How our wine-tasting in Chile and Argentina went south

Our good friend Howard still shakes his head in amazement when he recalls his attempt to visit Argentinean wineries back in 1990. He and another friend were in western Argentina to climb Mt. Aconcagua, but they had some extra time and figured they could just get a taxi driver to take them around. Argentina today is the fifth biggest wine producer in the world, and the industry was already big back then. But their request confounded the taxi driver. He’d never heard of anyone visiting local wineries for tastings.

Things have changed a lot. Beautiful tasting rooms have been built since then, and companies to shepherd tourists to them have prospered. I knew we’d have our own car both in Chile and Argentina, so I figured I could devise a little tasting tour on our own. I did some research and created an itinerary. We had a little success but mostly struck out, if in a more sophisticated way than Howard and Wes.

I know now it was dumb of me not to try emailing the wineries I’d targeted and making reservations. But it’s the dead of winter! All the vines look dead and shriveled. We planned to visit most of these places on weekdays. And at the Concha y Toro winery south of Santiago, our first oenophilic destination, everything did go just as I’d planned. We parked, bought tickets ($23 each) for the 11:30 English-language tour I’d read about online, and had a pleasant time strolling the august grounds, hearing winey factoids, and tasting four local varieties.

Concha y Toro boasts it’s now the second biggest winery in the world, with around 27,000 acres under cultivation. So I probably should have guessed other wineries might not be so well organized. We were organized enough to drive to our hotel in Santa Cruz, check in, then head out to visit one of the best-reputed wineries on the famous Colchagua Valley’s “Ruta de Vino.” The website for Montes had said they were open until 5:30, and we arrived around 4:30, seeking only a tasting, not another a full tour. At the gate, however, a guard brusquely informed us this was impossible. The only option was to do a combined tour and tasting, and we’d missed the English-language one by hours. If we wanted to be allowed on the Montes grounds, we’d have to return the next day.

Our route the next day led in the opposition direction. On consulting with our host at the hotel, he recommended we instead head for one of the wineries in the Casablanca Valley, close to Valparaiso, our next destination. We spent a chunk of that morning visiting an outstanding Santa Cruz attraction, a private museum built by a Chilean whom our guidebook referred to as “the king of the cluster bomb.” Attractive and well-designed, the Colchagua Museum covered an amazing span of Chilean history and culture, but I think all four of us were most wowed by the multimedia pavilion that recounts the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped almost a mile underground and rescued after two months (in late 2010).

The miners’ underground refuge
The capsule that took them up to the surface

We felt confident pulling into the Vinamar winery a little after 4:10. It was supposed to be open for at least another hour. But once again a guard barred our way. Tastings were over at 4 pm, he declared.

I allowed the expression on my face to crumple. “But we drove all the way here from Santa Cruz!” I exclaimed, That took him aback; I think he was afraid I was about to cry. He telephoned his boss, and after some back and forth, we were admitted and told we could purchase a few glasses of wine.

Somehow, by the time we climbed the stairs into the grandiose facilities, we were offered a standard tasting of sparkling wines (cost: $9.50 per person). They were pleasant, and it made the day feel like less than catastrophic.

Our tasting attempts when we got to Argentina went less well.

There, I had worked out an elaborate plan, drawing heavily from a 2018 New York Times article about spending 36 hours in Mendoza. Almost instantly it got thrown out of whack. The evening we arrived, we stayed up late eating a wonderful dinner (and feeling the effects of the one-hour time change between Argentina and Chile, from where we’d flown that afternoon). So we got off to a slow start Sunday morning and scrapped the late-morning tasting I had planned not far from Mendoza. Instead we headed south to the Uco Valley, Argentina’s Napa. Zuccardi, one of the country’s most respected vintners, had built a facility there in 2016 that sounded worth the roughly 2 hours it would take to get to it. We found the drive moderately interesting, and as we approached it, the winery itself looked striking.

