Sunday, April 30, 2006

The World Continues to Shrink

Just a quick (and not surprisingly, random) note. Vines of Mendoza has hired a new COO. An interesting young lady from Austin, TX. For some reason that I have yet to fathom she was reading my bio somewhere and noticed that I worked at Earth Force. She then called me to tell me that she was the President of the Board of Directors of YouthLaunch -- the Earth Force affiliate in Texas. Between that and having the Mormons down the street I am starting to feel little freaked out.

Good night and good luck (great movie, even with Spanish subtitles).

Plaza Espana

One of the best parts of living in Mendoza is that the city has great outdoor spaces. For instance, there are five plazas commemorating the growth of the city. Over the next couple of weeks Mia and I are going to explore each of them. Mia hasn’t exactly volunteered for this duty, but each plaza has a playground and I am guessing that she is willing take trips to five different playgrounds. If she won’t go willingly, I will just throw her over my shoulder and carry her. One of the great benefits of being roughly 15 times larger than your kid is you can always just carry her wherever you want to go.

So, we started our tour of the plazas with Plaza Espana. Plaza Espana celebrates the Spanish heritage of Mendoza. Here is the basic story:

The Spanish arrived in Mendoza in the early 1500’s. At the time the Spaniards arrived, the territory of Mendoza was occupied by the Huarpe Indians, in the Uco Valley, North and Northwest, the Incas at Uspallata and the Mendoza River Valley and the Puelches to the South of the Mendoza River. Of these tribes the Huarpes stand out because they had developed a network of irrigation channels in the Huentota Valley (city of Mendoza today), which enabled them to grow potatoes and corn. The Spaniards loved this clever system and named it "Dique de la Toma de los españoles" (Spanish Capture Dam). Today these channels are called Acequia’s – the original Huarpe name for them – so much for victors writing history.

The Huarpes were a peaceable, sedentary and agricultural people. And so, on March 2, 1561, Pedro del Castillo founded a city where the Huarpes lived and named it Mendoza (after the governor of Chile, Don García Hurtado de Mendoza). Establishing Spaniards in the place, who preferred the beaches of Chile, was so difficult that four years after Mendoza was founded only 12 Spaniards remained. The governor of Chile took drastic measures (he couldn’t have the city named after him have only 12 Spanish residents). Once the governor got serious, the settlement started to grow and in the year 1600 the population reached 80 Spanish settlers. The rest (as they say) is history.

The Plaza Espana commemorates these early years. In other words, it is a celebration of Spanish domination of the natives. OK – that might be a little bit of an unfair characterization of the role Spain played in the development of Mendoza. I could have said that the Plaza Espana is a rememberance of the hardships the early settlers overcame to establish the city. There is probably a bit of truth in each statement. And, since I know that it is important to cover both sides of the debate, I remind us all that the Spaniards brought the first grapes to Mendoza, so they get very big check mark on their side.

Enough quasi-political debate, on to the important stuff – photos of the plaza. All in all, it is a great little plaza with amazing tile work. I have been told it is the most beautiful Plaza in the city – I will get back to you on that in a few weeks.

The plaza features a craft market on the weekends. You can see a photo of the glasswork of a local artist to the left – it is typical of the art you can you find on this plaza. If you need a scarf or an Asado knife and fork, this is the place for you.

I think that is it for tonight's scribbling -- time for me to cry over the Phoenix Suns terrible showing the NBA playoffs -- the Southern Hemisphere is not far enough away to make that series look good.

Sunday, April 23, 2006




Suerte is a very important and oft-used word in Argentina. It virtually defined our trip to Buenos Aires and Uruguay two weeks ago….

First, our flight from Mendoza to BA was canceled, so we were scheduled on an earlier flight. We arrived at the airport to discover that our new flight was delayed too --- “suerte,” said our friend Julian who dropped us off….

When we got to BA, the cab driver who was waiting to pick us up – and had been waiting for over an hour (meter running, by the way) – grumpily showed us to the cab and we began driving to the apartment we rented for the weekend…When we arrived at the “address” of the apt – or rather at the addresses on either side of where the apartment should have been, our cab driver said, “direction no existe!” We parked, got out, began scouring either side of the street, and frantically trying to call of the number of the apartment management firm… soon, a whole group of people were gathered round us, trying to help us find the address (and, reminding Janalee that it is not safe to leave your bag sitting on the side of the street). We located someone who spoke English, and he translated.

New BA friend, “He (the cab driver) says the address doesn’t exist.”

Jan, “We KNOW that. We’re trying to figure out what to do…”

New friend, “The cab driver says that you should call the company that rented you the apartment.”

