Saturday, December 27, 2014

No W(h)ining? An Uncommon Tasting in Palermo

Mendoza is the heart of Argentina’s wine country, and one of my favorite destinations in the country. On my recent trip south, though, I barely got out of Buenos Aires and, so, a tasting trip to vineyards and wineries was out of the question. I had to look elsewhere.
In principle, there’s no reason not to grow wine grapes in the vicinity of Buenos Aires – to the best of my knowledge the nearest commercial Argentine vineyard is in Sierra de la Ventana, 550 km to the southwest, but there is a substantial cluster of wineries in nearby Uruguay, just a short hop across the River Plate. In fact, if I recall correctly, vineyards used to form something of a greenbelt on the Argentine capital’s outskirts, until the military dictatorship of 1976-83 uprooted them for highways and suburban sprawl.
That said, there are plenty of places to sample Argentine wines in the city, without even having to hear it through the grapevine. One of those is the Bar du Marché (pictured above), in the Palermo Hollywood area, which purports to have 50 different wines by the glass. It’s a place to which this blog will return in the near future, but in a behind-the-scenes manner that its façade does not even hint at.
In early November, shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires, I described my experience at Vinos de Lujo as a “wine-tasting free-for-all” that left me more overwhelmed than enlightened. Later in the month, though, I was able to attend a more manageable tasting at Anuva Wines that I found far more satisfying.
Founded by US resident Daniel Karlin, Anuva (pictured above; the name comes from combining the indefinite English article “an” with “uva,” the Spanish word for grape) is about a 20-block walk from my own Palermo apartment. The inconspicuous streetside door – two Brazilians arrived late because they walked past the entrance without recognising it - opens onto a lengthy staircase that reaches a spacious tasting room that’s also suitable for more formal events. During a previous stay in the city, I had dined here at El Tejano, a “closed doors” restaurant that now operates its own venue for Texas-style barbecue nearby.
Anuva is not a restaurant, but it does offer tapas paired with a selection of five wines at each tasting. All its wines come not from high-profile Mendoza producers like Catena Zapata and Santa Julia, but from smaller, lesser-known wineries that reflect the industry’s geographical diversity, including vintages from the northwestern Andes around Cafayate and from the Patagonian province of Neuquén.
Our own tasting, beginning around 7 p.m., began with a sparkling wine from Viña Las Perdices, in the Agrelo district a short distance north of Mendoza. I’m personally not a fan of sparkling wines, but our sommelier, a fluent English-speaking Argentine named Florencia Campicelli, pointed out that small bubbles characterize the best and, by that standard, Las Perdices passed the exam.
The next sample, a Mairena Torrontés preceded by a cracker with fresh-sliced pear, basil and a walnut, was more to my liking. Torrontés is Argentina’s signature white grape (we almost always have some in the fridge) and, this one, from the high-altitude vineyards around Cafayate, was typically aromatic. I’d buy this one, but I’m not sure how objective I am, as I’d try almost any Torrontés, especially when complemented by raspberry and lemon sorbets (pictured below).
From there, we proceeded to the reds, starting with a San Gimignano Malbec aged six months in French and American oak. Malbec is my favorite red – we even named our beloved Alaskan malamute after it – and this Mendoza vintage is a worthy one. The tasting finished with two others– the Amauta IV blend of Malbec, Cabernet and Syrah from Bodega El Porvenir of Cafayate (the only winery of this bunch that I know personally) and a Mairena Bonarda from Mendoza. The Bonarda’s acquiring a certain notoriety among connoisseurs here, but it’s got a ways to go before it catches up with Malbec.
Throughout, we snacked on paired cold cuts and cheeses, plus a savoury empanada, and finished with a sample of bittersweet chocolate truffles. By the time we finished the two-hour tasting, I was more than satisfied and, despite the fact that this was never supposed to be dinner, it was all I needed for the night.
I’ve avoided sommelier-speak here, partly because I find it opaque and partly because I know more about wine tourism than I do about wine itself – I know what I like to drink, but I don’t presume to impose my tastes on others. Still, Anuva provides a useful introduction for wine-lovers just getting to know the options in Argentina.
Given the fact that the five wines and tapas cost US$52, it’s fair to mention that you could sample more for less at some wine bars and, at wineries, you might spend even less. Many Argentine wineries charge little or nothing for tours and tasting though, of course, you have to get to Mendoza, Cafayate or Chañar first.

