Chris’ note: U.S. markets are closed today for Independence Day. So instead of our usual markets fare, you’ll hear from my friend Will Bonner about an entirely different subject.
Will is Legacy Research cofounder Bill Bonner’s eldest son. He recently founded a unique wine club. It gives folks access to wines from remote parts of the world… including Gualfin, his family’s remote ranch high in the Andes in northwestern Argentina.
You can find details on how to become a member here. From the feedback we got at the Legacy Investment Summit in Carlsbad, California, last October, Will’s wines are a hit. (There were long queues for samples…)
Not only are these wines hard to get – challenges at Gualfin include extreme altitude, floods, and impassable roads… they’re also hard to hold on to. Below, Will details an unusual kind of war raging in northwestern Argentina… and how that puts the grape harvest at his family’s vineyard in further jeopardy…
On a cold night on the high plains… 12,000 feet above the world… a fire raged.
The flames lit shadowy figures. They were ripping up a water line that ran along the desert floor.
Suddenly – a loud crack. The figures froze.
The ceiling beams of the small cottage were starting to give way.
The men turned for a moment to watch the cottage surrender to the flames, then got back to work. Finished with the water line, they turned their attention to a nearby cattle corral.
By the time ranch hand Natalio arrived to investigate, the cattle chute and gate had vanished. Nothing remained of the small cottage but three tumbled-down stone walls and a heap of smoldering charcoal.
He didn’t say it. There was no one around for miles to hear it, anyway. Still, one thought echoed in his mind: Out in the Calchaquí Valley, in the hills surrounding the world’s highest vineyards… a war was brewing.
As longtime readers know, Argentina’s Calchaquí Valley is home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world.
The extreme-altitude Malbec made there is not your typical wine.
But making it is, at best, a marginal enterprise.
The vineyards are too far from the ports. The roads are often impassable to anything beyond a tractor (at our ranch, Gualfin, the highest vineyard is accessible only on horseback). And due to the extreme conditions (high UV, no water, sudden temperature swings), the yield is about a third of what lower-altitude vineyards produce.
Over 200 years, the winemakers of the Calchaquí have adapted to their existence at the edge of the world.
But recently, a new threat has emerged: originarios.
Made up mostly of local goat herders and cattle rustlers living out at the most remote haciendas, their attacks rarely result in bodily harm to anyone.
Their aim is political, not personal. It’s a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla warfare in the hopes of forcing weary landowners, like us, to sign over their lands.
The campaign began in 2005, 230 miles south of the Calchaquí, with the seizure of 196,000 acres of ranch land. The Argentine president and local politicians egged it on. The originarios, not the landowner, had the government on their side.
Legally speaking, an originario is a descendant of one of the “original” tribes that populated Argentina before a series of bloody conquistas in the 19th century. Out of contrition, the Argentine constitution affords these descendants privileges – among them, the rights to their “ancestral” lands.
Notice the liberal use of quotation marks. Argentina’s approach to indigenous rights is kind of like its approach to fiscal policy. Which is to say, kind of like if you put Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk in charge of Enron… and then lit him on fire.
Down around Buenos Aires, and even farther south in Patagonia, identity and ownership are easier to determine. The Mapuche Indians built a vast civilization in those parts. They were fighting the Argentine government nearly up until the 20th century.
But up north, originarios don’t claim to be Mapuche. They claim to be Diaguita.
Too bad the Diaguita disappeared so long ago that historians can’t even reach a consensus on what language they spoke… or if they were even one tribe (evidence suggests they weren’t).
By the time of the first conquests against the Mapuche, the Diaguita had already met their fate, first at the hands of invading Incas in the 15th century, then at the hands of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th.
Still, the law allows anyone to self-identify as a descendant of the Diaguita, a fact many a local politician has exploited to rally constituents to a cause.
At our own Gualfin, originarios recently burned down two buildings, stole our cattle chute, and ripped up a water line (with rain so scarce, water lines here are literally lifelines).
Meanwhile, at least one of our neighbors has already given in.
Realizing he had effectively lost control of the high plains and mountains that surround his vines, he made a deal. His tormenters could keep the plains and peaks, so long as they stayed away from the vines.
So far, both sides appear to be honoring the pact. But what happens when the originarios realize that the true wealth of the Calchaquí lies not in its high plains, but in its vines?
Unlike cattle, the vines of the Calchaquí – an ancient type of Malbec that died out in Europe about 150 years ago – thrive in its extreme conditions.
The stress of the environment causes what’s known as “sirtuin activation” in the grapes, resulting in a wine with an inky, near-black coloring.
The coloring is due to high levels of polyphenols such as resveratrol, which protect the grape from the elements.
Interestingly, scientists such as Harvard professor David Sinclair now believe that when resveratrol passes into your body, it activates your sirtuin pathway as well.
The resilience of the plant – hard won after years in the wilderness – passes on to you.
But the true beauty of this wine is the remarkable flavor.
When you open your first bottle of Calchaquí wine, you almost catch a whiff of campfires burning out on the high plains, as cowboys break camp for the night.
With the threat of the originarios hanging over us all, each vintage becomes that much more precious…
It could always be our last.
Founder, Bonner Private Wine Partnership
P.S. Care to taste a Malbec that’s 150 years old? Today, you can reserve some of the Calchaquí Valley’s greatest Malbecs (PLUS a wine from the true home of the ancient Diaguita, the Famatina Valley)… brought to your doorstep from over 5,000 miles away…
Our next shipment goes out just days from now. You can reserve yours by clicking here… (Supplies are limited and will sell out.)