MAIPU, Argentina -- Ten minutes in the orchard and already my hands felt raw. How do they do this all day without gloves, I wondered, shuffling my feet for a better foothold in Argentina’s sandy clay.
It was Thursday, the day we’d expected to be tasting wine at the Zuccardi family’s finca (ranch) and winery in Maipu, Mendoza Province. Instead, we were clawing through a tangle of branches, trying to pick enough olives to feed Zuccardi’s state-of-the-art olive oil press.
It looked so easy when Torey Novak, Zuccardi’s tour guide, gave a demonstration. You hang a cone-shaped canvas sack around your neck and pick a tree loaded with ripe fruit. Reaching up into a branch, you grab it with both hands and yank down hard, stripping the olives off and into the sack. When your neck cries uncle, you empty the sack into the 40-pound crate handily stacked nearby. Then you fill the second crate, and the third, all day every day until the harvest ends or your hands scream uncle.
“Nah, most good pickers don’t wear gloves,” Novak said, amused. He could see I was hopelessly awkward. “I couldn’t do it either,” he admitted. “Not for long, anyway. But our best picker can fill 45 crates in a day.” Mercifully, my career as a field hand died before it was born.
But why in blazes were we fooling with olives when we’d left Buenos Aires three days earlier on a mission to smell, savor, taste and compare Malbec, Argentina’s signature red wine, at the source? And why was “La Familia Zuccardi,” a family-owned, three-generation-old winery and leading Malbec producer, growing olives?
As it happens, a number of long-established wineries here in the Cuyo area, scrubby desert land on the sunny east slope of the Andes Mountains, grow multiple crops. The soil, irrigated for centuries before Europeans explored the region, is ideal for growing both grapes and olives; more than 6,000 olive growers and 1,200 wineries are scattered through the two adjacent provinces of Mendoza and San Juan.
The region’s newer wineries stick mostly to grapes, concentrating their efforts on building sales. But for visitors to the region, the complete farm-to-bodega tour adds another dimension altogether. When you’ve mucked around in the man’s orchards and harvested his olives, you feel invested.
After picking the fruit, clumping through the mud and riding back to the processing plant with the crates stacked on the golf cart, we watched our olives macerated into mush. Tasting the newly pressed oil, we proudly pasted labels on our take-home bottles. Then we knocked the dirt off our shoes and headed for the bodega itself.
Here, in the Casa Del Visitante, sepia-toned photos serve a slice of late 19th century history, capturing tired-looking Italian immigrants toting luggage, working the fields, picking grapes and vegetables and building railroads. Framed photos of Zaccardi’s founding ancestors, frozen in ankle-length dresses and high collars, highlight the exhibits. Then it was on to the fermentation vats and eventually to the tasting room. The tour ended not with a “we’re done, let’s go,” but with a traditional Argentine meal prepared by Chef Ana Rodriguez at the winery’s casual cafe and food shop, the Pan Y Oliva.
For wine aficionados, Mendoza is a destination in its own right. One way to get there is by flying to Santiago, Chile, and east over the Andes (a short flight or drive) into Argentina. But for us, the winery visits were an add-on, a last minute addition to a family reunion in Buenos Aires. Our third cousins in Buenos Aires (newly discovered on Facebook) had invited us to visit more than once. When they proposed a trip to Mendoza, heart of the world’s fifth largest wine industry, we couldn’t say no.