My trips to Argentina have been usually confined to the city of Córdoba and its environs. I’ve wanted to see a little more of the country and so we took a side trip to Mendoza, the city at the heart of Argentina’s wine country.
Mendoza is a little smaller than Córdoba and without the big universities the population isn’t quite as youthful. It doesn’t have the elegant churches that you practically trip over in Córdoba. Mendoza does have rather deep open stone-lined gutters—more like trenches—along both sides of each street; you really have to watch where you step so you don’t fall in. The arid region has an extensive irrigation system that supports its agriculture and at first I assumed these ditches were a relic of this old system. I realized later that they are still being used for agriculture: Mendoza’s famously shady streets are lined with London plane trees which grow at orderly intervals out of the ditches.
In addition to shade trees, Mendoza’s centro (downtown) is filled with tidy plazas, including the massive Plaza Independencia and the spectacularly tiled Plaza España. West of downtown is Parque General San Martín, a massive Central Park-like place we wandered around in common cold-induced stupor during our second day in the city. The park has some quiet sunny meadows which, when you’re sick and checked out of your hotel room and have eleven hours to wait for your flight out of town, are excellent for time-wasting naps.
But while still healthy on our first day in Mendoza, we took a city bus just out of town to Maipú, home to a number of wineries and olive oil factories. In Maipú you can rent a bicycle and tour the various bodegas (wine cellars). The terrain is very flat and the town even has a ciclovia (bicycle lane) through the main part of town. South of town the ciclovia disappeared but the scenery was delightful: a shady rural road that passed by vineyards and olive groves. The irrigation ditches flowed with water. We rode out to the edge of town (about 12 kilometers) to Laur, an olivicola (olive plantation and factory).
A tour of the facilities included a visit to the trees, the factory, and a museum with a collection of antique presses. The tour was in Spanish, but the guide spoke very clearly so I was able to practice listening. With great concentration I can understand Spanish well enough; my main challenge was tuning out a small group of Americans in which one of the women was providing an English translation.
I learned that olive trees live for a thousand years but these lazy plants only produce olives for about four hundred years. Each tree produces about twelve liters of oil each year. If I had to guess I’d say that Lore and I go through no more than two to three liters per year, earning us a small minority share of one dusty green olive tree on a farm like this somewhere.
After sampling some finger foods prepared with the house aceite de oliva (olive oil), we crossed the street to Carinae, the neighboring constellation-themed winery. We found a couple of Americans from the olive oil tour ready to begin a tasting. The guide spoke excellent English; more impressive was her command of wine jargon which is like its own little dialect.
Before we began the tasting, the guide asked us where we were from, a classic tour guide ice-breaker I have come to dislike and have discarded from own professional methods. It’s never a simple answer with us, Lore is from Córdoba and I am from New York but I prefer to just say that we live in Iowa whereas Lore prefers to relate our respective origins.
One of the American women said, “But you are not from Iowa. I can tell you are from New York.” Back home I make a regular practice of ignoring as many of my compatriots as is practical, and I would have been pleased to continue that routine 9,000 miles away from home. But the guide was surprised and intrigued and wondered how the lady had known that even though I had barely said anything. I didn’t comment (and didn’t care to, though I later suggested to Lore it probably was because I was wearing a rain jacket in the desert—”New Yorkers always come prepared,” an amusement park clown in Florida told my raincoat-clad family while making small talk with us on another vacation twenty years ago). The American lady, who was from San Diego, and had probably seen slicker-wearing New Yorkers jostling their way across her own rainless homeland, added that I probably stood out in Iowa too. I replied that I didn’t think so. This lady was the second person I’ve met on a trip abroad who was both from San Diego and intent on needless gum-flapping (the other was a blowhard in a London bed-and-breakfast about ten years ago who informed me about post-September 11 conditions in New York City).
Anyway, we tasted a couple of Malbecs, a Torrontés, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Syrah. I’m not a discerning wine-drinker; they were all very good. The guide then took us on a short tour of the bodega, switching to Spanish for my educational benefit since the Americans skipped the tour. They label each bottle by using a little hand-operated machine.
We wound up the afternoon with a pleasant ride back to the bike rental. The sky was still overcast and cool but the sun came out enough to make the shady country road appealing.