I have worked in Argentina. A year ago, I would never have thought this sentence would be a possibility. I came by this opportunity through Tom Seaver the Director of International Winemaking at EJ Gallo, and Felipe Stahlschmidt the Head Winemaker for Catena Zapata’s Alamos Wines. Working at Catena Zapata’s Winery in Vista Flores was an irreplaceable experience full of exceptional wine knowledge and good people.
I had the opportunity of working directly with the Chardonnay Winemaker, Sofia Ruiz Cavanagh, during the beginning of harvest, barrel fermenting Chardonnay from different vineyards around Mendoza. Everyday I monitored the sugar and temperature levels. Through tastings with Sofia I was able to distinguish potentially problematic concerns, such as reduction, volatile acidity, and botrytis, and I learned how she addressed these issues by performing additions to the barrels.
As harvest progressed, and Malbec invaded the winery, I switched to working with the roughly 300 tanks of the Vista Flores Winery, once again monitoring the temperature and sugar levels, and performing additions. I did not perform the switch from inoculating oak barrels to roughly 500 HL tanks gracefully. I smelled like yeast and nutrient everyday. Once the winemakers realized the smell was coming from me Felipe commented, ‘perfume de Alana’, and offered to buy me another pair of work pants. When I was not coating myself in offensive smells, struggling to speak Spanish or to find hot water, I accompanied winemakers Gabriel Rodriguez and Catalan, to taste roughly 60 tanks of superior quality Malbec. These two could easily be considered the jokesters of the winey. Catalan was always joking about girls or the dead dog across the street. Whenever Catalan entered the room, smiles became contagious. Gabriel always seemed to be having fun, laughing with an ear to ear smile, while climbing on hoses, or playing around on top of the tanks. He transferred his excitement and love for his work over to me when he taught me about how the characteristics we tasted in the wine would affect the pump-overs and additions the workers would perform later that day. His teachings were invaluable, and my understanding of winemaking has increased tenfold.
Lucia is one of the sweetest people I have ever met, always looking for a way to help me. She found a local English teacher to teach me Spanish during my first month at the winery. She also has the cutest little girls who loved to yell my name in unison from the car when Lucia gave me rides home.
I left Vista Flores a couple times with Maricel Valdez who took me dancing in Maipu, and to an Argentinian wedding. Maricel works everyday at the winery, goes to school to increase her wine knowledge, takes English classes, and somehow still finds time to go dancing on Friday nights. I could barely keep up with her. Through Maricel I got to meet a lot of fun people.
I am not able to comment on all of the winemakers here in Vista Flores, but there is one more person I have to mention, Ernesto Bajda. Ernesto was hilarious, but also looked out for me. We shared plenty conversations, parallel the Andes, while he gave me rides back to my house. Like Catalan, he was always joking about the meat I was eating. He taught me the word, vacononda, meaning something along the lines “don’t take offense, I am only joking”. One time while tasting through the winery, he spat on my shoe. A winemaker remarked, “Now he owes you one.” My response, “No, now I have an excuse to spit on him!” We all had a good laugh, and then Nesty got me new shoes.
My last week at Catena Zapata, I had one last asado with the winemakers at Catalan’s house, in honor of workers day. I was very sad to leave these wonderful people. Their bright outlook on life is contagious, and they have made me a better person.