Exploring Argentina With Grape Expectations

Tugend is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer.

The town and province of Mendoza in west-central Argentina is just beginning to reach out to U.S. tourists, and for its calling card makes an eclectic comparison to California landmarks.

The warm, dry desert climate, with up to 350 cloudless days a year, resembles that of Southern California. Just to the west, higher than the Sierra Nevada, loom the eternally snow-capped Andes Mountains. And the province's vineyards, which produce 72% of Argentina's wines, aspire to the status of California's Napa Valley.

There are 1,400 wineries in the region, of which the largest and best-known are easily accessible from the city of Mendoza by half-day bus excursion (at $5 per person), an easy 10- to 20-minute drive or even an energetic walk.

The largest local winery, and the third-largest in the world, is Penaflor, with well-kept gardens and tables for picnicking and wine tasting near Maipu. It is also the only Mendoza winery where tours are given in English. Its eight underground acres hold 3 million bottles of wines aging in binning galleries, as well as the largest wine cask on record, standing eight stories high and holding 1,300,000 gallons. Penaflor's Andean, Trapiche and Fond de Cave labels are among the best-known Argentinian wines in the United States.

Joseph Schagrin, former executive vice president of Les Amis du Vin, a highly regarded organization of wine aficionados, speaks particularly well of the winery's Chardonnay Tupunganto, Cabernet Sauvignon Rose and Vino Fino Blanco.

Second in popularity among visitors is the Santa Ana winery in Guaymallen, with its large, handsome gardens whose irises and gazaniasline the walkways. Santa Ana produces fine table wines, bulk-processed sparkling wine, sidra (a sparkling wine made from apple cider) and Calvados, an apple brandy. Worth sampling, recommends Schagrin, is the Santa Ana Champagna brut, a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.

The vintner's art and tools, going back to the mid-16th Century when Spanish Jesuit priests planted the first vines, are preserved and displayed in the Wine Museum in Mendoza, at Peltier 611, and open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A highlight of the year-round tourist season, which includes skiing during the July-August Southern Hemisphere winter, is the National Grape Harvest Festival, generally held for three days in early March. The fiesta features parades, street dances, beauty contests, the blessing of the fruits, outdoor shows and considerable carousing.

Following are the major wineries surrounding Mendoza city that are open to visitors and offer guided tours. Listed are the name of the town and distance from Mendoza, name of the winery, address and visiting hours. Organized tours can be arranged through most private tourist agencies and at major hotels.

Godoy Cruz (2.5 miles from Mendoza):

ARIZU winery, San Martin 1515; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon.

ESCORIHUELA, Belgrano 1588; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Las Heras (3 miles):

GONZALEZ VIDELA, Panquegua; Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-noon.

Guaymallen (4 miles):

SANTA ANA, Roca corner Urquiza, Villanueva; Monday-Friday, 9-11 a.m. and 3-5 p.m.

TOSO, Alberdi 808, San Jose; Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.

Maipu (10 miles):

GIOL, Ozamis 1040; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-noon and 3-6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon.

PENAFLOR, Mayorga, Coquimbito; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Mendoza is 690 miles west of Buenos Aires. The plane ride from the Argentine capital takes about 90 minutes, though trains and buses are also available.

Hotel and restaurant prices stay at about the same level throughout the year. The rates are reasonable, even by Argentine standards, and currently are a real bargain compared to prices in neighboring Brazil.

A double bedroom at the town's two four-star hotels, the Aconcagua and the Plaza, is $70 to $75 a night (including a generous breakfast), dropping to $22 to $25 at the one-star Rosario and Horizonte.

Many of the better hotels in Mendoza, as well as in Buenos Aires, were renovated when Argentina hosted the World Cup soccer tournament in 1978. However, most of the work went into presenting more impressive entrances and lobbies, while the rooms are generally smaller and humbler than one would anticipate from the outside facades. By way of advisory, most hotel bathrooms provide neither washcloths nor facial tissue.

Restaurant prices are even more digestable. At the pleasant Los Llenos in Mendoza, a meal for two, consisting of typically massive Argentine steaks, French fries, salad, a small bottle of wine, beer and dessert came to $16. A recommended delicacy in most restaurants is the empanada --a crusty, pocket-size turnover filled with meat, raisins, hard-cooked eggs and olives.

Credit cards are widely accepted--indeed, most restaurant and store windows are plastered with a bewildering variety of logos denoting United States, European and local credit cards--but if they are actually used to pay for a meal, a surcharge of from 10% to 20% is added to the bill.

Mendoza city has been largely satisfied to serve as the hub of the regional wine industry and has been slow in gearing itself toward the tourist trade, said Silvia Pont, director of the Mendoza tourist office.

However, the town is making a serious effort to attract more visitors, especially from the United States, and it is encouraging the construction of a string of small hotels. Major existing hotels, such as the Aconcagua, are developing package plans that offer, for example, six nights' double occupancy, breakfast and one other meal and free use of the room's refrigerator bar. The cost is $231 per person, tax included.

The municipal tourist office in Mendoza (San Martin 1143, telephone locally 342-800) can provide some on-the-spot information, but for inquiries from abroad, it pays to contact the province's well-staffed office in Buenos Aires.

For more information, write the Casa de Mendoza, Callao 445 (1022), Buenos Aires, Argentina. From the United States, the phone number is 011-541-492-580; fax, 011-541-498-296. Some tourist information is available through Alfredo Pierri, counsel for tourism at the Argentine Consulate, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1415, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 739-9977 or (213) 739-5959.

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