James’ note: Happy Christmas Eve!
By now, I hope your shopping is all done… your presents are all wrapped… and you’re finally settling down to relax before the fun and frenzy of the holiday.
If you’re part Italian, like me, the fish is almost done cooking, and things are just about to kick into high gear. So I’ll keep my intro short…
Today, we bring you Part II of Will Bonner’s brush with death in the Argentine desert.
And if you missed Part I yesterday, you can catch up here.
The first time I almost died in a flash flood, we were driving up a dry riverbed under an overcast sky on our way back from Pucarilla, the little Andean valley where we grow our grapes.
Looking toward the riverbed, I suddenly saw what looked like a thin gray snake working its way down the incline toward the truck.
I didn’t think much of it until the passengers next to me shouted in horror.
I heard it before I saw it… A white wall of water, charging down the riverbed.
My father, Bill, downshifted and gunned the engine, turning sharply up a rocky bank to our right.
But the truck didn’t make it far. It got stuck on a large boulder, all four wheels spinning helplessly.
We leapt out, but it was too late. The landscape all around us – the driest of deserts just seconds before – was now a reddish-brown torrent dotted with white rooster tails sputtering up in the air.
We were now residents of what was fast becoming the smallest island in the Calchaquí Valley.
It was not two hours after the waters had flooded all around us that they disappeared just as suddenly as they arrived, with nothing but a pickup truck teetering atop a boulder to indicate that anything had ever happened.
What makes the soil here in the Calchaquí so dangerous on the one day a year it rains also makes it excellent for grape vines.
Pucarilla, where we grow our grapes
The bone-dry sand provides good drainage for the trick of snowmelt – purified during a 1,000-foot tumble down the Andean slopes – which stops the grapes from shriveling up entirely.
If they did, we could scarcely blame them.
During the day, the grapes get blasted by intense UV rays (80% more intense than in Bordeaux) that create firm, round tannins (and antioxidants… up to 10 TIMES more than other wines!)…
…while at night, the temperature drops 77 degrees, forcing the grapes to conserve nutrients.
The effect is that the grapes develop thick skins… a dark, nearly black, red color so intense it turns even stainless steel bright red… and tannins that firmly grip the mouth as hints of plum, blackberry, leather, and smoke drift across the palate…
Did I mention that this is a complex wine? Because it really is.
And thankfully so.
Were the grapes of a lighter varietal – say, pinot noir or Gamay – we’d be in real trouble. But our vines – like most others in these hidden valleys – are of an old Malbec variety that disappeared from Europe about 150 years ago.
It’s a survivor… which out here you have to be. Fall off your horse, get caught in a flood, get bitten by a snake… and the nearest ambulance is six hours away (assuming you can call one, which you can’t, because there’s no cell phone reception or landline).
For most people, it’s not worth the trouble.
On the rare occasion you find wines from here in America, they can go for over $500 a bottle!
Which is why I recently came up with a way to get wines from these hidden valleys like ours… direct to my doorstep… with no middlemen or inflated prices.
Here’s how it happened: A few years ago, I finally moved back to the U.S. from Argentina. I liked being back, but one thing I missed was the wine culture…
…where old friends dine late into the night sharing memories and laughter over a great bottle that costs just a few dollars (yet could be a 98-point wine)…
…where the wines themselves are brimming with life and complexity…
I would go to the supermarket (even the fanciest one) only to find bottle after bottle of dead, flimsy wine… all the character and richness of which had been stripped away by mass-market winemaking tricks that may as well have been developed at Dow Chemical (and they often left me feeling like I ingested something from Dow Chemical, if you know what I mean).
And that’s when I had an idea: If I could gather together a few friends – enough to fill an entire shipping container with wines – I could bring high-altitude wines directly from Argentina to our doorsteps.
So I teamed up with some friends (including two internationally renowned sommeliers)… and created the Bonner Private Wine Partnership.
You might call it a “club,” though it’s really nothing like any other wine club (you know, the kinds that bombard you with bad bulk wines until you cancel).
Every quarter, we send our members a collection of great, but little-known, wines from a different part of the world.
It’s an experiment, but an exciting one. If we can enjoy these hard-to-get wines, without paying an arm and a leg, then I’ll be happy with it. And so far, our members agree.
(If you’d like to join us, we do have a limited number of spots remaining for the latest shipment of wines from Argentina, which includes a bottle of the Bonner family wine, Tacana – you can click here to learn more…)
But wait… I realize I never told you the end of the story I began this two-part series with.
…and what happened when my pickup got stuck in the middle of a second torrent some months later… this time at night…
It’s a strange feeling when your car’s partway underwater and you’re still in it. Especially when it’s pitch black outside.
Actually, it’s not a strange feeling at all. It’s panic.
A ways across the raging torrent – a wide, bone-dry riverbed just an hour before – I could see lights waving. Likely Jorge, the ranch foreman, with a flashlight. He had probably seen my headlights sink beneath the water.
I gunned the engine, hoping for the best.
Then… a miracle. I felt my front wheels catch on something… a log or a boulder? Just enough traction to propel the truck forward against the current and onto a sandbank. Minutes later, we were on the opposite side, where we found Jorge running over to us in the dark.
It was the first time I had ever seen his face – typically unperturbable after 70 years living up here at the edge of civilization – change into something remotely comparable to alarm.
We looked at each other silently for a moment.
“¿Vino?” I asked.
“Bueno…” he replied.
Minutes later, the water was gone.
Founder, Bonner Private Wine Partnership
P.S. Right now, we have a limited number of bottles (fewer than 500) of my family’s Tacana wine (8,400 feet, hand-harvested, biodynamic, no additives). Care to discover what one of the most isolated and extreme terroirs in the world tastes like? This is your chance. As a Daily Cut reader, you can reserve your very own supply of extreme-altitude wine at this special link…
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