Camino del Vino

Well this is decidedly the worst place we have stayed on our trip. We are staying in what is quite literally a patio that they have enclosed. Our bed is hard and lumpy, and just outside of our very thin walls is the backyard where, thanks to free wine from 7-9 pm, all of the rowdy youths were giving us their version of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody till well after midnight. Eventually we fell asleep and woke up this morning to take flooded showers in the shared bathrooms.  We briefly entertained the idea of moving hostels, but only dorm rooms are left in the city and that sounds worse.  So we will stick it out. At least we’re not pooping from 2×4’s above a hole in the ground.

Today we had a wine and bike tour booked so we headed down stairs for a quick breakfast before we were picked up by Lucas who would be our very hands off guide for the day.  We climbed in the van with others from our hostel and made a tour of the city picking up several more.  The cast of characters for the day was certainly less entertaining than polo day, but a lot more tolerable: a mother and her two daughters, a Scottish woman, a couple from England who were hung over from too much free wine last night, a Brazilian who doesn’t like wine, two other American girls, and an Argentinian couple one of whom I’m not sure had ever ridden bikes before. If this sounds like an odd group for a wine and bike tour, you are right it was.

The biking crew.  That's Fernando in the red tank top, putting some serious thought into how to go about this biking business.
The biking crew. That’s Fernando in the red tank top, putting some serious thought into how to go about this biking business.

We started the day at Danta Robino where we were given a curt tour of the wine making production and then had a tasting of three of their wines. Our host kept asking us what we smelled (or “what our noses felt” actually) and tasted. She did not seem to care for my answer of cheese but the Brazilian (who admittedly doesn’t like wine) agreed. Lynn smelled onions but we thought that wouldn’t go over too well either so she kept it to herself.

From here we were issued some bikes that had seen better days.  Most were rusted and the seats were crooked. The tires were so old that the rubber was cracking and they almost were all squishy – not quite flat.  While pumping my front tire up the valve broke away and the tire emptied making a very long, pronounced high pitched squeal, and I had to get another bike.  It didn’t end up mattering though as we were only biking 6 miles on flat terrain so it was still enjoyable. We took off through the gates towards our next winery and stopped after maybe a mile to make sure everyone was still with us.  We were missing two, the Argentinian couple.  Way back in the distance we could see them and one was swerving all over the place including into oncoming traffic. As they got closer it became abundantly clear that Fernando does not have a lot of experience on a bike. He had cuts all over his legs already from crashing (including once into the drainage ditch that ran along the road) and it was impossible for him to go in a straight line.  Why someone who can’t ride a bike would sign up for a bike tour made even less sense to us than people who can’t swim going rafting over a 20 foot waterfall but here we were.

Our two bikes, Francesca and Diego.  A little worse for the wear but still ready for an adventure.
Our two bikes, Francesca and Diego. A little worse for the wear but still ready for an adventure.
This was pretty typical of the road we biked down.  Dusty with low slung adobe houses.
This was pretty typical of the road we biked down. Dusty with low slung adobe houses.

Our guide, Lucas, spoke to him for a while in Spanish, we imagine convincing him to just hop in the van.  But it seemed to no avail, he was determined to bike the whole way.  The whole group crawled along for a while with Fernando in front so Lucas could keep an eye on him.  Eventually we decided that he was a bit too dangerous after crashing into people a few times and Lucas sent us ahead to the next winery where they would meet us, which they did at Norton Vineyards.

Norton was quite the operation. It is owned by the Swarovski family (of crystal fame) and has over 1250 hectares (that’s 3000 acres in freedom units) of vineyard.  It was indeed a large operation.  The tour was very good though and we saw all of the different fermentation systems used including stainless steel, oak, bottle fermentation, and concrete tanks. That last one surprised us but seemed common as the last winery had them as well. During the tour we had several wine tastings and it kind of felt like they came fast and furious, especially on empty bellies.  After the tour we headed up to the bottle shop where no one really purchased anything since they don’t ship to countries they export to (U.K. and the U.S. being the majority of people in our group and almost all of us are on extended travel).

The grapes growing with the mountains in the background.
The grapes growing with the mountains in the background.
Too much sexy!
Too much sexy!
Sparkling Chardonays awaited us upon arrival at Norton.
Sparkling Chardonays awaited us upon arrival at Norton.
Here you can get a sense of the scale of Norton vineyards production.
Here you can get a sense of the scale of Norton vineyards production.
They use both stainless steel and oak depending on the wine they are making.
They use both stainless steel and oak depending on the wine they are making.
The ceiling of the fermentation rooms was made out of bamboo to look like a wine barrel.
The ceiling of the fermentation rooms was made out of bamboo to look like a wine barrel.
The inside of a concrete fermentation tank.  It is lined with epoxy to keep the wine from oxidizing and the coil is for maintaining temperature.
The inside of a concrete fermentation tank. It is lined with epoxy to keep the wine from oxidizing and the coil is for maintaining temperature.
A hallway of concrete fermentation tanks.
A hallway of concrete fermentation tanks.
Lynn drinking in front of  a wall of bottle ageing wine.
Lynn drinking in front of a wall of bottle ageing wine.
Norton had a "museum" in the cellar of a bunch of old bottles ageing.  It was very creepy in the low light of the cellar.
Norton had a “museum” in the cellar of a bunch of old bottles ageing. It was very creepy in the low light of the cellar.

