Harvest in the Time of Covid 19

Up until now, most of my blogs have been personal, about my life’s journey in food and wine. I’ve been writing about my experiences and hoping you’d find them enlightening and at times entertaining. What I’d like to write about now is more serious than many of my other posts, more timely and more business oriented. We are all living through a very strange and serious time in our lives and it’s affecting us all very differently. For the past 15 years I’ve been working with the Argentine wine world and today I’d like to enlighten you on how Covid 19 has had a direct effect on the harvest.

When most of us think of harvest time we think fall; however it is fall in South American and harvest is well underway, if not almost done in Argentina. Again I’ll mention that I was there only a month ago and harvest was just gearing up. The Mendoza Harvest Festival took place and all seemed normal. The tanks were getting ready, the pickers were starting to pick, the trucks were being loaded with grapes ready to go into the crusher and all seemed well just fine, on track, if not even a bit early. Most wineries luckily finished picking by the end of March, but it was not before the country went into lockdown on March 13 just like we did.

On April 3rd, my colleague, friend and amazing winemaker, Karim Mussi Saffie of Altocedro in La Consulta, Mendoza wrote about how challenging things were. And in his words, ” These last days have been very stressful for us at the winery, dealing with many open fronts at the same time, but moving the fastest possible, keeping calm and managing everything by priorities. We are all healthy, both at home and at the company.” He immediately upon hearing what was going to happen, activated a crisis management committee and decided to manage the situation using the following strategy: Take care of the team in order to keep the operation active and ready for — “the day after.” Most Argentine business owners are pretty well versed in mitigating financial crisis, as you probably know it’s a country that has them often.

Karim Mussi Saffi

So what did he have to do and how did he do it with government mandated self isolation? Since wine is considered food, it was allowed to continue operating. Permission was needed for everything . Everyone who needed to go back and forth from the winery to home needed a permit. Without a permit you could not work outside of the home. They closed their offices and tasting room, however, they were able to keep the bottling line open and fill pending orders. In Karim’s words, “All of the staff at KMW are working under safe conditions in order to reduce the risk of infection and guarantee the quality of our wines. The preventative measures not only comply with the official protocols, but also reduce the risk of infection and have since been adopted as our official practices going forward.” Social distancing was mandatory, 1.5 meters apart for everyone. All of the necessary supplies or what we now call PPE’s are continuously being delivered to protect all staff and everyone receives daily instruction on how to use them. Masks, gloves and protective glasses are mandatory. Everybody was given alcohol based sanitizing sprays to clean the equipment, surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps — basically anything touched. Additional measures include staggering the shifts so that a minimum amount of people are working at any given time again to mitigate the risk of infection.

As of April 3rd, they had harvested about 90% of their grapes from La Consulta. It was a very warm growing season, one of the warmest March months in a long time. Sugar ripeness came early which helped speed up the phenolic ripeness. Harvest was therefore about 2 weeks earlier than normal, for all varietals, including Cabernet, and this is a very good thing all things considered. In fact it is shaping up to be a great vintage, and the quality is amazing; a memorable one in more ways than one. All of Altocedro’s fruit is hand-harvest and getting cash was not easy to pay the workers so that posed another great challenge. Banks were not open, and they don’t “deliver cash” but as I said, Karim found the way to make sure all his workers got paid every Friday.

Harvest time is always a challenge even under perfect conditions, but this year as with everyone and everything, this has been a monumentally challenging time. This harvest will prove to be memorable and , according to Karim, “a beautiful and important activity, one that generates jobs, strong-minded people who persevere, and cannot be stopped no matter what crisis is in front of them.” Karim and his team took the task at hand and did what they do best, as a team, and as a family, so that at the end of the day we can enjoy his amazing wines. I’d like to end with two quotes from Karim, “Imagination is half the disease, tranquility is half of the remedy, and patience is the beginning of the cure” and “Wine is sacred and necessary for a human’s happiness and progress.” From me and Karim and his entire team, we wish you all well, stay home, stay safe and if you can enjoy a glass of wine with each other.

Vamos Argentina!

I’m always asked, “what do you think of Napa, or have you been to Napa?” and my response is usually — “Well I’ve been to Argentina probably around 35 times but Napa only twice.” “But you’re in the wine industry”, people will usually say, and I respond, “Yes but I’ve only been on the import side and my specialty is Argentina.” In fact the first time I went to Napa was with a bunch of my Argentine friends who happened to be in CA along with me for a Wines of Argentina Tasting many years ago. I’m still pretty close to most of the guys from that trip which was over 10 years ago; we are lifelong friends and I get to see them every time I go back to Argentina for work.

So speaking of going to Argentina and visiting, I just got back from a fantastic trip, and for the first time I didn’t have to be the organizer! In another blog I will recount the amazing trip I just took; however, I’d like to reminisce a bit first. Since 2006 I had led Educational Trips for my previous company and what a treat this time to be taken on a trip. Being in the wine and spirits industry, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to travel the world; we get to taste the finest wines, eat amazing food, stay in some of the most beautiful accomodations in the world, immerse ourselves in the culture and surround ourselves by fantastic people. Sounds like a dream come true right, well I can actually say this part of working in the “industry” is amazing, and I will never say otherwise.