Anuva, of course, wants to sell wine as well, and has a wine club that will ship two, three or four bottles per month to your US address. Even so, their tastings are sociable experiences, soft-sell events at which they will not pressure you to join.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Free WiFi? An Update on Buenos Aires and Airports North

It doesn’t seem all that long ago – and it wasn’t, really – that Internet access in the Southern Cone countries was hard to come by. I can recall, in the mid-1990s, having to seek out an Internet gatekeeper at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) to send some electronic files to my then-publisher in Australia. Fortunately, it’s gotten far easier there and en route, as my recent trip to the Argentine capital and back showed.
It’s not glitch-free, though. At present, in Buenos Aires, there are signs all over town celebrating free municipal WiFi but, whenever I tried to access it, the network never showed up on my phone. Personally, that’s not a big issue because we have fairly reliable Internet access in our apartment – at least as reliable as anything in Argentina can be - and when I’m out around town, plenty of hotels, cafés and restaurants have good connections. Still, it would be refreshing to see services as advertised – for once, at least.
By contrast, in a most welcome surprise, the city’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (EZE), better known as Ezeiza, now has very good free WiFi service thanks to the cell phone operator Personal, with no strings attached. It remains to be seen how consistently reliable it will be, but now you needn’t even sit down and order coffee or a drink (as pictured above) to get connected.
Though I travel to South America at least once every year, I don’t fly all that frequently because I’m usually gone several months at a time. This time, I made my connections to and from Buenos Aires via Lima’s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez (pictured above) which had the look of a grimy bus station until its expansion and modernization in 2005; it’s since become an important hub for air traffic throughout the continent.
That said, Lima’s WiFi feels like something from the dial-up Stone Age – you can get a free 15 minutes, but logging on is a slow process that eats up some of that time, after which you gotta pay. None of the airport’s cafes or restaurants to my knowledge, offers its own WiFi access – they all referred me to the 15-minute service. At least, if you’re stuck without a connection here, you can at least find a bottle of pisco in the shop (pictured above) or a really good pisco sour at one of the bars.
My other main South American airport, Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (SCL, pictured above) doesn’t really have free WiFi either, except in the VIP lounges, but several cafés and restaurants have their own networks. I personally don’t object to paying if I get something for it, so that works for me.

It’s hard to find anything free in the US but, at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), there is now free WiFi service if you’re willing to endure a brief advertisement and, after a while, it times out. You can easily log on again, though. At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which is my preferred departure airport from the US, there is similar service, though it’s not so fast as a paid connection.

My friend Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker dissents from my experience with Buenos Aires's free WiFi, so I'll insert his comment here: "Not sure why you had trouble getting WiFi access around the city - I get it all over when I'm out in the streets - there are two services, neither of which requires a password - one is labeled BAGOWEXWiFi, and the other is FibertelZone. Pretty much every major plaza and municipal building has a hotspot, so I pick up one or the other regularly."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Croissant v. Medialuna: A Franco-Argentine Faceoff?

More than once, I’ve expressed my distaste for the cliché that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of the South,” when it’s really a New World immigrant city that’s more closely analogous to New York. Admittedly, I’m no Francophile – on three quick trips through France, I’ve managed to avoid Paris every time – but I can still point out the superficiality of such comparisons.
Today I’ll do so with my own comparison – or rather contrast – between two typical food items, the French-style croissant (pictured above) and the Argentina medialuna (pictured below). The Spanish word medialuna literally means “half-moon,” but I’ve always thought that a misnomer – it looks more like crescent moon to me.
I’ve always liked croissants, with their light flaky dough; the ones at top come from the Compañía de Chocolates in our Palermo neighborhood, which produces the closest thing I’ve seen to its authentic French counterpart here. There are several other branches around town.

