Apr 072010
 

Wine Camp at The Vines of Mendoza Estate

Mendoza is a city of about 1 million people nestled along the Andes mountain range on the central-western edge of Argentina.   As you may know, it’s place well known for producing world class Malbec wines.  What you may not know is the popularity of the Argentine Malbec is a fairly recent phenomenon, rising to fame only in the past 10-15 years.   In fact, when the Argentine peso was devalued in 1999-2002 during Argentina’s economic crisis, a lot of foreign investors came in and helped develop the region.  So many of the wineries (and therefore many of the wines) in the area are very new.  (As a side note, that’s why it’s rare to see a wine from Mendoza that’s older than 2004/5.  Prior to the 2001,, most wineries sold all of their wine each year and the idea of ‘laying down’ or building a wine library didn’t really exist, except at a few wineries).

Bodega O. Fournier, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina

There are now over 1000 wineries in the Mendoza region and wine tourism is fairly developed with several wine tour agencies started by ex-pats catering to foreigners.   One company, called Vines of Mendoza, is importing a business model familiar to those in the U.S. – they’ve opened a tasting room and wine bar, allowing visitors to sample flights of wine from many different wineries.  They are developing a massive vineyard estate in Uco Valley, south of Mendoza, where you can buy a full-service vineyard (3-acre minimum) and start producing your own wine.  Full-service means they plant your vines, care for them until they produce fruit (2 years) and make the wine for you, with your consultation of course.

Through a friend, we were fortunate enough to meet Duffy, an executive of Vines of Mendoza.  This connection led to our adventures at “wine camp” which we’ll write about in a future post.  (Thanks Duffy!)

“Tourist Traps”

One of the first things you’ll see when you visit Mendoza are the irrigation ditches that line just about every street.   One local ex-pat  quipped that they are “tourist traps” – where if you’re a tourist, you’re too busy looking around (or drunk from wine) that you’ll inevitably fall into one of these ditches and injure yourself badly. Though we didn’t fall in to any traps during our stay in Mendoza, I am absolutely certain they’ve put a few tourists in the Emergency Room.  Here I am, reenacting it on one of the smaller ditches – don’t try this at home, folks:

"Tourist Trap" - Mendoza, Argentina

Seriously though, these irrigation ditches serve a very valuable purpose in Mendoza.  All of the water comes from snow melt in the nearby Andes and so this is the way the municipality meters out and distributes the water.   Basically, they’re water pipes above ground.

Life in Mendoza

On the weekdays, Mendoza buzzes about like a large city does, complete with cars honking, buses revving, and people walking briskly by, trying to get to where they’re going as soon as possible.   Business starts up around 9am and then shuts down at 1pm for lunch and siesta, reopening around 4:30 or 5pm until 8 or 9pm.   In the evening, restaurants typically open at 8pm at the earliest and stay open past midnight.

During siesta, things are very quiet – people actually do go take naps at home.   One would think you double the commute time needed per day by having to go home twice, but since things are pretty close and the traffic isn’t terrible, people seem to go home, at least according to a driver we hired.   That means FOUR rush hours per day!

As a visitor, there are a couple of other things you notice.  Crossing a street on foot is like playing real-life Frogger (1UP only!), or if you’re in a car, it’s like playing chicken.  There are many intersections without stoplights – call’em death streets – where the game goes like this:  roll up to the intersection at near full speed to signal that you’re definitely going to cross and there isn’t the slightest chance you could stop in time so that the cross-traffic is forced to stop.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; and when it doesn’t, you see one car slam on the brakes though without screeching.  It’s just the way the game is played and the locals say they rarely see an accident.  There were many occasions where we’ve been in the back seat of a cab, crossing the intersection, and seeing a car come a few inches away from t-boning us.

Such is city life in Argentina I suppose.  By the way, this game is played in just about every Argentine city we’ve been to.   Now, go back and imagine crossing the street on foot when this game is being played!

Sundays

In contrast to busy weekdays, Sundays in Mendoza are eerily quiet.   It feels like one of two things: either you’re living a scene out of a horror movie, or there’s a party or soccer game somewhere that everyone knows about, and you’re just not in the know.

Mendoza, Argentina

So, we asked a local where everyone goes.  Sunday is a family day where people get together for asados (big backyard barbecues) or hang out in the park, like the one below.  Here’s a water fountain/show in the Plaza de Indepedencia in the city center, reminiscent of the one at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas (use your imagination!).

Plaza de la Independencia, Centro, Mendoza, Argentina

Aside from families lounging in parks, you’ll see a lot of young adults making out in public.  This is presumably because most people still live with their parents, so privacy is found in public places.  Sound familiar, or oxymoronic?

Great Food

Since Mendoza grows grapes for wine, it follows that it can also grow other crops well (olives, leafy vegetables, peaches and other fruits).  So, gastronomic expertise is not far behind.  In fact, we liked almost every restaurant we went to, whether they catered to tourists or locals.  Here’s a look at some of the restaurants:

Azafran - one of the most oft mentioned restaurants to try in Mendoza.  It boasts a wine room with sommelier where you can choose your wine for dinner.  Azafran definitely caters to the foreign palate and the prices are as such.  Unfortunately, we disagree with most people in that this restaurant was not worth the premium you pay to eat there.  There are PLENTY of other restaurants within a few blocks that are much better – for half the price.  We can say this because we went back to Azafran twice to give it another chance, but it was average at best.

Azafran, Mendoza, Argentina

La Flora - this restaurant is a block or two away from Azafran and is a much better option.  It features good light fare, like a mixed green salads with strawberries, with richer options like osso bucco ravioli and your requisite bife de chorizo steak.

La Flora, Mendoza, Argentina

One other thing you see is lots of outdoor seating.   The Argentines love to dine outside almost regardless of how cold it is outside.

Mendoza, Argentina

And for course, it wouldn’t be dining in Mendoza if the restaurant didn’t have a kick-ass wine cellar.  Here is one of our favorites at a restaurant called Francesco Barbera.  The bottles we are holding are Double Magnums (each holds 4 bottles of wine).

And now, for some food pics that show off the culinary sophistication you can find in Mendoza – this is a mixed greens salad with blue cheese, honey glazed pecans, green apple slices and a light citrus vinaigrette at Salentein Winery’s cafe:

Salentein Winery, Uco Valley

Here’s flank steak for lunch at the Decero winery:

Finca Decero, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza

And, beef wellington, medium rare, at Azafran.  We’ll admit that this dish saved Azafran’s reputation for us.

Azafran - Mendoza

And finally, on our last night in Mendoza, we went to Don Mario, a parilla where the “who’s who” power brokers of the wine industry go to do business.  Here’s Brian on his first day as a legal intern with Vines of Mendoza, about to consume a bife de chorizo (rump steak) the size of his head.   This dish arrived after we each had a provoleta (a slab of grilled provolone cheese marinated in olive oil and oregano) and chorizo sausage.   He finished about half of the steak before Duffy stopped him for his own well-being.  Duffy is Brian’s boss for the next few months.  :-)

Bife de Chorizo at Don Mario, Mendoza

Next up, how wine is made (in Mendoza) and our adventures at “Wine Camp” courtesy of Vines of Mendoza.  But in the meantime, enjoy these photos from Mendoza: