Sunday, April 16, 2017

Argentina's Uco Valley: Home of multi-million $$$ wineries

Zuccardi winery, emblematic for Argentina's wine industry opulence
It's the Easter weekend, and currently I am holed up in a small "apart hotel" in La Consulta, in the southern part of the Uco Valley. I have a small kitchenette, a comfortable table and chairs, and clean linens and towels. What more can one ask for when it's raining hard? Sunshine, maybe?
Oak barrels, original paintings, space for performance art and concerts .... O. Fournier
The owner of this five-room hotel, Roberto, and I just had a chat regarding the unusual weather (he called it abnormal) and life in Argentina. Roberto owns a plot of land where he grows apples, pears, and grapes (which he sells to a wine producer), and he and his wife run this small place. Not as if he's making much money with it: The base rate, before the 21% tax, is about $28 per night. In a country where gasoline costs twice as much as in the US, where his (rather unreliable) internet service is about $50 a month, and where inflation keeps on galloping, Roberto says it's not easy to make ends meet. It's the same song that I had heard at the Silver Cord B&B.
On the way from Tupungato to La Consulta
When I mentioned that at the first winery that I had wanted to visit yesterday, Zuccardi, the least expensive four-wine tasting would have cost me 380 pesos or $25 (and the most expensive flight was about $80!) he showed no surprise--after all, he had forwarned me that these wineries would be expensive. To me they are pretentious multi-million dollar temples of self adulation that some fat cats have built down here. (I've been reading Vino Argentino, a book by Laura Catena, that details much of who owns what here and in other parts of the wine world.) Roberto told me that things used to be different, but that now tourism has taken over and prices have exploded.
Giant bottles show the importance of wine for this entire region
Here you can see with what soil conditions these vines have to contend
When, two days ago, I rode from Tupungato through the vast Uco valley and saw numerous wineries that are immense in size and are showing off with their architecture I was thinking, who's paying for all this? International wine business and tourists, that's who. While most wineries in Napa and Sonoma that I have visited will wave the tasting charge if one buys a bottle, that's not the case here. At O. Fournier, where I participated in a tour and tasting, I decided to pick up a bottle each of Torontes and Malbec for 240 pesos ($15.70). Imagine my surprise when I was asked for another 200 pesos ($13) for the tasting, which amounted to about a glass of wine. My strategy from now on will be simple: skip the tasting and just buy a bottle of wine!
The tasting room at O. Fournier--not too shabby
The owner's private collection of "wines from all over the world"
The four bottles that were part of the tasting at O. Fournier
Before I headed out for yesterday's 37-mile excursion under threatening skies that fortunately stayed closed, Roberto had advised me to not eat at any of the wineries. He said all of his guests were complaining that the food was generally overpriced. No kidding: The least expensive menu at O. Fournier would have set me back a whopping $50, with no wine included. Well, since I wasn't six people and had not made reservations 24 hours ahead of time I would have been SOL anyhow.
Modernistic architecture at O. Fournier
These barrels put Bonfanti's operation to shame
San Carlos in his namesake town of San Carlos
The clouds are brewing on the way home from my excursion
Dining at Zaniol, just across the street from the Nueva Era Apart Hotel, is a different affair. On my first night in La Consulta, Thursday, I went there on the recommendation of Roberto. He mentioned good food and fair prices, and so I went there. "Good" food is always a bit debatable, although I very seldom have "bad" food. But "interesting" is a different matter. I have eaten my fair share of pizzas all over the world, and I love them, and that's why I ordered the Zaniol house special that promised peppers, anchovies, olives, and ham. They should have also listed dough, since all these ingredients (except the anchovies which had absconded) were heaped upon a foundation that had been baked at some point. But there was no apparent sauce, there was certainly no cheese, and the almost solid ham surface was almost cold to the touch. Upon my expressing surprise that the pizza was somewhat, ahem, cool the lazy-eyed lady of the house took it back to the oven, for another 90 seconds of bake time. Oh well, all that ham was indeed tasty, but it was definitely an interesting take on pizza.
The hammiest ham pizza ever--and the coldest one, too
It just occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned yet how my ride from the Silver Cord B&B in Las Vegas to Tupungato had panned out. Let me put it this way: That was one hard day on a bike! I had been fretting over the weather since Adrian had told me that there was no way to use this road--incongruously called La Carrera--in rainy conditions even in a truck, and I certainly saw what he meant. But when I got up on Wednesday morning, the sun actually peeked through for a while and I took off in hopes of not breaking my bike or body.
Is this the German word for "taking a bath"? See below
Ruta 89, also known as La Carrera
As expected, the first five miles were all uphill (after I had to first descend from the Silver Cord to the intersection with ruta 89). Immediately two friendly mongrels latched onto me, apparently enjoying the company of a human being who occasionally would talk to them. They stayed with me for at least four miles or so, apparently having nothing better to do.
Friendly mutts
According to Adrian (and what I had had gleaned from Google Maps) these first five miles were going to be the hardest. The road climbed in a serpentine way (Adrian had called this the "snaky bits") all the way up to 7,300 feet, with magnificent views of the valley that I had crossed through and was now climbing out of. Unfortunately, the cordillera was mostly obscured by clouds. The first vehicle that I encountered for the day was a local pick-up that had broken down just before the summit; the driver was involved in repairs while a gaggle of passengers were staring at me huffing and puffing up the hill. For the most part I was able to (very slowly) ride all sections except a few tight curves where I preferred to just step off the bike and walk for a few meters.
Panoramic view of the valley that I had crossed through
So, an hour-and-a-half after starting out the worst was over, or so I thought. The rough dirt road continued in a straight line for as far as the eye could see, and it did so at a slight downward angle. That slight downhill was enough to require me to brake, though, so that I would maintain a safe speed that would allow me to avoid potholes, loose rocks, and washboard sections--everything that this type of road can throw at you. Ahead of me I saw milky clouds, close to the ground, and the short while that I could actually see the surrounding landscape and observe whatever birds of prey live up here quickly came to an end.

