Wine Country Safari

I have a thought experiment which I’m never going to do, until GoPro’s are transparent enough to wear in a hat and forget about.  I’ll take a photo every ten minutes of a journey, no matter what.  Then the reader could see what proportion of the time the tourist is doing things that are about the same amount of fun as staying home would be, and what proportion less fun, and what proportion more.  The first two categories have the large majority, with a slight edge to “the same” because that describes much of sleeping.

The tickets to South America were a little stupid because our destination is Mendoza but our departure point is from Medellín.  Another constraint I put on myself was arriving before midnight.  The wide open jaw with these conditions cost $775 USD, for which we paid in quality of life.

We boarded a plane to Houston in the mid-afternoon of June 24, and I watched the desert go by until we got to Texas and then it was Flight Attendants Be Seated.  The plane avoided nearly all g forces except the 1 pointing down but massive thunderheads towered above us, right and left.  Pilots are very good now at threading their way between them.  Once we were in Houston we had an hour before our next flight.  The Houston airport is a long walk from gate to gate.  Then we got on a 767, in the middle of the night.  Dave had bought airport food, which United supplemented with airplane food.  All about the same quality.  Definitely this part was worse than home.  I guess they were trying to get you used to late night Hispanic-tradition eating.

Some sleep.  Also worse than home.  The flight was mostly smooth, even through the ITCZ.

When the sun came up, we were over the ocean just off the coast of northern Chile.  The clouds over the Pacific looked like cotton on the floor of a cotton factory.  But how do I know that?  Every day a million people see clouds from above.  Almost nobody has seen a working cotton gin. I haven’t. So why should I, by convention, describe what everybody knows, in terms of what nobody knows?  It’s clouds’ illusions we recall.

I regarded critically every feather canyon over the eclipse path, as we crossed it, north of Santiago.  After 9 hours in the air we landed, and it was the morning of June 25.  We stayed in that airport for ten hours.  I entered Chile to buy stamps, thinking I would mail cards when we pass through Chile briefly on the way from Argentina to Bolivia.  I wish I’d bought more.  The Chilean international post card rate is about $1.40 US, but Argentina’s is $4.20  So, minimal post card activity from Argentina.

On the advice of a shop lady, we ate a corn pie from an airport cafe called Patagonia, and on our own advice had empanadas and wine from Vinum Wine Bar.  At sunset, we got on a plane for the 34 minute flight to Mendoza, of which two minutes was level flight (according to flightaware’s GPS log.  You can’t tell when flights over the Andes are level).

When we got to Mendoza, we waited in line with our passports and then we got our suitcases, and then we went to SiXT. The man there was super nice.  We were the only customers: I bet most people don’t rent cars here, because they come to drink wine, and they take taxis or bus tours or Uber for that. He got us our car and showed us where the trunk and gas tank levers were and made a note of the scratches.  Then we were off to the hotel Casa Glebinias, which is across town.  We got there about 10:30 PM.  The hotel restaurant was closed, but the hotel owner gave us some cookies and a pear and a kiwi and a banana.  We slept a long time after that.  It was ten years ago that we last stayed there.

Wednesday, June 26

Casa Glebinias is an award-winning hotel.  The owner used to be an Antarctica explorer.  He came back home when he was too old for that, and he opened this hotel.  The rooms are all separate cabins.  The whole hotel only holds about 20 people and it’s in a suburb.  There is a nice lawn and there are trees, which don’t have any leaves on them because it is winter time in the southern hemisphere.  There is also a puppy who stands up on his hind legs and opens the door for you.  (He needs to learn to close the door after himself.)  They have a restaurant, but the chef had knee surgery and is out for a month.  So they have a Small Menu, which means pizza.  The pizza is good.  It doesn’t have sauce, it has tomatoes.  Breakfast is cereal and fruit and yogurt and different pastries.

On Wednesday we didn’t do any touring.  Dave bought us SIM cards for our phones, and I went to the post office and found out how expensive it was and said the heck with that.  The SIM card business is odd.  You go to one place for the cards themselves, and to another little store to buy credit, then you get a plan yourself by texting.  The people in this part of Argentina don’t speak much English but there is always somebody nearby, in this case another customer, who has a son in San Diego or used to live in Fresno.

Also, Dave fixed some bugs.  When you work from home you can work from Argentina.  He is closer to the time zone of his team in Kiev, by four hours.

Thursday, June 27

Doug and Hind arrived around noon.  That evening we went by Uber to Maria Antonieta, in downtown Mendoza. It turned out to be the only time we actually went into the downtown area. It was the uppest-scale place we could reserve on short notice.  The customers were better looking than the staff, which is unusual to tourists from a society in which the public-meeting contingent are heavily drawn from the demographic of midwestern homecoming queens and kings who have come to California to in the hopes of a career modeling underwear to earn the price of surgically sculpting their faces to match Facebook simulacra of pulchritude. 

The waiters had what looked like prison tattoos except for the subject matter. Scrawls, really. If the fad started here we will see it soon or maybe it blew past in 2011 and I failed to notice. 

