The Gem of Argentine Wine Country

Trip Start Nov 12, 2009
Trip End Nov 22, 2009

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Postales del Plata

Flag of Argentina  , Mendoza,
Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Traveling through the wine country of Argentina is a banquet for the senses. The stunning landscapes delight the eyes, the woodsy, oaky fragrance of wine enchants the nose, and its fruity, piquant taste fascinates the palate.

El Valle de Uco (Uco Valley)

Flanked by the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains and located at some of the highest altitudes in the world (600-1000 meters above sea level), the vineyards of Mendoza Province form the heart of the winemaking industry in Argentina. There are forests, rivers, and imposing snow-capped mountains that tower over vast expanses of yellowish, earthy hues of sand carpeting the desert of this province. There is also a refined, civilized side to this vast area, with elegant wineries, called bodegas, looming above the plunging valleys of grapevines that snake endlessly towards the horizon.

Landing at around 9:25 AM (LAN Flight #4240) at Francisco Gabrielli - El Plumillo International Airport, located 11 km outside of Mendoza, I feel like I've just left behind the sophisticated, cultured city of Buenos Aires two hours away and immersed myself into the wild, rugged landscape confronting the earliest colonists some two centuries earlier. The air is noticeably fresher and drier, and the intense sunrays immediately bathe the scenery in a soft, glowing hue. Greeting us at the airport are two new people, Mariela, our local wine expert, and Santiago, our active bicycle guide. Santiago, a young college student who actively bikes 60-70 miles every weekend, will lead most of our rides through the diverse landscapes of Mendoza Province. Still studying English and reluctantly partaking in full-blown, rapid English conversations with the group, he may at first come across as a demure individual. But once I solely converse in Spanish with him, I find that he is quite self-assured and confident. Mariela, on the other hand, speaks fluent English, and she radiates a warm aura of vivacity and enthusiasm through her interactions with us.

Victor, our overall tour leader, and Mariela then escort all of us to the airport parking lot to pick up two cars, one of which has a flatback trailer transporting the bikes. Immediately, we jump into the cars to drive to our first winery, the renowned Bodega Catena Zapata near the sleepy town of Tupungato for a wine tasting tour scheduled at around 10:30AM. Imbibing alcohol before noon is not a bad way to start this leg of the trip.

Along the way, I marvel at the majestic Andes Mountains that seem to straddle endlessly along the oceans of vineyards. The car then turns into a dirt road, and far ahead, a pyramidal building materializes, with its sandstone adobe texture blending into the colors of the province's earthy tones, standing tall above the endless rows of verdant vineyards. 

"Bienvenidos a la bodega Catena Zapata (Welcome to the Catena Zapata Winery)," Victor announces. 

This winery has a history of four generations of winemakers, starting with an Italian, named Nicolŕ Catena, who sailed from Le Marche Region in eastern Italy to Buenos Aires in 1898. Bearing an optimistic dream in his heart, he brought his family to the foreboding barren steppes of Mendoza to plant his first Malbec vineyard in 1902. The rest, as they say, is history. Now managed by the great-granddaughter of Nicolŕ Catena, Laura Catena MD, who attended Harvard and Stanford with specialty training in Emergency Medicine, this winery is now run with a sophisticated scientific expertise. The art and science of viticulture have been coalesced to conceive the best possible wines under her direction. And not to disappoint, this bodega offers me a taste of some of its premium Malbecs that seem to melt my palate with its aromatic, full-textured taste. Enraptured by this viticultural elixir, I end up purchasing its esteemed bottle of Angélica Zapata Malbec Alta 2005 ($160 ARS, or $42 USD). 

