This post is for Scott in La Crosse. He’s been thirsty for a new one. Thanks too, to Margaret, for use of a couple of her photographs.
With the economy in free fall, mirroring my net worth, my wife Linda and I decided to join four friends in Mendoza, Argentina. We figured we could always stay there, if there was a run on the banks stateside. Sip wine, nap through the afternoon, lounge in mineral spas, choke down slabs of beef around midnight, and gawk at modern architecture around Gran Mendoza. Could be worse.
A little geography. Mendoza is in central west Argentina, at the base of the Andes. Santiago, Chile is due west on the other slope, closer than Buenos Aires. Winter here, summer there, drain swirls the other way, sun in the northern sky, etc.
After acclimating to the relentless sunlight by drinking chilled wine and consuming pints of ice cream from Helados de Chacras in Chacras de Coria (where we stayed), we emerged on Day 3 to visit wineries and taste more seriously. With our able wine guide Santiago in the front seat, we headed to the Uco Valley to visit O. Fournier & Salentein, two wineries designed by Mendoza modernists, Bormida y Yanzon.
We started at O. Fournier, which one could argue, is a bold stroke for 21st century winery architecture. Monumental, imposing, masculine, dramatic, impressive, and to my taste, ultimately a little heavy-handed. I couldn’t shake the impression that a nasty troll with a Russian accent was going to emerge from a shadow, snub nosed pistol in hand, and announce that No. 3 at SPECTRE was awaiting our company in the downstairs vault.
The manmade pond on the property was particularly unsympathetic to the climate. With water a valued and scarce resource in this desert, a shallow pool felt luxurious, not to mention incongruous, to the industrial feel of the site. The gesture struck me as arrogant.
On the upside, the rusting steel formwork used to cast the concrete waffle-slab ceiling in the barrel room – now scattered around the site as planters – were beautiful reused discards. The art inside the building was stark and harshly lit, which worked well with the spaces.
We then drove to Salentein, another Bormida y Yanzon complex. Three named buildings serve the winery’s different functions; wine making in Salentein; visitor’s center, art gallery, and restaurant in Killka; and the chapel at Capilla de la Gratitud.
I thought the chapel the best building of the three, although the pool and entry sequence at Killka impressed the group. All of the buildings share a severe language, yet the chapel represented the rugged landscape without sentimentality or nostalgia. It was my favorite of all the Bormida y Yanzon buildings that we visited. The olive wood furniture in the chapel was spectacular.
In the art gallery, there was a small body of exquisite sculptural work from an Argentine artist working with sheet metal.
If you’re used to wine tasting in the U.S., be warned. Most of the wineries producing the higher quality vintages require a reservation for a tour, tasting, or a meal. The armed guards out at the road appear serious, and aren’t necessarily swayed by a smiling mouth that speaks English. Comprende?
MATE (MAH-TAY, not Mmm + ATE)
Many Argentines drink mate throughout the day, a tea-like brew made from the leaves and stems of the stubby yerba mate tree. Caffeine? Yes, but doesn’t give the jitters like coffee. Bitter? Yes, like a strong tea. Benefits? Supposedly a mellower stimulant, aiding weight loss, increasing energy level, and even fighting bad breath.
My friend Zach embraced the mate ritual, which is a bit like a smoker constantly fiddling with the bowl of a pipe. We have no idea if Zach knows what he was doing, but he was convinced enough to buy a 25 lb. bag of yerba mate when he returned to Minneapolis.
Make your own at home!
1. “Cure” new gourd (you can find out how on the ‘net)
2. Place yerba mate (looks like shredded tea leaves) in gourd
3. Add other flavors if desired (orange rinds, mint leaves)
4. Fill with hot, not boiling, water – add cool water to drink, if desired
5. Drink mate through straw you bought with the gourd (Traditionally, you’d share your gourd with friends and/or strangers; this stretched our party’s comfort level)
6. Refill frequently, adusting the amount of yerba mate, hot water, rinsing straw, etc. Make sure it takes plenty of time, with much gesticulating
7. Rinse gourd, compost spent mate, dry gourd upside down until next time
In the city of Mendoza, most of the dogs we saw were groomed and on leash. In Chacras, they roamed the streets like some kind of canine Pamplona. With three enthusiasts in our group, half of the dogs in town followed us around the city on our daily jaunts, much to the disgust of the locals (and some in our party). On the last day, Linda tried to talk the local butchers into selling her a few bones for her favorite pals, Uno & Dos. Nada. When Marta, the mother of one of the owners of the house where we stayed, saw Linda with the dogs outside the house, she panicked, “You didn’t let THEM in, did you?” Linda confided in me that she had not only considered letting them in, but was going to let them swim in the pool, you know, “to get clean.”
The highlight of the trip was our trip into the Andes. We did a short hike in the National Park at the base of Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas. It made me wish we’d dedicated more of our trip to getting around the mountains. If you find yourself up near Aconcagua, keep warm with an Alpaca scarf from the high altitude flea market opposite the Puente del Inca.
MEAT (Vegetarians need go no further)
Every article ever written about Argentina must mention meat in passing, and I will not break the chain. Mendoza is supposed to be a good place to eat goat, but we couldn’t find any – not for lack of trying. The best beef I had was at 1884, chef Francis Mallman’s place in Godoy Cruz just outside Mendoza. The garden where we ate was immaculately manicured and the wait staff efficient and professionally formal. If not for a particularly rude encounter with our bar waiter, the evening would have been perfect.
While waiting for one of our party to use the bathroom, I scanned the jacket of Mallman’s book Seven Fires, Grilling the Argentine Way. I had to giggle when I read Mallman’s quote that he “tired of making fancy French food for wealthy customers in Buenos Aires.” Based on what I saw at 1884, he’s now making fancy Argentine food for wealthy customers in Mendoza.
A couple of other highlights from our 10-day food orgy. Vegetables were in short supply, but the food really was outstanding for the most part, and relatively inexpensive.
The Argentines, like the foodies in this country, like their food sculptural. There was plenty of stacking and layering, towers and slabs, including this architectural offering.
Some recommendations for your trip to Mendoza:
1. Despite what the locals tell you, you CAN ride the bus. It’s quick, you mix with the locals, and the bus drivers don’t try to fleece you.
2. Go see the modern architecture of Bormida y Yanzon (see above). All the old buildings of the city were leveled by an earthquake in 1861 anyway.
3. Shop at Ni Chicha Ni Limonada. Great accessory store run by an architect.
4. Enjoy a Fernet Branca con Coke. Tasty.
5. REUSE plastic bags – The Argentine landscape already has too many blowing around.
6. If two little girls knock on your door with empanadas for sale, BUY!
7. If wine tasting, get out of town to the Uco Valley.
8. Go to the mountains, see Aconcagua. Climb it!
9. Spend a day walking around Mendoza, and stop in at Kato Cafe for a Gancia Batido.
10. Consider staying at the place we did, it’s beautiful. Pool, meat across the street, empanadas (see above), modern, very comfortable, and no dogs have ever been in the pool.