Bodega la Rural | Argentina | Living in Mexico

Bodega la Rural

For fifteen years Jean and I lived in the Sonoma Valley, one of California's premium winemaking regions. Some of our friends were vintners. We escorted our visitors to wineries for tastings. Wines were featured at dinner parties, hosts competing to discover obscure releases from undiscovered boutique wineries.

Our neighbors made homemade wine from small plantings of their own, or from grapes gleaned from the big commercial vineyards after the harvest. When a vineyard truck overturned on a mountain road, responding members of our Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department scooped up the spilled grapes and made a limited-edition artesanal wine they called Roadkill Red—a cab I believe.

Mendoza is Argentina's winemaking center. Here we visited a famous winery: Don Felipe. It was founded by an Italian family in 1885, about the same time so many famous houses were founded in the Sonoma and Napa valleys, also by Italians.

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Don Felipe is a working winery producing a premium label, much of which is exported. But what makes it fun to visit is its museum, the finest wine museum Jean and I have ever visited.

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A great deal of equipment used by Don Felipe from the bodega's earliest days has been preserved and carefully restored. An old truck has new green paint and lovingly finished wooden components. Processing equipment borders rows of vines.

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A large selection of 19th-Century woodworking tools illustrates the art of barrel-making.

I wondered, what is the function of this large cowhide tub? And is the drain at the near end what I think it is?

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Why yes, the drain is in fact just what I thought it was: the cow's tail.

What did you think it was?

A sketch on some tiles shows a cowhide tub in use.

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A barefoot man tromps grapes, the juice running through the tail drain into a leather bucket. Do you think wine made this way tasted anywhere as good as today's vintages?

Wine presses reduced the labor of the crush while extracting more of the juice. Beat the hell out of grape-stomping. No longer in use today, old presses litter the grounds of wineries the way wooden wagon wheels flank the gates of ranches.

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The old gear is redolent of an age of authenticity, a time of pride of craftsmanship. But it can't handle today's volumes or price structures. Wine making today is accomplished with the latest in high-tech equipment: centrifugal crushers, stainless-steel fermenting vats and tanks.

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All that's left of the old ways are the wooden aging barrels, here imported from The U. S. or France. They make up a major portion of the cost of winemaking, because they cannot be re-used—maybe only once or twice if at all. A French barrel costs $1,000.

We toured the winery with perhaps 40 other tourists. I hate tours. When through some accident I wind up on one, I usually wander off by myself, one ear cocked in the rare event that the tour guide says something interesting.

The main reason I don't like tours is having to crowd through sites with other people. Our group consisted mainly of tourists who were there because a travel agent told them they should see the place, not because they had any real interest in it. Count me among these people.

But this guy intrigued me. He walked around for an hour with his eye glued to the camcorder viewfinder, panning down rows of barrels and equipment. He's gonna have to edit the hell out of that video to make it watchable.

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Factory tour over, it was time for Judy and Jean to shop—the high point of their morning.

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They lined up at the counter to buy a couple of bottles at low, low winery prices.

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In the Bible stories I read as a kid, those early middle eastern people grew grapes. And apricots and figs and olives. Those crops seem to go together. I guess they flourish in the dry Mediterranean climate, just like the climate we enjoyed in the Sonoma Valley, just like the climate in Mendoza. Most places we've visited, where premium wine is made, so is olive oil. Not that tranny lube you buy in the supermarket, but spicy, fruity artisanal olive oil.

Don Felipe still has its old olive presses, although I didn't find out if they still make oil.

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The press on the left has a conventional pair of cylindrical millstones. But the reason I'm even bothering to write about olive oil is the press on the right. I've never seen anything like it. Three conical stones press the olives against a flat stone plate. Unlike the cylindrical press, the entire surface of the plate is engaged in the pressing work. So I imagine this design is more efficient. Cool, huh?

Stuff like this tickles my engineer side. But then again, engineers are like that. I remember as a teenager, picking up a camshaft and showing it to a similarly inclined friend. We both looked at it, and burst out laughing.

Not many people can see the humor in a radical camshaft grind. Or the beauty in a trio of conical millstones. Or the ingenuity of a cow tail drain. But for me, the opportunity to stumble on stuff like this is a benefit of traveling.

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