All of these properties have overseas connections and high-end cuvées that sport impressive scores from U.S. critics. None of them had existed when I’d passed through before. Yet in many ways, Mendoza still felt like the same rather primitive mountain town. Sidewalks were punctuated by cracks and potholes. Many roads remained unpaved. As I drove up to the dramatic Bodega Catena Zapata winery, built to resemble a Mayan temple, I was surprised to see cars blanketed by dust, like at a cattle ranch. Then I stepped out of my own car and realized it looked the same.
Remarkably for a city its size, Mendoza has a Park Hyatt—one of just 25 in the world. One night, I dined on the terrace in Plaza Independencia, its Spanish-colonial façade lit from below, and saw the stark dissonance of Mendoza’s past and future play out before me. I’d just arrived when two dozen contestants in Mendoza’s Queen of the Wine Harvest pageant, outfitted in off-white dresses that draped from their shoulders like togas, emerged from the hotel and crossed to the plaza in a blizzard of smiles. Turning to my right, I could have been in the midst of the pampas, watching villagers gather to celebrate their autumn. To my left, I had risotto in pea cream and a bottle of internationally styled Malbec. I paid the bill just as the fair-haired Candela Carrasco was crowned the winner, and an amateurish but gloriously earnest round of fireworks was launched. It was the highlight of the evening.
My hotel, Cavas Wine Lodge, did its best to knit together Mendoza’s disparate halves. Accessible only by a dirt road and set in the midst of a working vineyard, it has contemporary casitas, the walls of which are rounded like mushrooms, and provocative art fills its public spaces. Late one night, I dined alfresco at its restaurant with José Manuel Ortega of Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier, a Spaniard who’d left a New York bank job to build a spaceship of a winery in the Uco Valley. We ate beef empanadas and grilled lamb and drank the Argentinean wines of Italian winemaker Roberto Cipresso, a partner at Achaval Ferrer. It was all new to me—the hotel, the chef, the wines—but I felt a distinct connection to a Mendoza I recognized.
During the previous few days, I’d admired many of the new wines. Still, I had trouble thinking of them as particularly Argentinean. They had delicious fruit and firm structure, but only a few exuded that sense of place that characterizes exceptional wine. Just across the Andes, Chile had made a big mistake by consciously crafting well-made but generic Cabernets and Merlots for the American market: wines that were a notch cheaper than the competition’s but evoked nothing of Chile, or anywhere else. Argentina’s wines used to have an excessive sense of place—you’d pick them out on first whiff, like rotten eggs—but I hoped that the outside influences hadn’t pushed them too far toward that same paucity of soul.
Vistalba’s Carlos Pulenta offered an antidote. Though his winery, laid out like an estancia beside land in the foothills that has been farmed for decades, has Burgundy’s Bondoux as its chef and a European enologist, the wines I drank there were blatantly Argentinean: refined yet bright, pure yet showy, harmonious but still bold. “You may come from France or Italy,” Pulenta said, “but when you come here, you’re here. The grapes are here, the weather is here. So the best wines should taste like here.”
In 1997, Pulenta’s family sold Bodegas Trapiche, one of the world’s largest producers, to that quintessentially American investment firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Longing to make exemplary Argentinean wines, he started Vistalba in 2004. His primary vineyard is half a century old, so its roots have burrowed deep enough to get character into the grapes. But I suspect that his emotional attachment to Argentina is equally responsible. He spends days traveling by motorcycle throughout his country, reveling in the land.
Alone among the new wave of winery owners, Pulenta reminded me of the independent-minded Argentines I’d previously met. Pulling out an iPhone, he flicked through images of a recent trip he’d taken to the wine region of Salta, a turbulent 12-hour drive to the north. “Look at this place,” he said as he scrolled through contrasting images of dun-colored desert and green rows of vines. “Just fantastic!” I knew Salta was being touted as the next Mendoza in terms of wine production, but I was surprised to see it look so different. At 7,000 feet and a day’s drive from the tropics, it seemed rarefied, exotic, on the margins. The slide show confirmed a notion I’d had for a while: I needed to go there. And I knew just whom to take with me.
When I visited Mendoza in 1995, the dollar and the peso were on equal footing. Argentina was consuming all the wine it produced. Only one man I met, Nicolás Catena, believed that the country’s future was in selling to the world. Catena was an economist and entrepreneur with an American pedigree and a global outlook, who had transformed his father’s bulk-wine production into a quality brand. He spoke with pride about his daughter, Laura, who’d attended Harvard and Stanford and become an emergency-room doctor in San Francisco, with an American husband and a growing family. “I never, ever thought I would work with my father,” she now says. As the Catena winery expanded, she made brief trips back home to offer advice. Somewhere along the way, she became indispensable.