It Started Out Bad And Ended Amazing

January 14 — Last night I tried to get to bed as early as possible and didn’t go to Happy Hour with the group because I had an early flight to Mendoza to visit Bodega Santa Julia from Familia Zuccardi this morning. Each time I book a 6am flight I always forget how much I do not want to get up in the morning. I did though.

The airport was packed and the line to check bags wrapped all the way through the terminal. I was thrilled that I was able to only have a backpack with me, which in itself is practically a miracle. My clothes, toiletries, book, and laptop for the weekend in a single backpack! Unheard of me. Thank goodness though.

Not being able to find my flight and understand where I should be going I headed over to the ticket counter for help. She immediately tells me I’m at the wrong airport. What?! I asked if there was time to make my flight at the right airport. She tells me, “Yes. It’s possible.” since I’m not checking a bag. However, I’m not to tell the taxi driver to take me to the airport. He is to take me to the Aeroparque.

I run outside to flag down a taxi. I not only tell him where I need to go but show him my phone as well. He speaks no English and yet knows where I want to go. One problem. We’re not going anywhere. Frustrated because I don’t know what he’s saying I keep trying to wonder what he could be talking about. Then I realize, he’s trying to tell me it’s going to cost a lot of pesos. The only thing I could think to say was, “Si. Mi dinero.” It worked and off we went.

My next moment of freaking out was when I saw his gas light on and the dial way past empty. There was no way I was going to be able to communicate my concern so I unbuckled the seatbelt and touched the dashboard to point to the gas light. He laughed and pointed to something else that showed the true gauge. Thank goodness because we didn’t have time to stop, but being stranded on the side of the freeway would be worse than not making my flight.

Hoping and praying he drove like an Indycar driver too, I sat and wondered if I would make my flight. How was I going to explain to the winery I won’t make the tour or lunch because I’m stupid? Why did I assume there was only one airport? How does an admin make such a huge mistake? None of this is helping.

The driver is going fast and I have no bearings. I’m not sure how far away we are. It takes everything in me not to constantly check my phone to watch the minutes go by. Even though we don’t speak the same language he keeps talking to me and I piece together what he’s saying.

I say, “Mendoza” he says, “vino.” He’s teaching me the difference between airport and Aeroparque. Yeah, that’s not one I’ll soon forget.

We exchange more words and then he changes to be a tour guide. So proud of his country. He’s pointing with excitement to the lake, the buildings, and a huge disco that is still packed even though it’s almost 6am. Then he points and shows me the plane. We’re close. I might be able to make it.

Arriving at the Aeroparque I have my money ready and then race through the airport. To make sure I’m running the right way I stop and find someone who speaks English. He tells me where to go and then I’m off again. I wondered if it was weird for people to see someone running through the airport. There isn’t a great sense of urgency here.

Security was a scary joke. He didn’t speak English and all I did was show him the boarding pass on my phone. He never checked my ID. My bag did go through the scanner. Now I’m running again but I don’t see anything at the gate. Asking for help all I get are stern “no” because they don’t speak English. So I just start saying, “Mendoza”. The flight attendant says, “Si. Mendoza.” Umm, okay. Where? Not a moment before boarding time they put on the screen this is the gate for Mendoza and my flight. I made it.

I look behind me and the two lines have already begun forming. The people here are serious about their queuing and do so without being told. We queue up by what row we’re in and the rows in the back go through the line first so they don’t create a bottleneck. Something I think should be the case in the States. If your seat is assigned then it doesn’t matter. It’s like packing.

Breakfast was terrible. Or should I say breakfast snacks. There were these little crackers that looked like breadsticks with a texture of Goldfish crackers. Fine. I’ll try it. They were seasoned with chili powder or something. Fine for dinner time but not with my coffee. Next I tried the lemon cookie. Mostly to get the cracker taste out of my mouth. I don’t care for lemon flavored things much. It was way too sweet. Fail number two. The last thing in the box was a piece of chocolate. I thought I would save that for later. For now, I’ll just try to enjoy the coffee. It was only a two hour flight.

