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march 15, 2005 -> wining and dining in mendoza  

We were well out of our league.  The couple across from us was from California, and both worked in the wine industry.  The Frenchman to our side was from near Bordeaux.  The young American from Denver was a Master of Wine.  The hosts were the founders of the Grapevine Wine Club, which arranged tours and wine-tasting evenings like the one we were attending.  We were a bit nervous at first, but everyone was very friendly, and the wine soon loosened our tongues.  Of course we didn't know wines as well as they did, but during the course of our trip we had visited the wine regions of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina, and people were interested in our thoughts.  By the end of the evening, we had all exchanged e-mails addresses, and promised to look each other up in the future.  We had also agreed to join a special tour of some of the best wineries the next morning, together with an American journalist. 

Mendoza isn't the prettiest city.  An earthquake leveled it in 1944 (killing 120,000), and out of respect for future seismic activity, the buildings remain close to the ground.  But it is the 3rd largest city in Argentina - after Buenos Aires and Córdoba - and sprawls across the plains within sight of snow-capped Andean peaks.  What Mendoza does have is location and sophistication.  It is directly across the Andes from Chile's capital, Santiago; within striking distance of Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere's highest peak; and in the middle of Argentina's premier wine-growing region.  In Argentine slang, to be “between Mendoza and San Juan” is to be drunk.  As a result of mountain and wine tourism, Mendoza has developed a fantastic range of accommodation, restaurants and bars.  An extra plus is its affordability; even backpackers can eat in fancy restaurants.  And so we did.  Together with a few Antarctic cruisers, we had a wonderful meal at La Sal, then postprandial drinks at Azafran, two of the best restaurants in town.

While South American wines have won numerous awards, and have a loyal following in North America and Europe, their local wine tourism industry is still in its infancy.  For that reason, we hadn't even planned on visiting ‘wine country' in Chile or Argentina.  In most wine regions, it is easy to visit the wineries on your own; most have ‘cellar doors' that welcome tourists to taste and purchase wine, and there are excellent wine tours available for those who would rather not drink and drive.  In Chile and Argentina, however, only a small number have cellar doors that are open without calling in advance (usually very large and impersonal,) and the wineries are often tens of kilometers apart.  We met several people who were completely frustrated with the whole experience.  That is a shame, because Chilean and Argentine reds are of excellent quality, and are excellent value.  As in South Africa, we weren't impressed with the whites (the climate doesn't suit them, we were told.)  Any Chilean red between US$8-12 was usually luscious, and any Argentine red between US$5-8 was often excellent. 

Charley picked us up in the morning, and introduced us to Kimberley, a travel journalist based in California working with Outside magazine, based.  Our first stop was La Tapiz, where a very friendly lady took us around the wine-making facility and showed us the vines.  Unfortunately, you can really only take one wine-making facility tour in your life - after that, they are incredibly boring.  In the end, most people really aren't so terribly interested in the specifics of harvesting, pressing, fermentation and maturation, they just want to try the wines.  We weren't big fans of the wines, but evidently, their Zolo label is very popular in the USA.  One of the stars of the wine-tasting night had been Ruca Malen, our next stop on the tour.  Not only were the wines excellent, but the views of the Andes from the second floor tasting room were mind-blowing.  We lingered as long as we could.  Then we drove to the Dolium winery, where we enjoyed lunch with the owners.  (The wines were good, the owner was arrogant.) Finally, we had a quick tour of some of the unique accommodation in the region, including a bodega-inn with its own small vineyard.  It had been a fun tour, but after two days of hard-core wine tasting, we were exhausted and dehydrated.  We decided to skip the northern wine-tasting region of Argentina (near Cafayate) and head straight to Salta, in the far north.