What we’d forgotten is that Argentina is nearly as large as the United States; Mendoza, 646 miles west of Buenos Aires, is hardly a weekend getaway. And with limited vacation time, flying was the only option. We’d rent a car at the airport, we assumed, and explore the wine country on a relaxed schedule, just as we’ve done in California’s Napa and Sonoma, in Oregon, in Washington state, even in France.
But that isn’t the way they do it in Mendoza. Because the wineries are scattered far apart and road signs are poor, drop-in guests are non-existent. Instead, you call or email and make a reservation for a specific time. On the appointed day, the bodega schedules a staff member to conduct the tasting, chooses sample wines and polishes the wine glasses.
Anyone can make a reservation for a visit and tasting. But there are advantages to signing up for a one- to five-day tour with a wine tour company, someone who knows the industry, the wineries and Argentine culture. It’s akin to renting an audio guide when you visit an art museum. You come away better informed and certainly more entertained.
A typical tour — you choose the length — generally visits three wineries each day and includes daily lunch (with wine), hotels and transportation by van. If you have specific wine labels or vintages in mind, they’ll customize your route. Our cousins, who knew the drill, handled it for the four of us, arranging a three-day guided tour with a guide they’d used before.
We started in San Juan Province, going first to Callia Winery and then to Graffigna, where chief wine maker Gerardo Danitz, eager to answer even the dumbest question, fielded a tasting that could have doubled as Wine Wisdom 101. His patient explanations were an ideal send-off for what would be three days of tasting, spitting, tasting, sneaking a swallow here and there — for the strength to push on — and running out of adjectives to describe the infinite range of fruity, nutty flavors.
Heading south to Mendoza, we stopped first at Vistalba Bodega, wine czar Carlos Pulenta’s show place, where most visits include both tasting and lunch at his much-acclaimed five-star restaurant, La Bourgogne. Then it was on to Tupungato Winelands to see recently planted vineyards and the new golf course; to Salentein and a culture museum; and finally to Zuccardi. Which is how we found ourselves in the dirt, discussing olive cultivation.
Until then I hadn’t given much thought to immigrant history and the parallels between Argentina and the United States. But in most of the towns we saw, you could walk down the street and — except for the signs in Spanish — think you were at home. Both countries were settled by immigrants from Europe who brought farming skills to the New World. Settling in places like Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia and throughout Argentina, they saw what looked like empty land, and displacing or killing the indigenous tribes, claimed it.
Early Spanish explorers and missionaries had already introduced grapes and cattle; with land to spare, beef cattle, herded by cowboys in the United States and by gauchos in Argentina, became a staple. And grapes, initially grown for the fruit or to make table wine for home use, became a commercial success.
Like Argentina’s immigrants, Malbec grapes are also an import, brought from France. But it took Mendoza’s sandy clay to create those tongue-tingling perfect fruity, nutty, oaky, you-name-it flavors. A wine bottle, tucked into my luggage for the return trip, would have been nice. But the custom-picked, personally selected, orchard-to-table olive oil made a better souvenir.