Jan, “We HAVE called them… no one is answering the phone. Do you have any recommendations for a hotel?”

New friend, “I’m not from around here, sorry. She (helpful neighbor who was attracted by the excitement of the frantic search for the non-existent address) says that there is a Hilton just a few blocks from here.”

Jan, “OK, let’s get back in the cab and have him take us to the Hilton.”

Everyone, “!Suerte!”

We climb back in the cab, and begin what we think is the journey to the hotel, and next I find myself talking with the dispatcher, who speaks English.

Dispatcher, “The cab driver asks where you would like him to take you….”

Jan, “To the Hilton”

Dispatcher, “Give us the address and he will take you there.”

Jan, “I THOUGHT he knew where the Hilton is… I don’t know where it is.”

At this point, frustration is mounting. It’s Friday night, we have no place to stay, we’re tired, we’re hungry (there was no snack on the plane because we flew through a horrible thunder storm. Everyone on the plane was saying “SUERTE” and crossing themselves… When the plane landed safely in BA, we all applauded), and we want to give up and go home….

So, we slow down to look at our guidebook and find a new place to stay. At that very moment, someone leaps out at us from the curb…

Rolf (the owner of the apartment management firm), “Where have you been?”

Vince, “What? Are you Rolf?”

Rolf, “Yes, where have you BEEN?”

Vince, Jan and Mia, “YOU SENT US TO THE WRONG ADDRESS!!!!” (It turns out that the number was right, but the street was wrong… because we turned the corner and happened to slow down at just the right moment (SUERTE!!!!!!), we happened to find Rolf.

Rolf (who is German, has lived in Australia for the past 10 years, and whose Spanish is very thickly accented) then apologized profusely and paid the cab driver, whose fare has now escalated to over 100 pesos!

The cab driver happily drove away, shouting “SUERTE!…”

The rest of the trip was pretty calm after all that. On Saturday, we took a hydrofoil to Uruguay and spent the day in a lovely town called Colonia (see photos)… On Sunday, we wandered around the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and walked up and down the Recoleta cemetery (same photos), from my perspective, one of the most amazing cemeteries in the world.

We made is home safely late Sunday night. When the cab driver dropped us off in Mendoza, you could here a faint, “suerte” as he drove away.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Lessons in Language (aka Lessons in Humility)

So, my language skills continue to fascinate me -- or should I say my lack of language skill continues to amaze me. Even though I have extremely low expectations at this point, I have managed to hit a new low. Being a former debate coach I have several points (ok - two points, but they are good ones) to document my argument.

#1. My Spanish teacher quit – it is one thing to admit that I am not great at learning languages – it is another to be so bad at it that my teacher quits. Not only did he quit, he quit to take on a client who is paying him less. I have reached a new low.

#2. The other day Amelia and I were riding in the car with a friend from Mendoza and a friend from the U.S. At one point the friend from Mendoza was trying to pronounce an English word and Mia piped in with the proper pronunciation. A few minutes later, our friend from the states was struggling with a word in Spanish. Mia immediately piped up with the proper pronunciation in Spanish (she has an amazing accent). I didn’t understand what either the friend from Mendoza or the friend from the U.S. was saying. My four-year old has a better grasp of both Spanish and English than I do.

I think that is about all the humility I can take tonight – where are those brownies that Mia cooked last night?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Our First Cosecha: Participating in the Wine Harvest

One of the most amazing things about living in Mendoza is really living in the wine culture. During the beginning of March, the province of Mendoza celebrates Vendimia – the harvest festival. There are parties across Mendoza, and a queen is chosen from each of the 18 departments (think counties). Wine is everywhere – in every store window, at the cleaners, at the bakery – you name it. Everyone has wine on display.

On Wednesday we participated in our first cosecha. To give you a sense of how deeply wine is embedded in the culture, when we told Amelia’s teachers that she would be out for the day joining a cosecha – they all knew exactly what we were talking about. “Uvas, por favor,” they said, “please bring back grapes for the children to share.”

We began the day at one of Pablo’s family vineyards – the Gimenez-Rilli Merlot vineyard – just east of Mendoza city. To give everyone at Vines of Mendoza the opportunity to participate, we closed the Tasting Room and Information Center and traveled by caravan to the property. Everyone, including Mia, got an opportunity to pick. We received crates, scissors, and a little instruction in proper cutting techniques, and then we were off.

