Adiós Argentina—For Now

Parting thoughts on the country’s people, its grass-fed beef (including a dirty little secret) and, of course, its wines
May 4, 2010

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—Well, it had to come to an end. And now it has. By the time you read this, I will have returned home to the United States. And Argentina, as so often happens with one’s travels, will rapidly become a dream. (The only exception to this in my experience was living in Venice; it seemed dreamlike even at the time.)

This last web column from Argentina is, therefore, a set of observations—most of them, I might add, having more to do with the life and culture of Argentina than with its wines. There’s no sense in spending three months in a place merely to taste wine. After all, nearly all of Argentina’s best wines can be found in the States (unlike the wines of, say, Australia, which keeps many of its most interesting bottles to itself).

About the Argentineans

It’s always treacherous to make generalizations about a people. Argentina occupies a vast area (it’s the eighth-largest nation in the world) and has 41 million people. Still, anyone who’s traveled knows that every nation has its cultural characteristics. (Just cross the border from Italy to Germany if you want proof.)

So here’s one observer’s opinion: Argentina has the kindest, warmest people I have ever encountered. (Italy previously held this distinction.) Now, the warmth is probably from the larger Latin American heritage. As many travelers have discovered, personal warmth is a widespread characteristic in Latin America.

But the kindness in Argentina is, I believe, remarkable and unique. You experience it seemingly everywhere, from taxi drivers and in checkout lines in supermarkets. It’s not universal, of course. They’re not saints here. But the quality and degree of kindness is like no other that I know.

I have a theory as to why. It starts with one basic, rather brutal fact: Everyone in Argentina, from the richest to the poorest, is a victim.

Take, for example, the initial decision in 1989, when then-president Carlos Menem took office and inherited the double-whammy of hyperinflation and recession. To “cure” this economic freefall, Mr. Menem instituted an economic policy pegging the peso to the U.S. dollar. It worked for a while, but eventually failed, and dramatically so.

In January 2002, after a yearlong crisis, a new government declared the policy of fixing the peso to the dollar finished. Almost overnight, everyone’s peso-denominated wealth plunged. Previously worth a buck, the peso soon became worth only 30 U.S. cents. To prevent runs on the banks, no one was allowed to withdraw more than the equivalent of $1,000 a month. To this day, Argentineans are still recovering from the consequences of what’s colloquially called the “2001 crisis.” I mention all this simply to show how everyone in Argentina is a victim. There’s a resilience here—and a forbearance—that’s astonishing.

Which brings me back to what I consider their unique kindness. It came to me with a forceful clarity during an early-morning cab ride to the airport. I was catching a flight to Mendoza. It was 6:30 a.m. The cab stopped at a traffic light. The streets were empty, except for a little girl, perhaps 8 years old. She came up to the cab driver, begging. The driver rolled down the window, grabbed a fistful of coins he kept in the console cup holder and handed them to her. Then he rolled up the window and drove off.

I realized at that moment that I had witnessed something different than anything comparable in the United States. For we Americans, such an act would be seen as charity. But I realized, at that moment, that far from charity, the cab driver’s generosity was instead an act of solidarity—a solidarity of the heart. He recognized that this little girl was a victim, just like him.

He knew that the men who collect used cardboard and newspapers, called cartoneros, pushing huge carts through the streets every night, were not “losers” but victims. By every account I’ve heard, these cartoneros were previously working-class men who once had proper jobs. But they got slammed by the 2001 crisis and were never able to recover. I’m told that there were no cartoneros in the streets of Buenos Aires prior to 2001. Today they are ubiquitous. Yet they have pride. They work. That cab driver—and every other Argentinean—knows that, at least theoretically, he too could have become a cartonero.

About Argentina’s Beef

Along with the tango (and no, we never did learn it, by the way), Argentina is famous for its beef. Like many people, I had always heard that Argentina’s beef is grass-fed, making it leaner and distinctively flavorful. When I mentioned this in a previous web column, a reader pointed out in a comment that the amount of grass-fed beef in Argentina is declining, and rapidly.

I was intrigued by this and contacted an American, Mike Skowronek, who with his Argentinean wife owns a cattle ranch about 170 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.

During a long conversation over steaks (what else?), we talked about the state of Argentine beef. Mr. Skowronek, who writes an episodic blog under the name of Yanquimike, confirmed that grass-fed Argentine beef is fast becoming less common.

“I’d say that probably about half of the beef served in Argentina now is feedlot finished on corn,” he said. “And there’s no way at all to know whether the beef you buy in the supermarkets here or in restaurants is grass-fed or not. The cattle go first to middlemen who deal with the processors. So everything gets mixed up.”

Can you tell if the beef is grass-fed by the taste? Mr. Skowronek said that you can. “It takes almost three years for a cow to reach full market weight when it’s only grass-fed,” he said. “Because of this, you get an appealing gaminess in grass-fed beef that’s absent in feedlot cattle.”

According to Mr. Skowronek, the dirty little secret of real beef lovers, especially restaurateurs, who want the true grass-fed item, is that they source their beef from neighboring Uruguay. “The beef from Uruguay is still all grass-fed. It’s what Argentine beef used to be like.”

By the way, the steaks we ate (which indeed had some of that gaminess) were served medium-rare, which is not the Argentine way. They like their beef well-done. “I prefer it medium-rare myself. But I could never serve it this way to my friends here. Never. They’d leave the table,” he laughed.

One Last Word on Argentina’s Wines

It’s a common occurrence in the wine world that no sooner does a nation (or a wine district) burst onto the world scene with a new-to-us wine than a reaction sets in. Typically it’s a “What have you done for us lately?” response, accompanied by a sneer that “The wines are overrated.”

This now seems to be surfacing with Argentine wines. (We’ve already seen it with Australian wines, Chilean wines, various Southern Italian wines and Oregon wines, among others over the past few decades.)

Is Argentine wine, especially Malbec, overrated? Definitely not. They are unique on the planet—and that’s not something you can say about many wines from anywhere. Is there a need for greater variety in Argentina for its wine industry to become more than a Juan-one-note? You bet.

Some producers feel that the answer lies in blends, usually Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s surely part of the answer. But I can’t help but believe that there also needs to be a more active pursuit of many more grape varieties than are currently encouraged here.

Not least, there’s an excessive sameness in too many wines. Partly this is a function of too few grape varieties in commercial production on any scale. But partly it’s a consequence of economic policies. It’s almost impossible to buy wines from any other country, even neighboring Chile. Why? Because the government has a protectionist tariff of 40 percent on imported wines. So you have a local audience that has no real way of broadening its palate, or of pressuring local producers to do more and better. That pressure, ironically, is coming only from abroad, especially the United States.

The reality of Argentine wine is as simple as it is dramatic: In the space of little more than a decade, two if you’re really generous, this longtime wine nation has gone from bulk to “Bravo!”—as short a time for this as any I’ve seen. The challenge now is to secure a position as not just a supplier of wines that please, but also of wines that stimulate, even provoke. That’s the measure of true fine-wine nations everywhere.

Argentina Opinion

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