The smaller medialunas, by contrast, consist of heavier and breadier dough. There are two styles: I prefer de manteca (buttery and sweeter) to de grasa or salada (savory), but both are available at almost every bakery in Buenos Aires and the provinces, and form part of the buffet breakfast at almost every Argentine hotel. I would normally leave the house early every day to get the freshest possible (I try to limit myself to two with my morning tea).

While French-style croissants may be available in Buenos Aires, they’re not quite authentic – I like them buttery, but I could do without the sugary glaze that these come with. They’re also considerably more expensive than medialunas – my morning fix of the latter (also glazed) costs me nine pesos (US$1 at the official exchange rate, US$0.69 with the “blue market” advantage). The croissant and a pan de chocolate (pain au chocolat), meanwhile, cost me 44 pesos (US$5.15 at the official rate, US$3.38 with “blue pesos). That’s not a budget-buster but, on most mornings, I opt for medialunas. It’s fair to add that, back home in California, I can get better croissants (for a slightly lower price than the official rate), without the glaze.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Saved from Soccer? My Argentine Nephew Pitches and Hits

Baseball has always been my favorite spectator sport and, as an adult, my main recreational sports passion has been slow-pitch softball, though I’ve only played sporadically the past couple years. Even in Buenos Aires, I’ve played a bit of baseball and softball, though they are clearly niche sports here.
At present, a perplexing leg injury keeps me from swinging the bat, running the bases and chasing down fly balls even if the opportunity presented itself. This weekend, though, I experienced a pleasurable respite from the endless 24/7 of scoreless soccer games that’s Argentina’s usual sporting fare - on a visit to my wife’s hometown of Olavarría, in Buenos Aires province, I got my first opportunity to see my nephew Mariano Peruilh play fastpitch softball in a tournament that has drawn half a dozen teams from quite a distance away. It was rather like finding an Olympic-size swimming pool in the Atacama, as the photograph above suggests.
The six teams in the tournament include Mariano’s own Estudiantes Black Jack and their co-hosts the Koalas Racing (one of five teams in Olavarría’s local league; the next nearest teams are in the port city of Bahía Blanca, 302 km to the southwest). One of the tournament teams is the Indios de Bahía Blanca (which is also the hometown of NBA star Manu Ginóbili), but there are also Mayú of La Pampa province (431 km west of Olavarría), the Tigres of Pilar (368 km northeast) and Don Bosco of Paraná, Entre Ríos (723 km north). Surprisingly, there was no entrant from the Argentine capital.
Paraná is the traditional hotbed of Argentine softball, a city of 200,000 people that has at least eight fields, three of them lighted (in the photo above, a local player crosses the plaza in front of the city's cathedral). Mariano once moved there to finish high school in hopes of honing his softball skills to make the national team as a pitcher. That’s not yet happened, but he’s young enough (19) that it's still a possibility.

Olavarría’s Club de Estudiantes has two well-kept fields, one complete with a press box and concessions (with choripán instead of hot dogs). With temperatures above 90° F (about 34° C), we spectators were fortunate that dark netting shaded the stands. In these conditions, the catchers had it particularly tough but, in general, the quality of play was good to excellent.
On this particular day, Mariano (pictured above and below) started strong on the mound and at bat, establishing an early 3-0 lead with a pair of crisp run-scoring singles off a hard-throwing Tigres pitcher. At the same time, though, he cost his own team a potentially big inning with a base-running gaffe and then made a fielding error that led to a two-run double; an inning later, he surrendered a prodigious home run that tied the score. At that point, unfortunately, I had to leave because of another family commitment, but Estudiantes got him a couple runs to win by a 5-3 score. In the next game, against their local rivals the Koalas, he got the save in a 2-0 shutout.

I had to take the bus back to Buenos Aires very early Sunday morning, so I missed the second day (which included a home run derby). Mariano's team didn't fare so well on Sunday, and will have to beat Bahía Blanca early this morning in order to face the Paraná powerhouse in the afternoon semi-finals.

Dynamic Update, Tuesday, December 9: I read in this morning's El Popular, Olavarría's hometown paper, that Estudiantes lost their semi-final game to Mayú of La Pampa and then lost to Bahía Blanca in the third-place consolation game (in which Mariano hit a three-run homer). Mayú beat Don Bosco of Paraná for the championship.
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