La Urgencia Médica (Medical Emergency)

After leaving la Bodega Catena Zapata, the guides take us to a predetermined country road near Tunuyán, where we can start our bike ride to the second winery of the day. However, while driving on a dirt road through a very tiny village in western Argentina, we encounter a group of school children standing beside a busstop. Then, the unthinkable happens. One young child, around 7-8 years old, nervously sees his schoolbus stopping on the other side of the street. Anxiously thinking that he is probably going to be left behind, he tries to jump into the middle of the road many times, darting traffic, but recoils back near the busstop. As our car approaches that group of children, I focus my attention particularly on the little boy who has been darting his body in and out of traffic. My driver begins to slow down and honks several times. But then, in a quick flash of a second, as our car begins to pass by the students, as if in slow motion, the young, anxious boy decides to jump in front of our vehicle. I hear a thump and the body of this boy disappears from sight, falling underneath the car. 

My  vehicle quickly comes to a halt. Victor and I immediately jump out. And on my mind, I could only think of finding this child and quickly administering Basic Life Support (BLS) to him. Time is survival, and the race to saving him has begun.

Unexpectedly and fortunately, the boy stands up as some villagers start to congregate around us. The boy's older brother, probably around 12-13 years old, also arrives. I ask the little boy,
"Te duele? (Are you hurt?)."
With a nonchalant, defiant shoulder shrug, he says, "No."
At least his mental sensorium is intact. I also observe how he walks towards his brother, without any gross signs of skeletal muscle or central nervous system compromise. I then approach him and say that I'm a doctor, and I would like to examine him for any trauma.
He and his brother agree. Surprisingly, the boy has sustained no signs of hemorrhage or even a superficial abrasion on his head or body. I quickly palpate his radial pulse in his left wrist and find his rhythm, rate, and pulse intensity all within normal limits. He is breathing at a normal rate without any signs of laborious distress or use of any accessory respiratory muscles. I test his reflexes, cranial nerves, sensory and motor skills, as well as superficial cerebellar function, which also all seem to be intact. He is, furthermore, very coherent in his mentation, being alert to time, person, place, and appropriately answers all our questions. 

Feeling relieved, I tell him and his brother that everything will be OK. Victor wants to take him to the local emergency room, and I agree that some imaging studies like an X-ray or possibly a CT Scan of the Head (to rule out any possible subdural hematoma as the boy's temporal region of his head is struck by the car) may be warranted.

At this point, Mariela, who has been driving the other car with Inge, Elsa, and Santiago arrive at the scene of the accident. They all run towards the crowd that has swollen around the boy. Victor instructs Mariela to continue taking us to the bike drop-off area ahead while he takes the boy and his brother to his family's home first to talk to the parents, then together, they will head to the emergency room.

Inge and Elsa somehow discover that I have given the boy a brief physical exam. They then turn around ask me, "Well, you have told us that you work in health care, but we want to know in what capacity?"
Reluctant to furnish that specific information at our first encounter, I now will have to be less vague, but speaking in German to them, to not invovle the rest of the group, I ask,
"Könntet ihr beiden zuerst raten, was ich im Krankenhaus tue? "
(Could you both guess first what I do in the hospital?)
"Ich weiβ nicht. Vielleicht bist du Röntgenassistent,"
(I don't know. Maybe you're an X-ray technician), says Elsa.
"Oder vielleicht ein Labortechniker"
(Or maybe a lab technician)," Inge adds.
"Nee. Ich bin nur Herzspezialist
(No, I'm just a cardiologist)," I answer.
They nod reassuringly.

Bike Ride and Wine Tasting

The rest of the afternoon, I can say, is less eventful and more relaxing, than what has just transpired. We bike around 9-10 miles on a quiet country road with an endless vista of the Andes Mountains to the west. Throughout the short ride, I can unwind a bit, reflect on the beautiful nature of this country, and also think ahead about lunch, which normally occurs around 2-4 PM in this part of the world. Later, we arrive at our accommodation, which divinely faces the green vineyards and snow-capped mountains. Today, according to Victor, is just the warm-up ride. Tomorrow will be the 20-25 mile ride through the heart of Uco Valley.

To Be Continued...

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