The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Sunday, June 9, 2013


A few years ago, I visited Mendoza, the wine production capital of Argentina, accompanied by a colleague from my University's Viticulture and Enology Department who is a V.I.P. in wine tasting circles.  We were invited to taste the better wines from several of the local wineries, two or three tours per day, which was where I first fell in love with Malbec wine as a varietal.  There are a few quirky things I remember from this experience.

            One day we visited a local winery whose owner was an innovator experimenting with every grape varietal he could find anywhere in the world.  The winemaker showed us small plots of different grape varieties he was growing to experiment with.  Afterwards, he hosted an asado for us to taste his wines over a fine lunch of beef cooked over an open fire.  Some of the wines were among the best we tasted in Argentina, especially when compared to similarly priced wines (inexpensive).  He was a newcomer to the local wine industry who had made his fortune in business, unlike many of the older winery families of Mendoza who were third and fourth generation winemakers.  Social status may count for as much as flavor in wine evaluation there. I decided to challenge him and asked if I could try a Zinfandel, my favorite California varietal.  Out it came, and wonder of wonders, it was very good, rivaling the old-vine Zinfandels from the foothills of the Sierras at home.  All in all, this whole visit was a very nice experience.

That evening, we visited a new winery where we had dinner and a chance to taste their better wines.  The ownership was French, and quite smug.  Their wines were French style using Mendoza grapes, and quite mediocre.   My colleague asked if they had an opinion about the wines being made by their competitor who we had visited that afternoon.  “His wines are quite ordinary,” was the reply. 

“Have you tasted them?” asked my friend.

“No,” was the reply.

The moral of the story is a frequently encountered phenomenon in South America (and here in Los Estados Unidos too).  Perception becomes reality.  Status is more important than flavor.  Don’t experiment but rather guide yourself based upon the opinions of the experts!

My colleague truly was a V.I.P. as we wandered from winery to winery in Mendoza.  All of the local wineries wanted him to taste their premium reserves and he was there to receive a major award.   My status was quite ambiguous during these visits.  People kept asking me who I was, expecting to hear that I too was a V.I.P.  After a couple of days of having no good answer, inspiration struck.  When asked who I was, the reply became that “I carry my colleague’s golf clubs for him.”  The strange thing about this was that seemed to be the perfect answer that satisfied everybody.  They didn’t care whether I was important or not.  The only concern seemed to be where to put me in the social hierarchy.  My now unambiguous status as a glorified butler got me through the rest of the week with all the good food and wine I could ingest.

We visited a very large local shopping center to meet some friends for dinner at a nice restaurant.  Arriving early, we discovered we were just in time for the grape harvest festival, the Vendemia.  Huge tents were set up in the parking area with all of the local wineries offering attractive young ladies pouring endless glasses of free wine for the tasting.  But these were the vin ordinaries, not the premium reserve wines, and we were both curious what the inexpensive wines bought in the supermarkets tasted like.  We made the rounds in several of the tents, selecting wines to taste either at random or from wineries we had already visited.  The short answer is they tasted not so good.  Most of the wines were oxidized, with a bitter flavor underlying the fruit flavors from the grapes.  As we came to realize, much of the wine made by the ton was fermented in old-fashioned cement tanks with poor or no control of temperature and fermentation atmosphere.  People had always had this style of wine to drink and expected it to taste this way. 

It took change in the way the local wine makers thought of wine to exploit the export market.  What did they have to learn?  Simple.  They needed to taste the wines that people liked in the new markets they wanted to sell to, and to make wines for export that would be acceptable to these consumers.  Does this sound familiar?  Remember those French wine makers who hadn’t tasted the “ordinary wine” they didn’t think was worth drinking.  There’s a lesson here, folks.

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