By this point we were getting hungry and had way too much wine sitting in empty stomachs.  Luckily we had a lunch planned in the cellar of this vineyard and we headed downstairs to a meat and cheese board and dug in.  We ate with the Brazilian, an American who had just quit her job at Bain, and the two Argentinians and spent the next hour and a half learning about South American culture and they in turn learning more about ours.

Adult lunchables! A lunch of meats, cheeses, and wine.
Adult lunchables! A lunch of meats, cheeses, and wine.

After lunch it was back on the bikes to our third and final vineyard.  We must be fast peddlers because we had not been expected until 5 pm and it was only 3.15 and here we were. We played with some dogs outside while Lucas got our tour spot moved up and we joined an older couple for their tour. This vineyard, Dolium, has the only underground fermentation in South America and is a B Corp certified business. They did it so they don’t need to spend energy on heating and cooling the wine fermentation and they seemed to be a very ecologically minded vineyard.  The vintners passion in fact was making wines that had as little done to them as possible so the taste of the grape and earth came through.

After a quick tour we headed upstairs where we split up into groups. The owner handled the older couple who’s tour it had actually been, and his 22 year old daughter handled our two tables. Overhearing his conversation with the older couple, he had a focus on educating people about wine and tasting and I felt a little shorted being handled by his daughter who didn’t really speak English and only sort of knew the answers to our questions.  The wines themselves were very odd though not in a bad way. They all had very interesting smells, including of tomato sauce, celery salt, and Worcestershire sauce.  When he came around to check on us I asked a question about how thick his wine appeared on the glass and he immediately jumped into a discussion about how that is usually an indication of price and quality and I shouldn’t be judging a wine based on price point only. Through the rest of the flight I didn’t ask any more questions to avoid another lecture and instead we watched Fernando drink way too much. Overall, though interesting, and in support of its ecological wine mission, this vineyard rubbed me the wrong way.

Doug making a friend. It seems he is definitely a dog person.
Doug making a friend. It seems he is definitely a dog person.
The underground winery. The only one in South America in fact.
The underground winery. The only one in South America in fact.
This was the tasting room, lab, and house of the underground winery.  The owner lives on the 2nd floor. Not a bad place to call home if you ask us.
This was the tasting room, lab, and house of the underground winery. The owner lives on the 2nd floor. Not a bad place to call home if you ask us.

Finally our day was done and we headed back to Mendoza.  A quick nap later we were back at the hostel and we headed upstairs to siesta. We spent the early evening planning the rest of South America.  We have fallen woefully behind on what we are going to and are currently trying to figure out if we do indeed have an extra week. We spent three hours planning everything out and determined we do indeed. The current plan is to change some flights and now hit up Columbia before Aruba but we’ll see how things shake out once we start getting it all booked.

At 9 or so Lynn was getting hangry and dehydrated so she found us an Italian restaurant nearby and we headed off into the streets. Francesco Ristorante had a single patio table left which we gladly occupied. Mendoza is a lot like Austin in that way with almost every restaurant having ample patio seating and almost all of it always full.  After a little deliberation we ordered and what came out was on par with Lynn’s Dad’s cooking, or for those who have not had that, what you would get in Italy.  The old woman who runs the restaurant even came out and I was delighted to have some semblance of conversation with her in Italian. From this she learned I lived in Milan for three years and we learned that she moved to Argentina in 1940 something after the war and she took over the restaurant from her mother sometime later.  All in all, Mendoza continues to deliver on excellent food.

Gnocchi with bolognese sauce.
Gnocchi with bolognese sauce.
Tortellini stuffed with veal and cheese.  It was as delicious as it sounds.
Tortellini stuffed with veal and cheese. It was as delicious as it sounds.

Daily Walking Miles : 5.9 miles

Biking Miles : 6

Wines Tasted : 17

Fun Facts:

  • The longer a champagne is aged, the smaller the bubbles it produces.  This is how you tell good champagne from what I’m calling “table champagne.”
  • Argentina used to consume 90 liters of wine per year per person.  Since the introduction of coke and beer in the 50s and 60s this has dropped significantly to only 30 liters.  This has meant that rather than churning out volume, wineries now need to focus on quality and differentiation from each other.
  • Each vineyard gets a time slot per week where it is allowed to pull water out of the public irrigation system.  The system is fed with mountain runoff.

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