The temperature kept dropping, down to about 45 F, and I was glad that I had brought along knee warmers and long fingered gloves. My Patagonia Nanopuff pullover kept my torso warm, but even so my feet and fingers slowly turned to popsicles. And then I entered the clouds--or was it fog? I was reminded of the areas in Mexico and Central America where I had descended from the highlands toward the coast, with a cold and foggy microclimate, the zona de niebla.
Poplars, before being swallowed by the fog
This road was not suited to 28 mm tires
Had this been an asphalted road, I would have flown along at 21 mph without much effort. As it was, I was riding the brakes and poking along at 7 or 8 mph, trying to at least pedal some to stay warm while lifting the butt to float over the ruts and clamping the brake levers to stay in control. Honestly, this was no fun. It took me altogether 3 1/2 hours to regain asphalt, about 10 miles outside of Tupungato (average speed, 6.9 mph). The entire time I encountered fewer than ten vehicles, their drivers staring at me incredulously. The fog didn't lift until I had descended almost the entire area between the cordillera on one side and a major ridge on the other, and I never saw any of the spectacular landscape that remained hidden on this day. But believe me, even if I encounter the perfect day weatherwise I won't attempt to ride La Carrera in reverse.
The last river crossing before the asphalt
Once in Tupungato, I easily found the Hotel Tourismo Tupangato where I had booked a room for $35, including the tax. I spent the afternoon walking around this unpretentious town in the middle of the Uco wine country and finished the day with another bottle of Malbec, an easy-to-adopt ritual.

The next morning, the sun was back in full glory, and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day on the bike, astonished by the vast vineyards that I crossed and those spectacular vistas of the slowly receding cordillera. Traffic was almost non-existent, the roads were well maintained and smooth, and I had a great empanada-con-cerveza lunch in a town with the lovely name of Vista Flores. It was just like in the old days when I went on rides to San Carlos, on the other side of the Rio Grande in Big Bend country. A few more kilometers, and I arrived in La Consulta, where it is still raining.
My idea of the perfect lunch!
Happy Easter!


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