Coming in for the landing I knew I was in a third world country. You could see the poverty from the air the closer you got to the airport. No more nice houses and golf courses. Mendoza is like the Napa of Argentina and has over 1200 wineries. Yet, with the wealth you still have the poverty.

Here at the airports even when you pick up your bag or get off the plane you have to put your bag through security again. Fortunately, I just have the one and I beat the line because I haven’t checked anything.

There are no Ubers in Mendoza and you have to be careful not to use the local taxis but rather a private taxi service. I used the airport service but did have to get someone to verify the guy was legit because he had no credentials. A bit challenging because I needed to find someone besides him that spoke English.

Once we leave the airport I’m immediately confronted with the poor housing and poverty conditions. There are bars and gates everywhere. Here there is much less graffiti but I think it has more to do with money to buy spray paint. Window washers pop out of nowhere and there are a ton of people trying to sell you things. I think to myself how hard they are working to make a living and doing this. What could they do if given a chance at a job with opportunity? That’s just the thing. They don’t have opportunities here.

My host is an American from Texas and he has been here two years. He gives me a bunch of helpful information and helps fill the gaps in my knowledge of the area. It is very different from Buenos Aires. A couple from another region is staying here too. She understands English but refuses to speak it. So I talk with her boyfriend and she translates what I’m saying to Spanish.

They’re also drinking mate, which is tea. It’s very different from regular tea in the way it looks and the way you drink it, but not the way it tastes. It’s loose and looks like herbs and spices. You put it into a clay cup with a metal straw that has a filter at the bottom. Then you pour hot water over it and drink it. Tastes like black tea.

The crazy part is it is so popular here stores sell hot water and people carry it with them all the time. And they share the cup. You can have 20 people passing around a cup with a single straw. However, if they see you drinking out of a plastic or glass bottle they think you’re gross.

After getting to know my host and the guests it’s time for me to head to Zuccardi wines. The drive takes about 40 minutes and we passed through a lot of poverty. I began to cry out of shame and my naivety.

I’ve given to foreign countries almost my entire life. It was something my dad instilled in me. However, giving is the easy part. Seeing pictures and learning of conditions means nothing until you see it in person. I don’t know if I could help here. I was afraid and felt very uneasy even driving through.

People that make giving and service their life aren’t simply generous, they are fearless. Until now I didn’t realize. All this time I thought I had what it takes, but I don’t. It requires far more. Here I am driving through to get to a winery. A tour, tasting, and lunch. All luxuries. To make myself feel better I commit another shameful act and tell myself I’m helping their local economy by being here and going to the winery. It’s doubtful they’ll ever reap the benefits of the day I have planned for myself.

— —

Arriving at Zuccardi began the experience. There was man at the gate to greet me. He wasn’t checking to see if my name was on the list or if I had clearance of some sort. He was truly greeting me and showed me where I could wait before being taken inside.

The benches underneath the shade of the trees was very relaxing and I took in the scenery for a moment before a gentleman came out to usher me into the building. He explained to me that I would be having a tasting and tour soon. In the meantime he showed and explained the three areas to me. The waiting room which housed all their trophies and awards. The art room where the tastings would be and the store where I could look at what is available for purchase. I was free to roam around as I pleased.

Was all this common knowledge? I mean, could I have figured it out myself? Yes. That wasn’t the point. He was welcoming me into not simply a business, but a home. When someone enters your home you make them feel comfortable, you show them around, and you allow them to explore. That’s what he did.

I went straight for the art room. It was exquisite. As an art lover I could tell immediately how carefully selected the art was to prepare you for a wine experience. Not all art, not even from some of my favorite artists, could do this. While art is subjective it is trying to subject you to certain possibilities, frames of mind, points of reference, and ultimately to capture the artist’s heart at the time of painting. I was captured.

