Where the Malbec Meets the Mountains on a Ranch in Argentina

 

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I’m in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Argentina – on a horse – gripping the reins with an intensity only a novice rider could know, while being jostled up the last few feet of uneven, gravelly terrain.  At the top of the ridge, I willed myself to open my eyes and take in the stunning expanse of the wine-making Valle de Uco below.  I had joined J, already at this precipice, and our guide, Dino – part-time trail rider, part-time goat farmer.  Vineyards lay below us, barely visible in a pastel quilt.  While over my shoulder were the Andes mountains, rising up behind shrub dotted hills.

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An hour later I was lounging, legs stretched out, in a chair beside a shaded table on the clipped front lawn of the main house at the guest ranch, Estancia El Puesto.  I was sipping chardonnay under a sharp blue sky, the late fall air warmed by the intense mountain sun.  And so it began, three days of exhilarating riding across the hills of the Alto Valle de Uco matched only by superb local dishes and unexpected attention to detail back at the Estancia.  We were greeted our first day with Argentine barbeque on the large outdoor grill.  One night featured pollo al disco (a rich chicken, sauce, and vegetables cooked in a deep round pan, the “disco”).  On another, a hearty stew – Locro – typically served on Revolucion de Mayo (Argentina’s Independence Day).  Breakfast was always out by the time we got up and included a small pot of dulce de leche (yes, it does go with everything), and the necessary hot pot of café con leche.

Evenings were without the glowing distraction of devices, digital clocks, or TVs.  With no ambient light – at all – the nights collapsed quickly into black.  We ate dinner by candlelight and warmed ourselves by fireplaces against plummeting nighttime temperatures.  Once we braved the cold outside to gaze at the blanket of stars sparkling overhead and were able to trace the Southern Cross.

J and I felt a peacefulness only achieved in a place where you are surrounded by sky and mountains, and where cattle, horses, and goats (and several friendly dogs) outnumber the humans.  Where the only other person I saw outside the ranch was a lone gaucho riding slowly along the dusty path that ran in front.  We were only two hours from Mendoza City and a half hour from the vineyard filled Valle de Uco.  We were not roughing it.  We were embraced by good food, good wine, crisp white sheets and whitewashed walls, and gentle horses (mui tranquillo, I was assured) at an unassuming ranch at the base of the Andes.

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Valle de Uco

 

Hiking to Eat…Trattoria dai Bercau, Verduno

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Trattoria dai Bercau

I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads).  And try the wine from this uncommon grape.  J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppianaand had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest.  Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.

J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu.  Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs.  A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.

Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce).  Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps.  By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarin pasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon.  A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.

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Tajarin pasta with shaved black truffles, Pelaverga in the glass.

Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga

Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga.  The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish.  Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US.  I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga.  I found them here and here.

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On the road to Verduno, there was Stroppiana

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Verduno, Italy

Hiking the hills of the Piedmont began with a stop at the tourist office in La Morra.  Opening hours were reliably sporadic.  It was, after all, early September – in Italy – just after a sleepy summer break and just before white truffle hunting season.  A few impromptu reconnaissance trips got J and I to the office as it opened one morning, and we were rewarded with a well laid out hiking map and helpful guidance from the woman behind the counter.  Tiny historic La Morra is the highest point in this commune in the Piedmont region of Italy, and hikes from here spread throughout the vineyard clad hills to other villages and towns in the Province of Cuneo.  The map encouragingly displayed the names and phone numbers of hundreds of wineries dotted along the hiking trails that run through vineyards and down narrow roads.  Map in hand, J and I started down a route that would lead us into the town of Verduno, just to the north of La Morra.

Along the way we took advantage of that helpful list of wineries and phone numbers and called Cantina Stroppiana, a small winery in the hamlet of Rivalta, to ask if they had time for us to tour and taste.  The family in this family-owned business was busy pressing grapes.  Extreme cold and severe heat over the last year meant that grapes were being harvested early, in September, not October.  But despite the amount of work going on, Stefania graciously welcomed us in our hiking gear and Leonardo, her son, showed us around an open area of stainless steel tanks where his father Dario was in the process of turning the harvested dolcetto grape into its wine (sort of the red table wine of this region).

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We sat down in the simple tasting room for a Piedmont wine education from Stefania and leisurely tasted about 10 of Stroppiana’s wines from rich red barolos, to light, white and new (to us) nascetta.  There was a barolo and barbera named Leonardo and Altea, respectively, after her son and daughter, and one called San Giacomo, for the saint of the namesake 18thcentury church where the winery now stands.  Dario joined us at the table and we lamented the high cost of shipping to the US.  Which, in the end, didn’t dissuade us from ordering a case.  Several hours later, their time and hospitality left us energized for the next leg of our hike and a late lunch further up the road in Verduno.

 

Feeling Grounded at Galena Lodge

 

That March morning when those of us in the US “sprung forward” to daylight savings time was a grey one in Ketchum, Idaho.  Clouds covered the mountain ridge line.  And after two blue sky days of downhill skiing, J and I took the colorless day as a sign to expand beyond the ski runs on Bald Mountain and experience the snowshoeing trails further along the Wood River Valley.

