I felt very small, very fast on my August 2007 trip to visit the wineries I work with in Argentina, and not just because I know only an infinitesimal amount of what there is to know about the infinite world of wine.
After flying all night overnight, my first morning in Buenos Aires I had no chance to take a shower, change my clothes, or fix my seat-cushion cowlick. As I raced back and forth to meetings with the commercial agents in Buenos Aires for Achával Ferrer, Fournier, Kerana, Huarpe, and finally Colomé, where I was arranging to travel the next day, there was a lot to organize to make it 1,500 kilometers to Salta City and then another 400 kilometers up winding mountain roads to Colomé, the oldest existing winery in Argentina, founded by Jesuits in the 1830s.
As I was rushing from place to place I had the presence of mind to stop at an ATM and grab some Argentine pesos since I was low on cash. I had a feeling I was missing something but I paid no attention and rushed on. It was only later that night, after a night on the town, that I reached into my wallet, thinking to make another cash withdrawal, and realized that earlier I took my cash and left my only ATM card, and only source of more cash, in the ATM.
So I went on to Salta first thing the next morning with 14 pesos in my pocket and no way to get cash because I blew too much of my entertainment budget in cash my first night in Buenos Aires. I tried to rationalize that I was still tired and disoriented from flying, but I could not satisfactorily explain, even to myself, the dullness of my own wits.
It was too late when I arrived in Salta to start the long mountain trek to Colomé, so I tried to find some of the sites, which mainly consist of churches, cathedrals and convents where people have been praying to make a living from the rocks and desert for hundreds of years.
I followed some high steeples in the Salta skyline and arrived at La Parroquía de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de las Viñas, the Parish of Our Lady of the Illumination of the Vineyards, which I took as a sign, just in time for mass and communion. As gold and silver of the Spanish conquistadors who arrived here in 1580 shone down on me, extracted from its den deep in the Andes mountains to be hammered here into halos of grace, omnipresence, and all-powerfulness, I imbibed along with the communion wine the entire mystery of a universe that can carry in its grace to a place of sanctuary even an absent-minded person who did not always follow his best instincts.
I was headed to Colomé because it is a vineyard I work with for exports in Asia. I had never been there before because my previous contact was with the fabulous Flavia Fabio at Colomé commercial office in Buenos Aries. In fact I was introduced to Flavia by my oldest and best friend in Argentina, with her quick wit and a wonderful open spirit, Celina Brenta from the Bodega O. Fournier office in Buenos Aires. Since I can more or less pass for an Argentine and both girls are cute, of course I flirt a little with both of them. I hope that will not inflame any of the Argentine possessive passions that can erupt as suddenly as solar flares, because I love them both.
The trip to Colomé from Salta took about four hours up winding mountain roads, making me wonder how anyone beat a path there, much less how they can keep the inn full, despite the fantastic views of the surrounding mountain scenery and escarpments.
But in terms of the global economy, Colomé is no longer a remote outpost. Colomé is now part of Hess Selections, which has wines from Napa Valley and elsewhere, but the colony outside of Salta is one in which Swiss magnate Donald Hess seems to take particular interest, spending almost half the year in this northern Argentine outpost.
Thibeault, the winemaker, and I also enjoyed the afternoon light on the mountains and vineyards surrounding the bodega (Spanish for winery) and the posada, the small, very exclusive nine-room mountain inn full of people there to ride horses and play backgammon, eat, and otherwise not do much of anything.
We talked about the altitude, twice that of the famous vineyards of the Valle de Uco in Mendoza, and the vastly increased levels of polyphenals, with cardiovascular cleansing properties, produced in the thin air and intense sunlight from vineyards at 2600 meters and as high as 3300 meters.
The wines also have unique properties from the extreme difference in temperature between night and day. Even in winter, the desert is hot in the afternoon, but at night and through the early morning plunges towards ice cold.
Working the vines so close to the sky, Colomé is also using biodynamic methods, working on certification by Demeter, the main register of strict biodynamic producers. As part of the operation, Colomé has its own farm in the mountains to provide fresh food for the hotel restaurant, but also to create compost for the organic vineyard practices.