The artist chosen was Marcelo Von Der Heyde and the exhibit is called, Walking Through Green Spaces (at least how it translates to English). It’s an amazing collection of fields in a variety of seasons. I was transported from a hot summer day, to an evening sunset. From a day filled with storms to the colors of fall. Moved to tears I found myself in the middle of a vineyard for every occasion. In every season. To savor each moment and enjoy each breath.

As impressive as the art is the curator is equally impressive. At 91, Emma Zuccardi, is hand picking each artist to feature. Each season brings in a new artist. As a tribute to the artist, Zuccardi has a special, one a kind label produced and placed with bottles of other artists that have also had the privileged distinction of having their work on display.

Fully prepared to begin my tour, it was not yet time. I sat for a moment and then had my first lesson in wine tasting. Now I understand while people are looking for the color of the wine, why you swirl smell, swirl again, then smell again. The complexity of the aroma and then how it changes when you taste it has been something I didn’t truly understand before. Nor did I think I had the ability to appreciate it.

I learned how to taste with the first sip and then the second. I could smell some of the ingredients already. It was thrilling to be doing the very thing I have been trying to learn on my own with an expert. The pieces of the puzzle were all coming together.

After the tasting I went back to the foyer. It is lined with cases of awards, medals, trophies. I learned something else that is universal — gold. The number of gold medal awards was stunning. Even more impressive were the awards crossed several different categories, not just one particular wine. Zuccardi is not the master of Malbec. Zuccardi is a master of winemaking.

Most intriguing to me and the one that stood out the most quite possibly should have been Jose Zuccardi’s recent 2016 International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement Award. No doubt highly impressive. However, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Innovation Awards.

Being innovative in a field where family name, precedence, and tradition reign supreme is no easy task. You’re talking about taking what has been done for centuries and reinventing it. Making it so different that it stands out amongst the peers of the world while at the same time preserving the history and staying true to the elements of the vine. Pairing new with old, art and science, idea to reality, expectation with innovation. Amazing.

As I sat waiting for the tour to begin lively conversation sparks between myself and other guests. We are given drinks as we wait and again I am reminded I’m in the Zuccardi home. People have come from all over the world. There is even a school boy tour where children are learning. I found it so fascinating and wondered if such things would be allowed in the States.

When the tour begins I know immediately I’m in for a treat. Each person so far has been very knowledgeable, but our guide was also very well spoken. Clear, precise, and with the ability to enunciate he wasn’t simply a guide he was a gifted orator. I hung on his every word and tried to soak up every bit of the knowledge he was sharing.

No one gets to be the best by having low standards. Learning the wine standards Zuccardi has set was impressive. Even more impressive is their concern and very conscious efforts to be organic, sustainable, and find a purpose for everything in their use. Now their waiting area, art room, and store are making more sense to me.

Not a single thing in any of the rooms was left to chance or a mere coincidence. Each piece of furniture, each piece of art, the music played, the way the rooms were set up was to enhance our experience and prepare us for the anticipation of tasting the wine. They aren’t telling you what to feel or experience, however, they are setting the mood and tone. This isn’t haphazard. Everything is done on purpose before you ever arrived. In the same way, they anticipate the harvest and drinking a properly aged bottle of wine, Zuccardi has anticipated your arrival.

The separating of grapes is done by a mere eight-person team. Two separate stations of four people at each station. Looking for grapes that are not only too small but also too big. Good enough won’t do here.

As I enter the barrel room now I know what I’ve been drinking and tasting. It’s my first truly familiar smell and it takes me back to so many glasses of wine. The experience has now come full circle. Never again will I be left to wonder.

Next, we go to a room where the wine is being in aged in specially designed cement tanks in the shape of something closely resembling an egg. This type of process dates back to A.D. times and is a natural process, unlike square cement tanks.

Rocks are of great importance here. Instead of fighting with them they have been harnessed for everything they offer and can provide as a resource. From irrigation to providing minerals for the soil, to fermentation and maceration it’s all about the rocks.