I had read about Galena Lodge and its snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails – an easy 25-minute drive north of Ketchum – and was intrigued that one half of the couple (Don, of Don and Erin) running the lodge (who met at school in Virginia just a few hours from where I live outside of Washington, DC) is not only an outdoorsman, but went to culinary school.  And then there was the photo of two of Galena’s dogs, peering through a window opening above a sign proclaiming, “Loaner Dogs.”  Loaner dogs?  Yes, just ask, and one of Galena’s resident dogs will happily join you for a snowshoe outing, poop pick-up duty included.

J and I snowshoed a trail with Bandit, our friendly and eager loaner mutt, who led (pulled?) us up and over quiet hills dense with trees along the well-marked Rip and Tear Trail, and past a few yurts for overnight stays.  Splitting up our snowshoeing runs with lunch back at the community-owned day lodge, I gravitated toward the “grown up grilled cheese,” which was surprisingly (and nicely so) not overly cheesy with a little crunch from apple and salty bacon.  J opted for one of the three soups – chicken with healthy chunks of cauliflower and other vegetables.  Galena also serves up a range of coffee and espresso drinks and wines and beers.  And there were tall slices of red velvet cake on the counter that day.  A fireplace set-off a small lounge area near the espresso machine, while the rest of the space was solid wood tables and chairs for lunchtime eating with a view to the kitchen through the pick-up window.  One of Bandit’s buddies was peeking out of the Loaner Dogs window just up above.

Unhurried, Galena was pleasantly busy with individuals and families deciding on the next trail to ski or snowshoe on a wide-open Sunday.  Our next round of snowshoeing (without Bandit this time) was along the Valley View Trail leading up to, appropriately, a view to the valley, where we felt glimpses of the sun’s rays trying to burn through the clouds.  Next, we hooked up with the Cowboy Cabin Trail, which deposited us into a meadow before we crossed the street back over to the lodge, our outpost.

J and I leisurely returned our snowshoes and left Galena with a local treat – “Don Bars” – accompanied by a friendly warning.  Just half of one of these dense peanut butter and chocolate chip studded bars will keep you hunger free from noon through the rest of the day.  I held myself to a sliver of the layered bar after shoveling some snow off the front walkway back home, but I’m saving the bulk for a worthier work out.  Created by Don the chef, Don Bars, we heard, is funding his retirement.  It should be a good one.

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Finding My Latte Out West

…While Spring Skiing in Sun Valley; Ketchum, Idaho

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Everything was about 5 minutes away by foot in Ketchum, Idaho.  Which made exploring it approachable (that, and how friendly people were from the hotel desk clerk to the ski lift operators).  Before heading out to the base of Bald Mountain at River Run in Sun Valley, there was breakfast at our funky-sheep-accented boutique hotel, the Hotel Ketchum, and a couple of quick morning walks to check out two of the coffee shops in town.

Just past the Ketchum Town Square is Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, a cottage at the corner of Walnut Avenue and 4th Street.  It’s March and still seasonably cool in the mountains of Idaho, but I recollect a bench out front for sipping coffee in the summer.  Maude is the name of the dog (there was a Polaroid of Maude propped up on the counter).  The “Clothes” part is in fact a vintage clothing store within Maude’s.  Bold belt buckles, bowling shirts, and fair isle sweaters were displayed on racks and counters to the left and behind the “Coffee” part.  Coffee and clothes – literally for purchase at the same time.  Opening the door, I felt like I was walking into someone’s light-filled quiet kitchen.  Maude’s was relaxed and welcoming, and let me gradually wake up to the day.  The coffee counter was heaped with pastries and there was an eclectic mix of a few low tables and chairs at which to sit and appreciate the serenity.  I took my smooth latte to go in a paper cup unassumingly stamped with Maude’s logo.

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On Sunday morning, across from The Board Bin snowboard shop and rental, the low-slung house that is Ketchum’s Java on 4th – part of an all-Idaho group of five coffee shops from Twin Falls to Boise – was bustling with weekend skiers in insulated pants and zippered turtlenecks waking up with coffees and breakfast burritos before the short drive down the road to Sun Valley’s slopes.  People were in and out and back and forth, breakfasting at the bar and at the few scattered tables, their movements like that of a large family able to seamlessly go about their morning breakfast routine.  Service at the ordering counter was quick.  And my latte was presented in a cup calling me to, “Wake Up and Live.”  Perfect words for making my way with J to the next adventure of snowshoeing on the well-marked and beautiful trails at Galena Lodge.

…While Dodging 2017’s Rains in San Diego, California

The motel was located on a main road, a blah strip with other motels and low-slung shops on either side.  It happened to be the rainiest weekend that January 2017 – in 10 years  – in San Diego.  So maybe the strip would have looked more laid-back California than sadly grey, if the sun had been shining and the streets had been dry?  Finding a walkable latte-making coffee shop seemed like it was going to be a difficult task here.  But it wasn’t.  Like a beacon through the driving rain Better Buzz Coffee’s turquoise sign, bright lights, and carefully weathered exterior guided me inside to meet a California that wasn’t itself on the outside.

