The bus approached and excitement peaked. The 9am street heat was relieved upon entering bus. There were a few other foreigners on the bus that were easily spotted by the maps held out and cameras in hand. As the bus got to the outskirts of the city of Mendoza, the stops became less frequent and nature was beginning to show itself out the window. Mendoza was established in a dry and dusty region that somehow produces great wine. I spotted a few grape fields surrounded by dust lots along the way.
Suddenly i realized there were less people on the bus and about half of them were foreigners. Hugo was the name of the bike shop recommended to me by my couchsurfing host. As the bus slows down to make the next stop, I see a big sign for Mr. Hugo bike rental. As I got up from the hard plastic seat, I found myself slightly limping due to the 40 minutes of slouching. The rest of the foreigners got off as well. Three people including myself walked across the street to the shop with the big sign saying “Mr Hugo.”
As I approached the shop, there were a few friendly dogs napping on the concrete driveway. A man comes out with a big smile to greet us and introduced himself as Mr Hugo. His wife then sat with the three of us to show us a map of the vineyards. She warmly explained the best types of wine and circled some of the most popular vineyards on the fold out map. The couple I was sitting with seemed to have come prepared. They were asking a bunch of specific questions, like where certain vineyards were. I was so impressed with how much they knew, that I invited myself with them. “You both seem to know a lot about the area, is it ok if ride with you and go the vineyards together? ” I asked.
“Sure, that would be fun.” The man said in his Scottish accent. One of my favorite accents by the way.
The three of us grabbed our bikes and headed to our first vineyard. My excitement made my legs pedal so fast that i was over 60 feet ahead of my new friends. I slowed down realizing that I was supposed to follow them to the vineyard. Our first stop was actually not a vineyard but rather a chocolate and liqueur shop.
The shop had just opened and we were the first customers. The shop looked rustic with big windows peering into the dry backyard sprinkled with olive trees. After a brief history of the place, we received complimentary chocolate. Eh…it was ok. i like dark chocolate that isn’t too sweet. After years of eating straight up cacao beans, my palate required pure chocolate. The owner offered us a sampling option that allows us to try olive paste made from their olive trees, chocolate and a choice of a liqueur.
The four different olive spreads all tasted the same to us. Agnes got an irish cream liqueur and i chose the mint. Both were subtly tasty but not delicious. John grinned when he ordered his absinthe. A glass was placed on the table with the owner propping a spoon with holes above it. A sugar cube was put on the spoon and he began to pour the bright green 140 proof absinthe. The owner smiled with satisfaction while he flicked his lighter to inflame the absinthe. It was a fun presentation. John took a sip as we all watched in suspense. His reaction made me cringe.
His tongue stuck out as his face scrunched up as if he hit his funny bone. He passed it to me to try. Normally I don’t drink absinthe at 10 am but I decided to make an exception. With the tiniest sip, I couldn’t help making the same reaction. It felt as if the green acid dissolved into my tongue. Strong stuff.
The next spot we went to was closed to the public and only open for reservations well in advance. We weren’t too happy about it since John claimed it was one of the best in the area. Out of spite, we took a handful of grapes from their vines for the ride. There was was an empanada restaurant, called The Beer Garden, nestled between two vineyards that we couldn’t resist. We sat down on futons outside under the shade of a lush plum tree. Grape vines were in arms reach behind us and the smell of freshly made empanadas filled the air.
The waitress brought over a bowl of potato chips which we devoured before she could walk back to the kitchen. When she returned, she took a quick glance at the empty bowl of chips and smirked. We gave our orders of 3 empanadas each and generous glass of wine that was equivalent to two glasses. The wine was delicious and although it didn’t solve our unger, it did lubricate our conversation of getting to know each other. John and Agnes live together in a town of Scotland. John and his Father build log cabins for people all over the world. They use 200 plus year old trees from siberia and build the cabin by hand. I was in awe hearing John explain how they build it by hand. Initially, I thought to myself it must take months or at least weeks. John and his father make around $200,000 and complete the cabin in about 3 days. Unbelievable. The empanadas came just in time to accompany my half glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Agnes was describing how she worked at a hotel and wasn’t too happy with it. Once our bellies were full, we leaned back and continued to talk until we finished our wine.
Upon leaving, I felt a little tipsy and very happy. We grabbed some plums from the trees as we were walking to our bikes. They were the most delicious plums of my life. Each plum was perfectly ripe with deep flavor and an unmatched sweetness. We stuffed ourselves again with plums and head off on our bikes to the next spot. As we were riding down the dusty streets, I reached into my bulged pocket to eat plums with my spare hand. I couldn’t help myself. when we passed by the vineyard that denied us, we each grabbed another handful of their grapes and sped away.
The next vineyard we decided to go to required us to use the mainroad. It looked fine on the map,the journey was only 2 miles down the road. After 40 seconds on the road, I realized it was the worst ride of the day. The main road was narrow enough to fit two lanes of opposing traffic without bike lanes on the side.To the side of the road was loose dirt with tree roots sticking out. These conditions wouldn’t have been so bad if there weren’t huge semi trucks grazing us. As I was trying to stay within my one foot wide space on the side of the road, I looked up and felt a truck nearly hit me. As the metal monster roared neared me, I saw that Agnes was too far over and nearly got hit. My heart skipped and decided to yell “Truck” to let Agnes and John know when a truck was coming. Shortly after, another truck was fast approaching. I swerved off the road and bounced up and down on the tree roots and lost control. This accidental swerve off the road was a combination of my nerves getting the best of me when reckless trucks approached… and a slight buzz.
