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 Argentinas sandy clay.
It was Thursday, the day wed expected to be tasting wine at the Zuccardi familys finca (ranch) and winery, in Maipu, Mendoza Province. Instead, we were clawing through a tangle of branches, trying to pick enough olives to feed Zuccardis state-of-the-art olive oil press.
It looked so easy when Torey Novak, Zuccardis 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 dont wear gloves, said Novak, amused. He could see I was hopelessly awkward. I couldnt 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 wed left Buenos Aires three days earlier on a mission: to smell, savor, taste and compare Malbec, Argentinas 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 regions 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 youve mucked around in the mans 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 Zuccardis 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 were done, lets go, but with a traditional Argentine meal prepared by Chef Ana Rodriguez at the winerys casual cafe and food shop, the Pan Y Oliva.
Mendoza and Malbec
For wine aficionados, Mendoza is a destination in its own right. One way to get there is by flying through Miami 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 worlds fifth largest wine industry, we couldnt say no.
What wed forgotten is that Argentina is nearly as large as the United States (four times the size of Texas); Mendoza, 646 miles west of Buenos Aires, is hardly a weekend getaway. And with limited vacation time, flying was the only option. Wed rent a car at the airport, we assumed, and explore the wine country on a relaxed schedule, just as weve done in Californias Napa and Sonoma, in Oregon, in Washington state, even in France.
But that isnt 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. Its akin to renting an audio guide when you visit an art museum. You come away better informed and certainly more entertained.
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