrate that year’s pilgrimage. Thus was born the tradition of La Batalla del Vino (also known locally as “the Wine Baptisms”).
Is La Batalla del Vino the world’s largest festival of its kind? Hard to tell. But, it does sound a whole lot more fun than your average grade school food fight with tater tots and chicken tenders.