Gonzalo, the hotel manager who also hosts wine tours, told us about Santa Rita's legendary wine cellar, where its 18th century owner, Doña Paula, once hid 120 soldiers — including Bernardo O'Higgins, the general who helped liberate Chile from Spain during Chile's war for independence. The vineyard's modern owners were quick to spot a good marketing concept; Santa Rita's 120 brands have been bestsellers in Chile for decades. "All the people wanted to drink the wine of the heroes," Gonzalo said.

The oldest cellar on the Santa Rita estate was built in 1750. The sepia-toned cavern was made of brick and cal y canto, a native mixture of limestone, sand and egg whites. "We have a lot of chickens," Gonzalo explained. Over the centuries, the mortar recipe has proved flexible and resistant to earthquakes.

In dim lantern light, I saw double stacks of grape-stained French and American oak barrels, each holding 59 gallons; it's the same size barrel I use at home in Philadelphia.

Once, Gonzalo explained, the country's wineries aged their wines in giant holding tanks made of tasteless Chilean oak. Today, big wineries such as Santa Rita make wine the way home winemakers do, aging it in small, more flavorful French and American oak barrels. Next door to the cellar is a modern plant that fills 18,000 bottles an hour. The winery annually exports 1.3 million cases to the U.S. and elsewhere.

After visiting three giant corporate wineries, we drove three hours south of Santiago to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, where many small wineries are still family-run.

In Santa Cruz, we stayed at the beautiful Spanish colonial-style Santa Rita Plaza Hotel, where guests can catch a daily bus on the wine route and tour many of the valley's 15 vineyards.

Our first stop was the Viña Bisquertt Family Vineyards, where we were greeted by a sweet, tart perfume emanating from a truckload of just-crushed Chardonnay grapes. Dieter, our tour guide, lifted his expert nose and called out a cascade of scents: "Citrus, bananas, peaches, lots of flowers."

The wet concrete floor was covered with sticky green pulp. Our group — Europeans and a few Americans — tried to keep its balance as we followed Dieter through a maze of giant stainless-steel holding tanks. We passed a worker in denim overalls and rubber hip boots who was hosing down a grape-splattered crusher and de-stemmer.

In the tasting room, we raised glasses of a late-harvest Casa La Joya 2003 Sauvignon Blanc that Dieter said smelled of apples and citrus. "Now, we will taste the wine," he said, rolling the pale liquid around in his glass. "We don't drink it; we taste it."

Our next stop was Viu Manent, where we watched workers load a conveyer belt with just-picked Chardonnay grapes. Inside the winery, we rubbed shoulders with staff in white lab coats who were testing sugar and acid levels.

At Viña Laura Hartwig, another Colchagua vineyard, the owner's son talked about his unusual wine label, a 40-year-old pencil drawing of the family matriarch as a young woman, done by Claudio Bravo, one of Chile's renowned contemporary artists. "We wanted to keep a strong family image," Alejandro Hartwig said.

Family is big in the Colchagua Valley. Alejandro, a graduate of Chile's school of viniculture, has an uncle and a brother who own neighboring wineries.

The Hartwig wine cellar has only 400 barrels, and Alejandro doesn't filter most of his wines. I lifted a barrel plug to sniff a maturing Cabernet. It was almost like puttering around my own wine cellar. Winemaking is simpler than most people realize, Alejandro said. "It's like cooking in your kitchen."


Trendy whites

After drinking up the family traditions of Colchagua, one of our last trips was to Chile's newest, trendiest wine region: the Casablanca Valley, 36 miles west of Santiago, home to the country's best white wine grapes.

Casablanca's hottest new draw, we learned from a woman in a Santiago art gallery, is Viña Indomita, a contemporary white palace with arches and mirrored glass built atop a hill overlooking a vineyard and pastures of grazing horses and sheep. The only way to get there is to drive slowly up a winding dirt road.

Viña Indomita's restaurant featured a wailing techno beat and a menu so nouveau that the chef had added papaya to the Chilean national appetizer of pebre, a fresh tomato salsa eaten with bread. Our waiter served us salmon on grilled polenta and fillet of beef with a pistachio crust and a blackberry and Merlot reduction sauce. We sampled a heavy, grapey 2003 Sauvignon Blanc and a soft 2003 Cabernet.

Then we got lucky. Our waiter told us the tour guide was off, so we should feel free to wander through the place.

No guard was on duty, and we had the winery to ourselves as we strolled the two-story steel plant. We stood on the catwalk and gazed up at the steel infrastructure and down on the massive holding tanks. We wandered through the cellars — lined with French oak barrels — before we let ourselves out.