Thirty minutes northwest, the vineyards of the Vale dos Vinhedos climb steep hillsides and produce some of Brazil's finest wines. En route back to Pôrto Alegre, Flavia and I detoured at the family-run winery and restaurant of Casa Valduga for a bottle of Cabernet and a hearty Italian meal. The stone tasting room was permeated by rich scents from the salamis and cheeses that hung from the rafters. As the youngest members of the Valduga clan served soup with cappelletti, country pâté with crem (horseradish) sauce, and pasta with pesto, a woman with a fine soprano sang Italian opera. We could tell by their expressions that many of the patrons were moved by something more than the savory grilled chicken over polenta that followed. "Our Italian guests get very emotional," Elizabete Valduga, from the most recent of four generations to run the winery, explained. "They say it's more Italian than Italy."
Back in Pôrto Alegre, we had supper at Galpo Crioulo, a cavernous churrascaria where 15 varieties of the state's renowned barbecue are served. No sauce—just a thick crust of sea salt on amazingly flavorful meat. As waiters circulated carrying skewers stacked with chicken hearts, beef rounds, or hunks of zebu hump, and gauchos pounded through frenetic country dances, I thought, Forget the wild, wild west. This is real cowboy culture.
The state of Rio Grande do Sul has its own tourism organization (55-51/228-7695, fax 55-51/228-1311; www.turismo.rs.gov.br), with offices at the Pôrto Alegre airport and in the capital itself. Vision Travel (800/356-3817) and Atlantic Corp. Travel (800/682-1998) arrange tours of the region.
Stays at Fazendas can be booked through Steiner Turismo (55-51/226-6011, fax 55-51/226-6234); doubles start at $66.
Paulo Hafner's horse treks are arranged through Campofora (55-54/244-1901; www.campofora.com.br) or his New York agent, Christine Chauvin (212/421-0671, fax 212/935-0559).
Casa Valduga Linha Leopoldina (55-54/453-1154; dinner for two $23) has award-winning wines and fine Italian cuisine.
Galpão Crioulo (55-51/226-8194; dinner for two $15) welcomes carnivores, and provides festive gaucho entertainment.