Finally, we got to our destination…alive but definitely shaken up. After parking our bikes without locks, we made our way through the entrance of Mevi. The hostess sat us outside overlooking the cornucopia of grape vines that blended into a white peaked mountain in the distance. A beautiful view that I will never forget. We decided to try every wine that they had and share each other’s wine glass. I liked how they were comfortable with sharing their glass with me, a complete stranger as of 3 hours before. These wines were the tastiest of the day. I’m a big fan of dry and bod red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti are my favorites. the cab was delicious, but the Bornada was amazing. I have never heard of it before. We unanimously agreed it was the best of the entire day. It was bold and slightly smoky with a hearty and robust finish…that’s my attempt at sounding like a wine snob.
To have some fun and test our unrefined palate, we decided to have a little competition. John and I would blindfold ourselves and taste each wines and guess which one it was. Agnes was the judge and facilitator as she handed us the wine. The first round we both were 5 for 6 in guessing the correct wine. The second round I tried my hardest to guess correctly. I extensively wafted the wine to my nose and swished it in my mouth to get as many clues as my senses would pick up. It’s true, by eliminating my sight my sense of taste and smell were heightened. The results of the second round? We both aced it. Our egos got a nice pat on the back as we felt like we graduated to the next level of sophisticated wine enthusiasts. We cheered and gazed to the horizon.
Agnes couldn’t drink anymore wine because of her low tolerance to alcohol. She was almost drunk after 1 glass. She then went to talk to the owner as John and I conversated. After our last sip of wine, we got up to make our way to Agnes in the front of the building. We felt slightly happier and looser than we did when we first sat down…good wine. We chatted with the owner for a few minutes and found out that he also owns a vineyard in San Gimignano, Italy. I told him that I lived in Tuscany went wine tasting in San Gimignano. He was happy to hear and proud to share more information. When we told him we were going to our next stop, he let us view the bottling and storage of all the wines in another part of the building. There was no one else allowed to visit, we felt very fortunate as we roamed through the rows of barrels of fermenting wine. We thanked him ventured on to the next spot.
We went on the same busy road but it wasn’t as bad. There was more room for bikers and the dirt to the side of the road was more hard and better bike riding. We turned off the road and entered Bodega Familia di Tommaso. The gravel driveway made it hard to pedal. At one point I couldn’t pedal anymore because of the loose gravel and tipped over. I tried to put my foot out when I lost balance but for some odd reason my motor skills and coordination were not working properly. I fell right in front of a table of 4 women. When I looked up at them from the ground, they had facial expressions of disgust rather than pity. The context of wine tasting could have persuaded them to think the worse. I brushed off and walked the bike to the stand. The hostess told us that it would be another 20 minutes until the tour would start. She also mentioned that we can eat as many grapes from the vines as we wanted. Something about the phrase “As many grapes as we wanted” got my attention and sounded like a challenge. We then walked 20 feet to the closest vine of grapes and ate a handful. Wine grapes are sweeter than store bought grapes. These grapes bursted with flavor and tons of sugary deliciousness in my mouth. The skin was thick and the seeds gave a nice crunch. I proceeded to another handful…and another…and another. I couldn’t stop. It was as if my mind shut off and my body kept repeating the same motion of grabbing a handful and stuffing my mouth to the maximum capacity while spotting the next bunch I will grab. The feeling reminded me of when I was in Ethiopia the year prior and was eating stalk after stalk of sugarcane. The zombie feeling of mindless eating resulted in a few purple stains on my shirt and some more dirty looks from the table of four women. After about 3 pounds of grapes, I had enough. Also, it was perfect timing because the tour was about to start.
The tour was historically informative. Italians moved to Argentina between 1880-1920 and brought their knowledge and skills of winemaking with them. After the tour we tasted a bunch of wine and learned about each one we tasted. When a chef describes the process and ingredients of a dish you are about to eat, it somehow makes it taste better than no description at all. The same concept applies to wine, eating/drinking paired with expert commentary makes it more yummy. Agnes reached her limit with wine at the last vineyard so her glasses were for John and I to share.
After we completed the wine tasting, we decided to visit one last stop before returning our bicycles. The final stop was an olive oil shop. We ventured again on the treacherous road for another 20 minutes. As we approached the gates, a man started to close them. He told us we were the kat ones in for the day. Lucky us.
During the tour, we saw hundreds of olive trees. The tour guide told us that after 10 years, a single olive tree can produce over 100 pounds of olives in a year. A ton of olives makes about about 35 liters of olive oil. . Growing up in an Italian family, I always love olive oil. After we fed our brains with knowledge, it was time to taste test the olive oils. Our guide introduced us to a table with olive spreads and oils. Some were spicy, some were sweet and all were delicious. We couldn’t stop eating. We finished the basket of bread that was given to us for dipping. We then stole another table’s bread and continued to gorge ourselves of free finger foods. The guide tried to persuade us to move on to the next table as our mouths were full. The next table had some balsamic vinegars and sundried tomatoes. W each took a round of trying each sample. Before we can make our second round, the guide whisked us over to the liquor bar. We each got to try 2 flavors. We weren’t too thrilled with the liquers. They wey were too sweet and tasted like artificial flavors.
After finishing our shot glasses, the guide politely asked us to the shop to purchase some of the goods. We pretended to follow him but then our palates redirected us to the samples again. It was if a bear was eating the honey of a fresh bee nest and getting stung in the process. We loved the food so much, it was worth the sting and scolding we got from the workers. The guide came over to the table we were eating at and took away all the bread from all the tables and even closed the lids of the jars. The party was over. After the pleasure of feasting faded, the sting of over consuming set in. Feeling bad about how much we ate, I bought some sundried tomatoes. The best I have ever had in my life. I never really cared for them in the past, but these were sweet and tangy with a rich olive oil coating.
We only had 10 minutes to return the bikes. Rushing through traffic and swerving around pedestrians, we made it just in time. Mr. Hugo himself served us lemonade to conclude another great day to be alive.