Better Buzz was only a few blocks from our motel, and J and I gratefully hopped on stools at the distressed wood table and dug into some avocado toast, me with latte in hand, cup cheerfully printed with “Life’s Better Buzzed.”  A collective obsession with avocado toast may have come and gone, but I’m still a fan, and the 3 Seed Avocado Toast at Better Buzz is the best I’ve had.  On thick slices of multigrain bread and piled high with mashed avocado, a little lemon and red pepper flakes, topped with microgreens, and made pleasantly nutty with a combination of chia, sesame, and hemp seeds – I still remember it a year later.   Better Buzz and, yes, that toast, powered J and I to joyously plot our mostly rainy few days in San Diego.

Get This Wine…Sparkling na Punta

 

Le Vigne Bioin the town of La Morra in the Piedmont region of Italy showcases wines from winemakers using biodynamic and organic processes.  The wine bar’s temporary, raised outdoor patio (reminiscent of a small music stage) was across the street and abutting the face of the La Morra town hall, which is just about to the top of the hill where the via San Martino meets the Parrocchia di San Martino.  The wines by the glass, including several sparkling options, were written in chalk on a blackboard leaning against the town hall wall.  Several small tables and chairs were arranged and two sets occupied by a visiting German family on this cool late afternoon in early September.  It was a perfect time for J and I to sit down for an aperitivo on our first day in La Morra.

Eyeing the sparkling, I went with the na Punta (2012) an Extra Brut produced by Franco Conterno, based in Monforte d’Alba just across the hills.  What a find!  The pale gold color of the na Punta delivered a dry smoky taste that was so unexpected from a sparkling.  Made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grape (the grape of this, the Piedmont region of Italy), na Punta had a heft I hadn’t tasted before in a sparkling.  I sipped mine while nibbling on a selection of salumi, the aperitivo food complement to our glasses of wine.

I was wracking my brain trying to think of ways to carry back some na Punta despite only traveling with small, international-size carry-on bags.  Was the na Punta worth investing in a large hard-sided suitcase?  Would we be crazy to pay more outrageous shipping fees to the US and buy a case to be shipped from Le Vigne Bio’s friendly owner, Severino Oberto?  In the end, sensibility won out, but we took a photo of the bottle just in case we might find it back home.  We didn’t.  Franco Conterno distributes some of their wines, but not the sparkling na Punta, in the US.  J surprised me, though, and for Christmas, he ordered a half case from the winery and we enjoyed na Punta on a twinkling Christmas Eve on Hilton Head Island.  Most appropriately, with elegant Poached Oysters, light and tangy with Pickled Cucumber and Caviar.

Latte Away

IMG_2131La Morra, Italy (Piedmont)

I try to seek out coffee shops in the neighborhoods where I’m staying in each place I travel.  In La Morra, that experience was at the charming Bar Nuova Italia on the lower level below our rented apartment on via San Martino.  Every corner and surface of the cafe held cellophane bags of pasta or chocolates or candies or bottles of wine or water or was covered in Italian newspaper or magazine articles highlighted and underlined so that your senses were filled and eyes flitted and jumped over one and to the next, not being able to rest on one object or one clipping.  It’s the place on the street you go to for that little something.  My cappuccino was presented by signora Silvana with a dusting of chocolate and a light biscuit.  She enthusiastically greeted each local who came in for a shot of espresso at the small front bar, or a coffee and newspaper at one of the round tables scattered around.  Young mothers with babies in strollers and older rugged workers in hard hats.

Back in our AirBnb apartment, making my own coffee on the stove in in a Bialetti wasn’t quite the same as Silvana’s espresso.  But stepping out our front door, still pajama-clad, onto the narrow landing and into one of the wooden folding chairs, legs out and feet pressed against the railing, bowl of coffee in hand, I could gaze out at a soft pink morning sky rising over the undulating green vine-lined hills of the Piedmont.  A coffee experience worthy of not having a proper latte.

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Camogli, Italy (Liguria)

Coffee harborside at a tiny bistro table on the sidewalk right in front of our hotel, I Tre Merli, and just a few feet from the water’s edge.  Movements only from that cheeky seagull eyeing me and my breakfast onion focaccia, and from the small dogs trotting beside their owners.  There were the harbor pilots sipping espresso in their flip flops and board shorts and reading the morning’s paper, the day-trippers consulting the water-taxi schedule to San Frutuosso and glancing at the dock, where no water-taxi is anchored (the sea’s probably too rough and the taxi won’t run today).  Coffee was brought out in a white carafe with a side pitcher of frothy milk.  I could sit for hours here, absent-mindedly pouring more coffee and milk into my cup and gazing out and across the harbor of Camogli, watching the cliff-side town slowly, ever so slowly wake up.  J and I were easing into our day, too.  Making the most of our mornings meant sitting at this very table for as long as it took, and then wandering back upstairs to our room to gather water bottles, sunblock and head out for a day of hiking over the hills and coastline stretching south of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante of Italy’s Ligurian coast.