As I got ready for this particular trip, I started thinking about the first time I took a group of people down to Argentina. It’s a lot of organizing that goes into making these trips seamless and sometimes the country doesn’t quite cooperate! And boy do I have stories! In future blogs I will tell you about some of the funny things that happened along the way to Argentine, what can and did go wrong and how to make it work when it seems like all the elements are against you. These trips are about the folks attending and how great an experience you can create for them. It’s the responsibility of the organizers to make sure of that so that afterwards the attendees have fallen in love with the wineries, the country and of course your company. It takes a combination of the right people, organizing their travel to and from, and working with the wineries to create the right experience.s It’s all a complex coordinated effort that when done right will yield a “trip of a lifetime.” Argentina is a long ways away but trust me, but it’s totally worth the hours to get there. The folks at the wineries truly are some of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and as I said in the beginning, many are lifelong friends, as are some of the folks I’ve hosted on these trips.

Now for the first trip I organized, I remember meeting the group at the airport and we all flew together to Buenos Aires. When we got there we stayed at a lovely hotel by Puerto Madero and were immediately taken to lunch for what would be the first of many steaks to come. We sat outside at Cabana las Lilas and ate like we had never had meat before and drank wine like it was the water of life! Hosted by Michel Torino (sorry folks it was called that then, today it’s referred to as El Esteco), we ate and enjoyed the city even though most of us had little sleep — which was a theme to come since Argentines eat late, play later and sleep little. The next day we were off to the north to Cafayate on what seemed like a journey of planes, trains and automobiles, but boy was it worth it once we got there. But first you had to get there. A plane to Salta (2 hours ish) followed by a 3 hour drive. We got our luggage and all piled into little red van with our luggage strapped to the roof. If you’ve ever seen Little Miss Sunshine the movie, then you will know why we referred to the van as the Sunshine Van. Our driver spoke no English and chewed coca leaves throughout the entire journey and well you can imagine our thoughts! We were all so happy we didn’t care if the luggage fell off the roof, or if our driver was happy on coca leaves, we were in Argentina on our way to Michel Torino. The first part of the journey was through the lush tobacco and soy fields of Salta province and then a stop at the last rest stop before we entered into the Quebrada de las Conchas. Our stop was at a place called Posta de las Cabras, which was a goat farm in the middle of nowhere but oh my, the food was amazing. We had homemade goat cheeses displayed on a simple platter but so beautifully displayed we all couldn’t stop taking pictures. And of course to quench our thirst were ample glasses of Cuma Organic wines. Sated, we left and started into the most magnificent desert canyon for the next hour and a half. A few stops for sightseeing, including one called the amphitheater which had perfect acoustics. Our host asked if anyone sang and then we were treated to some opera from one of our guests. Back into the Sunshine Van and off to the winery. Desert gave way to once again lush green valley and now we were in Cafayate home to the Michel Torino Winery with it’s own hotel called Patios de Cafayate, a spanish colonial structure surrounded by vineyards and mountains that was truly paradise. Food, wine, food wine, vineyards, karaoke in the middle of no where, Fernet and Coca Cola, more food, more wine, well you get the picture….

This was just part one of the trip, next we got back on the Sunshine Van and backtracked to the airport. It’s not easy traveling around Argentina, there are not a lot of direct flights to and from cities so you had to always go back to Buenos Aires and take another flight. 3 hours drive, 2 hours in a plane to Buenos Aires, hope for making the connection to Mendoza, back on a flight, 2 more hours in the air and finally you land in Mendoza ahhh….! Like when you land in Vegas, the first thing you see are slot machines at the airport, when you land in Mendoza, the first thing you see are vineyards at the airport. Our next stop was a magnificent hotel called the Park Hyatt, a stunning mansion in the Spanish colonial style with a modern hotel built up into it. Our hosts now was the Trapiche winery. Where as Michel Torino is in as remote a place as you can think of, Trapiche is in the heart of wine country, Mendoza, where almost 80% of Argentina’s wine is produced. More amazing wine, vineyards with the spectacular snow-capped Andes as the backdrop and more Argentine barbeque — asado.

The hospitality was as amazing as the wines, we ate, drank, and had fun together all the while falling more in love with Argentina and our hosts. We acclimated to the late nights and little sleep. We enjoyed our day at an estancia up in Tupungato at the foothills of the Andes, called Las Pircas where we rode horses, ate more empanadas and asado drank lots of Trapiche wines and absorbed more of the Argentine/Mendocino culture. We had a fantastic day in the vineyards and were educated by the winemakers including the amazingly talented chief winemaker Daniel Pi!

One of the most fun memories was our Karaoke night in Mendoza. Our host went out of his way to find us another karaoke bar so that one of our guests could sing again. He found us the one place he knew of and in we went. Full of locals, they seated us by the bathroom the only table they had. Our guest filled out the sign up sheet and of course she was last. You could see the eyes roll as the “gringo” got up to the microphone, but once she opened her mouth everyone went silent. She finished and there was a standing ovation and chants of “otra” one more. It was awesome, she sang, we drank, she sang more, we drank more and had a blast together.

It was time to have our last meal before we started our journey home. Lunch was one last steakhouse where we made sure we had enough steak and red wine to keep us full until we got on our flight. This would be the first of many more trips and memories for me in Argentina. I am so lucky, truly I know this and have never take it for granted. I have fallen in love with the country and its people. As I said at the start I am friends with many I made back in 2006 on that first trip. In fact with my new client and host of this most current trip, Vino del Sol, I saw how small the wine world in Mendoza really is. Many of my friends are friends with their winemakers so it’s all come full circle for me. More stories and memories to come in future blogs; Argentina wine country is a integral part of my life and who I am in the wine world so stay tuned for more to come!