Three years ago The Farmer began lecturing me about the cold hard facts of agribusiness, economies of scale, the basic principles of supply and demand as they apply to grapes, and the fact that the government only subsidizes five major crops in the US and winegrapes is not one of them.
One of his favorite rants begins with, “If they can build pears in Argentina and Chile and ship them to the port of San Francisco cheaper than we can build them in Carneros and deliver them from less than 60 miles away…” And so goes the story of being the last family in Carneros to have a pear contract with California Canners and Growers (Cal Can) in the 1960s.
A little over three weeks ago, fed up with his rants, I decided to see just how cheap they can build winegrapes in Argentina and Chile and ship them to California and went down to South America to have a look for myself.
Getting out of the country unscathed would have been asking for far too much though, so I stood patiently in the driveway of the vineyard as The Farmer ranted at me that the acacia trees were blooming and that I had better damn well cancel my trip and stay in Napa to prune.
As I turned on my heel to head for the Southern Hemisphere, I made one very simple request, “Farmer, please do not prune. Stay out of the vineyard.” Cut to the chase. He did not stay out of the vineyard while I was away and began pruning two acres of Chardonnay. That’s his test block this year. The rest is mine.
Passport in hand, a 15 hour flight with a layover in Lima and all the Argentine and Chilean vino tinto I could drink courtesy of LAN I arrived in Buenos Aires. Several nights spent dining at 11 p.m., dancing at 2 a.m. and clubbing till dawn was flanked by three days spent in Mendoza’s principal wine producing regions: Maipú and Luján – which includes Argentina’s first delineated appellation established in 1993, Luján de Cuyo. And a week more after that in Chile.
As we descended from Buenos Aires into the Mendoza airport the third world nature of the wine industry in South America becomes more and more of a reality. Local municipalities were burning trash in the vineyards. And it didn’t stop there.
The intricate irrigation system used to bring water from melted snow caps in the Andes which originated in the 16th century is a vital component to all agriculture in Argentina. Water flows through a series of ditches and canals where it is stored in reservoirs for use by vineyards which can apply for government regulated water licenses that provide them access to the water. The government opens the waterways every 15 days and it’s up to vineyard owners whether they take the water at that time or not. Don’t take it and you won’t get it, whether you need it or not, for another 15 more days. Plastic bottles, bags and household trash litter the canals.
On our multi-day bicycle tour of the Mendoza wine region, which included a day off the bikes and in a private car (only the locals can tell you where to eat the best lomo) the extreme differences between an emerging wine capital and our own Napa Valley were apparent yet again as we were escorted during later afternoon hours by Mendoza police on dirt bikes from one check point to another. Four Napa girls in tanktops and flip flops. Okay, I guess I understand their “concern”.
Viticulture practices appeared lax. In Napa, some now call this “organic”. The Farmer rants and says it’s lazy. Due to flood irrigation practices weeds are prevalent. Canopies are wild. Nonetheless in the four days we traveled the region we did not see one single worker in a vineyard. Zero hand labor. With the exception of one, maybe two, mechanical hedgers being operated. Maybe the labor force gave up on the heat and headed for the coast too. Temperatures topped out at 35 degrees celcius every day. And Malbec growers insisted they still had six to eight weeks before harvest. My California grower palate would have put the Malbec I was tasting off the vine already at 24 brix.
Wine shipments commenced middle of the day. 18 wheel flatbeds loaded up with case goods, parked in the direct sunlight.
Each day I found myself questioning if we really are creating a superior “premium” product in California to that of our global competitors OR have we all just drank way too much of the Kool-Aid? Overall, the wines or Mendoza were great. In the global market, Argentine wines are on course to be widely accepted and purchased at a fair price point. And perhaps, due to their more “lax” viticutlture, operational, business practices they are indeed building it in Argentina and shipping it to the US for cheaper than what we can create and sell to our neighbors in our very own backyards.
Differences aside. If I could have shipped cases of the Argentine bife de chorizo back to the the states, I would have. The more than exceptional Torrontés made me think twice about planting any other unusual white varietal in Carneros – it certainly trumps Albariño or Grenache blanc. And the re use of centuries old buildings for modern day wine making purposes was rather refreshing throughout the bodegas we visited. The biodiversity which the region has retained by producing peaches, olives, beef and more – for me – made it an experience which far outpaced the Disneyland experience (yep, I said it) Napa has turned out to be.
Grower tested. Grower approved Argentine wines from Mendoza include:
Trapiche Extra Brut Rose: Pinot Noir and Malbec with an aromatic nose and forward fruit flavor.
Trapiche Torrontés: Balanced across the nose and palate, golden in color. Dynamic floral and citrus fruit flavors.
Mevi Rose of Malbec: Garnet color flanked by robust yet refreshing plum flavor characteristics.
Mendel Unus: Two yet to be released barrel samples. The first a blend of Cabernet and Malbec. The second straight up Malbec. Complex, smooth finish, lasting impression.
The vegetative flavors of Chilean wine rivaled those in the 2011 vintage of California Cabernet, but the Chilean beaches certainly gave the Argentine nightlife a run for its money – which led to us ladies foregoing Santiago for Valpariso and the US Embassy searching for us throughout the better part of a week – meanwhile we were downing pitchers of Terremotos well into the early hours of what has become known as my annual international birthday vacation – and unexpectedly meeting an American Man among a crowded sea of Latin Lovers – all pretty much along the lines of you’ve gotta’ know me to love me and for me to tell you more!
Any additional details we may be willing to give up can be found en mis Amiga’s y my travel partner’s blog – Hossfeld Vineyards.
Ciao. Ciao. For now.