Maria Antonieta is good. I had a smoked eggplant and Dave had osso bucco over lentils and a pumpkin soufflé. Winter food. It’s winter. The eggplant was very burnt. I am trying to get used to darkly browned foods, although it’s probably too late in life for me to get any thirty-year cancers from the oxidation products. I’ll let you know when regretting wasted youth becomes a full-time hobby with me. 

Friday, June 28

We went to the Real Argentina: a suburban shopping mall. Everybody wanted some little thing. It was like a dream version of an American mall, in that all the stores were the same but only a few were actual copies: Victoria’s Secret is one I noticed. I wasn’t taking notes. 

Afterwards we got in the car and drove to Catena Zapata. That is a respectable and heavily architected winery at which we’ve bought some good wines in the past, but no more: today I learned that they are the Secret Santa of Kirkland Signature; and when you buy Malbec at Costco, you are saving yourself an overnight flight to Santiago and a long stint in the airport and the other bits of travel that don’t make it into — say, this business of leaving out the technical details of traveling is really a twentieth century thing. Think about Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Ibn Batuta: they wrote about the intricacies of transport and customs, and very little of the In-Flight Magazine world which concerns what you will experience once you’re standing in front of the Venus of Willendorf. 

Friday night, we had a peak experience at Brindillas, the overflow restaurant for people who can’t get into Azafrán. And to heck with Azafrán; whatever they serve had better come with a garnish of cash money and hookers in order to exceed Brindillas. We had a gazillion course tasting menu ($30) with wine pairings ($25: ALWAYS share a wine pairing between two, if you want to taste the last half of the meal) and it was classic. I took photos of each course. I wonder if people ever post pictures of food on Instagram. When in Mendoza, go to Brindillas. We’ll be in Azafrán, having reserved thirty years beforehand. 

Saturday, June 29

I suspect that the population at large imagines that eclipse-chasers are interested in astronomy.  This is true to an extent, but all the talk is of the weather.  Even looking at the glorious nebulous Southern Sky Milky Way, we are checking out any little water clouds that might be forming on our planet.

The weather comes from three places in the desert near the Andes, in the winter.  First, is actual fronts streaming from the Pacific, over Chile and Argentina.  These are infrequent.  The second source is winter fog lapping up from the pampas.  This can be persistent in the eastern part of Argentina.  The third source, is the kind of fog that drapes over the lee side of islands and mountains all around the world.  The Andes count as mountains.  Every day, the Andes were shrouded with clouds tumbling down the slopes and drifting over the sky in the afternoon. Worrisome, because the eclipse is scheduled for one hour before sunset, and right over the Andes.

But Bella Vista, 200 km north of Mendoza, is in more of a desert than Mendoza, and has a climate history of having the fewest clouds along the whole eclipse track, including boats.  The predictions have been consistently for clear weather there, on the second of July.  As the predictions have grown more precise with time, a batch of clouds has been shown moving over the area on the 28th and 29th of June, followed by clear skies.  Well, the clouds didn’t show up much on the 28th or the 29th, and I don’t appreciate storms being delayed in the direction of the eclipse time.

Therefore, one should go wine tasting.  Doug and Hind had booked a wine tasting tour from a company called “Trout & Wine” (they also do fly fishing expeditions) and we decided to tag along. I mean, we paid and everything, not just stealing their intellectual property with our ears.  There were eight guests, all American.  Trout & Wine seems to be a good company.  The tour guide, Lucas, is genuinely obsessed with wine.  He’s doing an internship in Sonoma in a few months. Given his good looks and tourist-ready smile, forgive me for thinking at first he might have been one more underwear model thrown up to enliven the fantasies of the retirees.

The problem with wine-tasting tours is the problem of wine tasting generally.  They never really give you the best they have, and your palate grows jaded before lunch.

We began at Terrazas, a brand you can get in the US.  The winery lady said this and that about Oak and Bottles, so tell me this:  is it that oak basically damages the grape juice, and bottling it for years gives it time to heal itself?  The whole of the wine rituals seem designed to alleviate the wood.

The next winery was called Trez, and the building was round like a barrel.  There was also a small burrowing owl, the color of the local dirt, sitting on a post.  Everyone took his photo.  It developed that the two people from New York were also here for the eclipse, and so the naturalist in everyone came out.  There is always a moment in the run-up to an eclipse, when the local tour people realize they aren’t the Main Attraction, or even in the Top Ten.  I hope that some of them made it up to San Juan to learn why.

Lunch was basically tour food, except done up to simulate a tasting menu at a fine restaurant.  By the time that was finished, I was ready to sleep, but there was one more tasting to power through, at a dusty little winery owned by some French expats.  If I write a trip advisor review, I’ll suggest T&W make lunch the final burst of fireworks.

When we got back to town, we were tired and full and nobody had any energy until after sunset when we decided to walk to the center of Chacras de Coria, the suburb where Casa Glebinias lies.  It was another authentic Argentinian experience: a Round Table-grade pizza and wine in a screw top bottle, along with a few other customers (it was early by local standards) including a trio of old ladies that Hind said had murdered their husbands for a girls’ night out.

And so to bed.