Once again a gate barred our entry, but we managed to slip in behind another car whose occupants had made reservations. Once inside, however, we were informed that the only tasting worth taking would cost 3,500 Argentine pesos per person — about $84 each. We could hardly believe our ears. The Times article had said tastings started at 400 pesos per person ($9.55) and included “a tour that goes from vines to vat to a gorgeous tasting room…” We questioned and counter-questioned the hostess, but she remained firm. Seeing our consternation, she suggested we drink a complimentary glass of sparkling wine while we decided what we wanted to do. We drank the bubbly, but then dejectedly trudged back to our car. (No way were we prepared to pay $336 for a wine tasting.)

As I type this, I can’t help wondering whether we didn’t misunderstand something. The hostess didn’t speak much English and my Spanish is hardly that of a native. At the time, however, it certainly seemed we were at an impasse. Tears actually did feel my eyes. I’d subjected my family to 4-5 hours of driving through only moderately interesting countryside in exchange for…a small free glass of sparkling wine?

The restaurant looked great too, but we couldn’t get a table

Worse, we were all now ravenous but it was approaching 3 pm, the “witching hour,” as Stephanie referred to that period every afternoon when almost everything in Argentina closes. The whole ride back to Mendoza, every eatery that Google Maps pointed us to was shuttered. Near the city, we stopped at one final winery (much praised by the Times writer), where we only were allowed through its closed gate in order to inquire about making a reservation. The hostess told me no spaces were available for lunch the next day (a Monday), but she would email me if they had a cancellation. I never heard from her again.

Typical Argentine countryside near the Uco Valley

As grimly as this all played out, we did enjoy some great meals (accompanied by good, astonishingly inexpensive wine) in Mendoza, where we probably should have just hung out for our short time there. Steve and I also weren’t unhappy to have gotten the limited insight into the landscapes in that part of Argentina and central Chile.

We did a few other touristic things, pleasant, but not all that interesting. Two observations from the Chile-Argentina portion of our trip will probably linger longest in my memory.

— A dog’s life, Chilean-style. I mentioned in an earlier post what a startling portion of the Santiago dogs were clad in coats. We saw coat-wearing dogs in Valparaiso, too, but they were walked by their owners amidst a virtually army of homeless dogs. “People here say they’re not homeless,” our guide on the walking tour told us. “They belong to everyone.” He may have been joking, but he said there were 300,000 human residents of the city and 100,000 dogs. “Every tourist has to take one with you at the end of the tour.” The free-spirited Chilean canines break into and snack on garbage or feast on the scraps that locals put out for them. Lucky ones get to snooze in free-standing dog houses.

That same guide showed us a mural depicting various animal icons. The dog was the most heroic among them. “If someone’s your best friend, you call him your dog. He’s always got your back.”

It’s a little ironic, then, that the most memorable of all the delicious food we ate in Chile was… a hot dog! They don’t call them that, but rather completos. For almost 100 years, Chileans have been loading up their bun-cradled sausages with a panoply of ingredients: tomatoes, avocados, sauerkraut, French fries, fried eggs, and more, usually topped with an ocean of fluffy mayonnaise. We ate them in a venerable old restaurant near the historic center, and we ate them in the airport, shortly before we left.

If they’re lucky, some of my friends will soon be served them back in San Diego.

3 thoughts on “How our wine-tasting in Chile and Argentina went south

  1. ChezLouisDoris July 9, 2019 / 5:39 am

    In our two months-plus in Ecuador and Colombia this winter, we were constantly startled by the lack of decent everyday wines at prices comparable even to the US, where they are much more expensive than they are in Europe. We had thought that, with Chile and Argentina not far away, they would be varied, plentiful and moderately priced. In a slightly different wine vein but not dissimilar to the one you experienced, we learned the South American wine scene has not developed to a point that makes that (like consumer-friendly wine touring) possible.

    • jdewyze July 10, 2019 / 4:07 pm

      Ah, but did you notice that the T&L list of top cities in South America included Mendoza (#4!), with one reader citing the “wonderful tasting experiences”? It’s kind of a mystery….

    • jdewyze July 10, 2019 / 4:21 pm

      Did you notice that T&L listed Mendoza on its list of the top 10 cities in central and South America — in part, apparently, because of the great wine tastings? Kind of a mystery, eh?

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