Monday, November 17, 2014

The Magic of Mendoza – Argentina Part II

Mendoza is not an easy place to taste wine. Extensive research revealed that there are 3 main wine regions around it, with wineries clustered in each of them – Valle de Uco, Luján de Cuyo and Maipû. The last two are about 45 min drive from Mendoza city, and Uco is more like 1.5 hrs, and most wineries are kind of spread out. You can’t just walk into a tasting room and demand to taste some of their delectable wines. You need to call at least 24 hrs in advance and book a tour – apparently, winemakers of Mendoza consider it a crime to want to just try wine and not take an extensive tour of their indisputably unique winery and cellar. Frankly, after you tour two of them, whether in Mendoza or elsewhere in the world, as we had, you get tired of looking at giant steel vats or admiring French oak barrels (medium toast!), and walking through old basements being told how wine is made pretty quickly. I know how it is made. I know because the three other wineries I visited this very day each explained it to me in minute detail in excruciating Portanõl. Not to mention the three I saw yesterday. Just give me the damned wine!

Extensive research also revealed that we should either hire an expensive cab driver to ferry us around, or book an organized tour (about $300 per day) but we should NOT, under ANY circumstances, rent a car and drive ourselves around as the roads are poorly marked and the wineries tricky to find. So, we went out and rented a car. In our defense, the other options were just so unnecessarily expensive and inflexible that we figured that renting a GPS will do the trick. Clearly, we also rented from the cheapest place possible, and as a result the Diplomat spent the next 4 days driving a tiny car with no power steering through some very, very dusty unpaved roads. But we had a GPS and got lost, like, six times only! It took some time to get the whole operation organized since we also were a little late to the whole “booking a visit” party. Finally, I figured that if we were going to stay in a nice hotel (the Sheraton), we might as well use their concierge to do our job. I dumped a list of my desired wineries to a very perky youngish thing at the desk and asked her to work her magic. Then the Diplomat, Son and I set out to the only winery in the whole region that would see us without an appointment – Familia Zuccardi

One hot wine tour later, and our Mendoza adventure had begun. On the way back, the Diplomat found the local golf course and much to my chagrin, went and hit the driving range with Son while I sat down and read a magazine on the grass. Well, in all honesty, it was mostly him trying to convince Son to hit the balls with the stick (did you know that a golf stick in Portuguese is called a "taco"??) instead of kicking them around like a football. But still golf was played. I watched for some time and I have to tell you – I just don’t get golf. It is literally a bunch of guys, all lined up in a row, whacking a ball with a stick and trying to see how far it can go, all the while wearing silly checkered pants and squatting like ducks with osteoporosis. Ball after ball after ball. Whack! After a while I got so bored I watched a couple of stones grow for a change.

Finally, we went back to the hotel and the whipper-snapper gal at concierge proudly handed me our wine-tasting schedule for the next two days, including a wine-tasting lunch at one of the wineries. She did good. The next day, a Thursday, I believe, was spent in blissful tastings in Cuyo. We started at Bodega Luigi Bosca (only the name is left of the original founder – after he started the winery, he sort of disappeared from the picture and 100 or years later, it still has the name but the Bosca family gets squat from the place). At Luigi Bosca, we stumbled upon a group of carousing neurosurgeons who apparently were in Mendoza for a conference, but the pull of the wineries proved to be stronger than the riveting presentations of their learned peers. Then we felt hungry and decided to find a place to eat. The nerve we had! You try finding a working restaurant in the dead of siesta hour, in the middle of nowhere, Mendoza valley. This is when one begins to appreciate little miracles in life. We did, in fact, stumble upon a most peculiar establishment, a working restaurant that resembled a farm house of sorts, with many little dining rooms and twisting and turning staircases up and down a largely misshapen house, that has been built on each side and on top so many times that the builders must have lost track of what made sense in the end. We were offered a sprawling old wooden table somewhere deep in the basement, laid with dozens of little salads, cured meats, cheeses, olives, vegetables, fruits, breads and a never ending supply of home-made Malbec. Friends and family! I have never experienced anything like this in my life. It was almost like out of a story of 1001 Nights – honestly, if suddenly a couple of odalisques had shown up, scantily clad, with large horns on wine on their heads, ready to pour us when needed, I would not have been that shocked. And all of that for the grand price of $20.