Once we filled our crates with grapes, we took them to the foreman who gave us a token for each crate we filled. If we had stayed the entire day, we could have exchanged the tokens for pesos at the end of the day – each filled crated earned us 90 centavos (almost a peso). Instead, we gave tokens to the farm workers and left with a much deeper appreciation of how important (and challenging) their work is. (Editor’s note: We picked 1 tub in 2 hours -- a good picker picks 60 in a day - we are really bad at picking and could never survive on our picking skills. Did you notice that I just named myself the editor?) We have added some photos of the picking here. For even better photos, check out the pics the professional photographer took (not that you aren't a professional, honey!).

From the vineyard, we traveled to the winery, to watch the next step in the winemaking process. After the grapes arrive on the truck, they are sorted and put through a de-stemming machine. They are then loaded into big metal containers which are hoisted up to the top of large tanks, and carefully dropped down into the tanks to begin a process called whole-grape fermentation. As the grapes are layered on top of each other, juice flows out of the bottom of the tank and is then pumped back up to the top. Typically this process, which is called remontage, lasts about 40 days.

After we finished touring the winery, we joined Pablo’s family and the Gimenez-Rilli staff for an asado. It was a beautiful day--the winery is located in a gorgeous old colonial-style building—and the food and the wine were fabulous. I met two women from Washington DC, Lauren and Heather, the night before at dinner, and they joined us for the day. As Lauren said at one point, “This has been an amazing day!” And it was for all of us…

March Food and Wine Recommendations

So another month has passed and once again we have spent several nights eating at the best restaurants in the area. We are truly blessed to live in a time when the exchange rate is in our favor – but I will reserve discussions of the exchange rate for another time. Where was I? Oh yes, eating at the best restaurants.

As I mentioned we have once again eaten at some of the best restaurants in Mendoza this month and yet none of them show up on my Food and Wine recommendations for the month. In fact, the place that I have selected to highlight is what is known as a “resto-bar”. I am not all sure what the means, but I am pretty sure it is not a five-star eating establishment. This month’s food recommendation is El Planque. At El Planque you sit in gravel and if you get there early and are lucky you can score the comfortable director’s style chairs – if you are unlucky you sit on some wood/woven chairs that are not designed for people with backsides as large as mine. Since we are Americans and accustomed to eating before 10:00 PM (22:00 locally – in the U.S. we call that military time, the rest of the world calls it time) we are very often lucky enough to have the big chairs.

Ambience aside, this place has some amazing food. We generally start the evening off with a hot plate of Papas Fritas. Having eaten Papas Fritas in virtually every city I have ever visited I have a lot of confidence saying these are among the best French Fries in the world. Mia would eat a plate all by herself if we gave her half a chance. We follow that with a plate of various of empanadas (jamon y queso, choclo and carne being the favorites). When we finally get down to really eating we focus in on pork chops stuffed with fontina cheese and red pepper. Somewhere in there Janalee usually orders an ensalada verde – not sure what she does with it, but I see it on the bill a lot. All together it makes for a great (if potentially heart stopping) meal. Luckily we live about 1/4 of a mile away from El Planque and we typically walk to and from the place. Certainly not enough exercise to keep us healthy, but it helps with digestion.

After reading this I can see how you might not be jumping right on the El Planque bus – but the food more than makes up for everything else – really it does.

This month’s wine comes from a little winery that Janalee and I visited with our friend Julia Riches. Julia paid us a surprise visit in March and thank goodness she did – it really shook us out of our stuck in the city approach to life and gave us an incentive to get out and see the area, not the least of which is seeing the wineries of the region. Anyway, we visited a winery called Hacienda Del Plata and tasted some great Malbec, Cabernet and Syrah. Their 2003 Mayoral Malbec is really great. It is a big-bodied Malbec with a burst of fruit and a really nice finish (I actually wrote that – strange). I am told that it has outstanding structure – I have absolutely no idea what that means, but it makes me feel really intelligent to say it. I don’t have a picture of this wine, but I have included a picture of Amelia waiting for us while we tasted the wine – good thing she is a patient girl. Perhaps the coolest part is we got to meet Juan Pablo, a member of the family that runs the winery. Juan is going to be riding his motorcycle from Alaska to Mendoza starting in June and we have offered him housing at any of our friends' houses in Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Arizona -- I hope that is ok with all of you. By the way Juan Pablo has a cousin named Juan Reyes (middle names they share the same last name), they were born 2 weeks apart.

Which brings me to my random note of the day. The other day I asked Mia where she had put her tennis shoes. You can guess the situation – it was 8:55, school starts at 9:00. So, I ask her where her shoes are and her answer back was, “I have absolutely no idea”. Where do you think she picked that up? I really need to talk to her teachers about what they say in the classroom – you never know what kids will pick up.

Buenos Noches