In the four years they have been operating under Hess, Colomé has produced a Torrontes, the signature white grape of Argentina, which Thibeault believes originally came from Spain but is now found only in Salta province. They also make an Amalaya blend from Malbec, the signature red grape of Argentina, in which they also experiment with Syrah, Tannat, and Cabernet Franc. Then there is the Malbec Reserva, which Wine Spectator magazine, in 2006, three years after Colomé commenced operations, placed on its list of the 100 best wines in the world.
The food and wine make a nice experience, but the natural scenery is definitely what makes a stay at Colomé special. It is worth the trip to see the pinpoint brightness of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and the Milky Way arching high across the entire sky and cascading in a flood of milky luminescence that crashes against the dark horizon. It is enough to make you really feel what a puny miserable creature you really are while lifting your spirits instead of crushing them like an impersonal card-grabbing ATM machine, and making you feel fortunate for your brief flicker of consciousness in the cosmos away from the city.
The next morning the desert light etched into the escarpments surrounding Colomé the colors of sweet almonds, coffee ice cream and iron forged in the sun.
Before I left Colomé that day, Xavier, who cares for all the vineyards, was going to take me on a tour of all the properties where they raise grapes. They have different plots with different grapes planted, and at different altitudes. Some of the terrains have never been planted, so they are experimenting and carefully testing the results of different varietals at different altitudes, especially for the levels of heart-cleansing polyphenols that form at different altitudes.
Xavier told me he worried that biodynamics put them at an economic disadvantage, that it is much more expensive because so much work must be done by hand instead of by machine. Work on the vines is done by star charts, but also by the perceptions of the people in the fields instead of an industry-recommended spraying schedule. He gave the example of the ants, which eat two hectares worth of grapes a year, and which Colomé cannot stop by biodynamic methods, but only slow down, but that is as it should be, with the ants having their place in the ecosystem.
Before we left on our tour of the properties, Xavier asked me to wait a moment. He came back with face as red as the mountains, because there was a mix-up in my transfer. They thought I was leaving Colomé at two o’clock, when in fact my plane was leaving at two from Salta, several hours away, and the car was not ready so Xavier was going to have to drive me to meet a car in Cafayete because he is the fastest driver on the mountain roads.
So we talked instead about biodynamie and the insurrection of the ants as we skidded around hairpin turns through vast geological upheavals. He told me, as I sat back and enjoyed the ride, about the people he has seen living in those mountains, who somehow survive with nothing edible growing near, with no source of water to be seen, and who would not take the firewood he dropped off for them in the freezing wintertime until he stopped by their house and told them it was for them to take.
He also told me that the thought he had that morning about checking on my travel arrangements back to Salta was similar to working the vineyards biodynamically. Tiene que sigar los sentimientos. You have to follow your feelings, he said, and I just had a feeling that something was not right. It is the same way with the mystery of growing the best grapes in a hostile environment.
Back in Salta Capital, only two days before, when I was feeling so lost and bewildered, with no cash in my pocket, and wandered into that service at Our Lady of the Illumination of the Vineyards, I sat afterwards in the outdoor café of the Bar del Museo and had the best tamal I ever tasted and a deep ruby Cabernet from Humanao. All in all, it was divine.
As I was savoring these treats a woman with silver teeth marched up to my table asking for a donation for AIDS. Irritated at the interruption of my supper, and as she rattled on a hundred miles an hour how she was not asking me to buy anything but only looking for a donation, I feigned that I was not literate enough to follow her Spanish-language torrent.
She went off to pester other people who only wanted to eat, and I went back to my tamal. It was only a few minutes later when I shuddered to see her pass by in the corner of my eye just as I was flirting with the waitress in my best Argentine Castilian.
Momentarily I had been saved but now I was going straight to Hell for sure, without passing Go or collecting even a measly 200 Argentine pesos. My only hope was that the extra polyphenyls of the wine from 2600-meters gave me a pure enough heart when it is my time to go to meet my Lady of the Vineyards.