Mightily fortified, we soldiered on to Bodega Chandon – an old love affairs of ours, ever since the Diplomat and I “discovered” Chandon back in Napa Valley during our very first wine-tasting tour together when we were merely dating. I think Chandon was the very first winery I had ever visited in my entire life, and I fell in life forever in the enchanting surroundings and its crispy, delicious sparkling wines. Later on we learned that Chandon is indeed owned by the Evil Empire, also known as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and that they owned a sister winery in Mendoza valley. Well, it felt like going back home. I should add here that because Argentina and Brazil are in an economic commonwealth of sorts called Mercosur, one can bring alcohol from one country to another in much larger quantities than is usual between countries, namely 12 bottles per adult (or was it 12 liters?). Thusly, we were on a mission to purchase 24 exceptional wines and were acquiring bottles at each winery at an astonishing speed. At Chandon alone, we bought 6 bottles of fabulous sparkling wine, all methode champenoise, nothing less! and they are currently resting happily in our apartment. I don’t remember much after Domaine Chandon, to be honest. I do think we went back home and slept all the wine off. Including Son.

You might, indeed, wonder what the indomitable child did do during all this wine-related gallivanting around the countryside. He did what Son does best – run around uninhibited all over the vineyard, and then hide around the wine barrels (French Oak, heavy toast, 500 euros each), jumping out in the darkness at the unsuspecting neurosurgeons and scare the crap out of them. He also acquired an extensive collection of pebble stones, which I continue to find hidden in the various pockets of his shorts. Everyone noted how exceptionally well behaved he was. Um, ok, sure!

The next day, Firday, started SO well. We went to the farthest wine region of them all, Vale de Uco, with first stop the new and eclectic Atamsique winery. In fact, it was so now and eclectic, that we missed it a few times until we finally stumbled upon a dusty suggestion of a road, which we bravely took and finally found the famed place. We were taken on yet another SUPER interesting wine tour (“ooh, look, we have CONCRETE vats, we are such pioneers!”) which culminated in a rather substantial wine tasting. So substantial, in fact, that as we moved on towards the next winery and faced the necessity to gas up our antique vehicle, I generously offered to the Diplomat to stay back in the car while I get out and fill it up. Men around the world should know that if a woman offers such a sacrifice, then she must be either about to ask you for some money later on or that she is more or less drunk. Let’s say that I did not need money. Instead, I happily got out of the car and started pouring what I thought was the cheapest gas. At 20 liters I decided to cap it, which was lucky because, as the gas clerk (who had just arrived running from the office afraid that we were going to drive away without paying) pointed out to me, apparently I had just poured in 20 liters of diesel fuel into a car that only takes regular gasoline. I did not see what the big deal was. After all, I was born in a country where in the past people habitually stole gasoline late at night from other people’s cars by siphoning it out of their reservoirs using the simple but effective combination of a plastic tubing, their mouth and gravity. No one seemed to agree with me though, and, highly concerned about the gringa and her stranded family, four burly men from the gas station pushed the car gently 20 meters down to the mechanic’s garage. Yey, how lucky, no? No, because the damned mechanic did not show up until an hour later, thus causing us to miss our next appointment at the famed Salenstein winery. Finally, 2 hours later, after the mechanic and his 2 buddies meticulously wiped every last drop of diesel from the car, we were ready to move. Except that the mechanic now wanted to socialize. He took us into his office and for the next 30 minutes proceeded to show us his album of newspaper clippings about his fledgling career as an amateur race car driver, pictures of his four children, his military cap from the Falklands War (I still think he was a bit too young to have been in that war, but perhaps it was lost in translation or Malbec) and some other military and car paraphernalia. In the end, he ran out of things to show us and we were free to go. Just in time to catch our next appointment – a wine pairing lunch at the spectacular Andeluna Cellars.  

The lunch was the cherry on the top of our trip. The setting itself was amazing, in a large room with an open kitchen, overlooking the vast vineyard, cozy and elegant. The food was interesting and delicious and wines, of course, amazing. Except that they keep bringing in more wine and it all just sounded like SUCH a good idea at the time. The poor Diplomat, who was driving, just stood there watching me “taste” more and more wine, rolling his eyes. After we left, he apparently drove us to the golf course, where I rested gently under the deep shade of a tree and the two men went to hit some more aimless balls towards the nothingness in the driving range, along with a posse of similarly-minded, very interesting older men. Whack!

Mendoza overall is a lovely town with a bustling street life and about a zillion trillion cafes. We completed our wine purchases in the famed Vinoteca Sol y Vino, who packaged our precious cargo of 24 bottles of exquisite Malbec and 6 Chandons. We capped the trip with one last dinner of parilla (or Argentinean BBQ) at the elegant Ocho Cepas and went off to bed happy. The next day we successfully transported ourselves, a sleepy Son and our 24 bottles back to Brazil, and on Monday morning, all reported back to work and school. One thing is for sure – I love Malbec. Oh, and another is for sure – we are going back!