While browsing through my Twitter feed, I came across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Mendoza, the primary wine region in Argentina. Like many foreign visitors, reporter David Armstrong portrays the region as the Southern Hemisphere’s Napa or Sonoma: beautiful wineries flanked by fruitful vineyards, with nearly no mention of what ails this region. Armstrong stayed in one of the fanciest hotels in Mendoza, the Park Hyatt, and was shuttled to and from the prettiest wineries in the region by a private car. He describes his visits to Catena Zapata, Salentein, Zuccardi — “gleaming, modern wineries”– but fails to mention that many of these behemoths are only accessible by dirt roads. No, not rustic dirt roads. Rough, rocky dirt roads because the regional government has no money to pave them.
Armstrong talks of the smooth ribbon of macadam that is the Route 40. There is little mention of the stray dogs (many of whom have not survived the highways and lay dead and gutted on the sides of the roads), the shantytowns (nearly right next to the vineyards he so glamorizes), the buses spewing diesel exhaust, the construction factories. Ladies and gentlemen, if you are expecting a wine country with rustic hotels and beautiful scenery at every turn, you will be disappointed. This is no Napa. The “gourmet ghetto” that is Chacras de Coria, a nearby suburb of Mendoza sold as a foodie haven, is a settlement of wealthy homeowners who live in gated, guarded homes lined with unpaved sidewalks. We left our car outside for five minutes outside of the gated confines of our hotel and were immediately told that it was unsafe to do so.
The saddest part, however, is that this reporter failed to get the true story about Argentina’s wine economy. One winery owner I talked to said he had little interest in investing any more money in Argentina. “You never get paid and you have to sue people and spend 10 years in court waiting for your money,” he said. “The political situation here has made it inhospitable to businesses.” Security, after the barrels, is his biggest expense. Every winery has a guard and a gatehouse to keep unwanted visitors — and it isn’t just for show.
Yes, there are wonderful wines being made in Mendoza. But many investors have left the country (Ruca Malen used to be owned by Kendall Jackson. KJ decided to pull out because of the terrible business conditions and the winery is now owned by KJ’s lawyers) and with the current economic crisis, times have only gotten worse. Tourism in Mendoza crashed this year, a result of the global crisis and the swine flu. Most hotels were under 50 percent capacity (funny, Mr. Armstrong, how you never mentioned this) and tourists were a rare and lonely sight. Times haven’t been good in Argentina’s wine country and they aren’t getting better.
Is it worth it to visit this wine country? Obviously tourism would bring badly-needed capital to the area. I hope that Mendoza’s wealthy wineries band together to bring economic development to the area. Poverty, infrastructure and crime all need to be addressed. For now, tourists need to be well informed before visiting. Read past the glossed-over accounts of Mendoza and learn the true story before you visit.