Then I see it. A stone much like the one Sebastian Zuccardi holds in his Twitter photo. I ask the guide to tell me about it. It is, in fact, the stone that is used to create these containers. He gives it to me to hold and I embrace it because now I get it. I didn’t know the significance before. I do now.

We end with another tasting and I learn more information and more on how to taste. It’s fascinating. Sure you can drink anything the way you like. Or you can taste something to experience it in a way you couldn’t otherwise. I’m here for the experience.

This is what I came to Mendoza for. It’s the only reason I came, but it’s not over yet. A driver from the restaurant comes to pick me up. The truck’s bed has benches on both sides and a canopy like we’re headed out for a safari trip. Traveling down the dirt road to Pan & Oliva the scenery of what I have enjoyed and what I am about to enjoy is all around. Again, the anticipation builds.

The doors open to a beautiful restaurant where everything has of course been prepared for your arrival. Tables are set, as well as the mood. I walk over to a table that has been waiting for me and I choose to sit facing the chefs so I can watch them. It’s a very open kitchen and I feel as though I’m sitting in a friend’s house around the island as they cook.

My driver has now become my server. Nobody handed me off to someone else. The same way she took care to see I arrived she is going to take care of my dining experience. Quite a nice touch.

I ordered the tapas of the day and an arugula salad with grilled peaches, walnuts, radishes, meat, and cheese. The wine was chosen for me and all I had to do was request a white or red for the pairing.

Most restaurants and wineries will tell you what to drink with your meal and they would be right. I’m sure of it. Here at Pan & Oliva, I was not simply a customer but a guest and what I wanted mattered. I wanted white and they delivered a beautiful white wine to me.

Unlike the other dining experiences I’ve had in Argentina, the service here is impeccable. I didn’t wait to be served and the timing of my dishes was perfect. I watched as each dish was prepared and how each ingredient was so carefully placed on the plate. Even the servers prepared drinks with the precision of a sushi chef. They didn’t just simply pour the lemonade they made a presentation of it.

The food was impeccable but I could not finish my salad no matter how good it was. It made me sad. My espresso came with a sweet little cookie too cute for words and then a ramekin of many sugar packets was delivered. There were enough sugar packets to fill no less than five espresso cups. Why wouldn’t they only deliver one or two packets? Could it be they wanted me to know that I could have as much espresso as I wanted? Whatever the case I knew I could have my fill.

When I finally took my eyes off the kitchen and chefs I noticed a beautiful outdoor space and decided to explore it. Of course, rocks were a very present focal point and as intentional as the landscaping of flowers and trees. An outdoor grill was going and the smell reminded me of my own family. How my Uncle Paul would tend to the very large barbecue at the Ruiz Ranch as he was in charge of Santa Maria style tri-tip. Again, here I am as part of their family sharing a meal with the Zuccardi’s if only in spirit. Something else has also taken place. In my heart I’m inviting them into my family memories as well.

Ready to leave the server once again becomes my driver and pulls the truck around for me. I don’t wait on her. She continues to wait on me. The drive back seems like a dream. Did I just really experience all of this? Did I become famous overnight to get served like this and no one told me? Was I mistaken for a critic to be given such royal treatment? No.

Customer service is not a class to be taught here. No one would even boast of such a thing. It’s doubtful anyone who works here knows how wonderful they are or what an experience they are providing. There are no standouts because in order to stand out here you would have to be someone who could never hold the Zuccardi name. Each person is simply being themselves which is to say they are being like their leaders, the Zuccardi Family.

From the time I arrived until the time I left five hours had passed. I did my best to enjoy each step, live in every moment and I think I achieved it. Fully immersed and trying to soak up every bit I could was overwhelming, but in a good way. I had an experience of a lifetime that will stay with me for a lifetime.

My end of day gratitude:

  1. So glad I made the flight!
  2. To be treated like I was the only person in the world that mattered. I hope I can make others feel this way.
  3. While not everyone will be able to visit Zuccardi I would be so grateful if what I wrote made the experience seem real to someone else.

Check out my reason for making this trip here.