Visiting wineries during harvest time is certainly a highlight in Mendoza. Pickers busy between the vines, pulling at tuffs of colourful berries, make a picturesque scene. As does the flurry of activity in the winery with grapes arriving by the truck load, rattling their way along the selection line to be whirled about in a great big de-stemming machine, before making their way to a gigantic purple pool of Vimto. It smells great. It captivates your attention and it makes you appreciate all the work and many hands that go into making a good wine.
One thing that has always struck me though is that while the tourist will flounce through and then finish in the tasting room drinking a cool, delicious glass of the result of all this work – which you should definitely enjoy doing – the majority of the people involved in the process will perhaps never get to try the wine. Most of those doing the field work and hard winery labour are from humble outside communities and the closest they’ll get to a decent glass of Malbec is going to come from a Tetra pack. That isn’t to talk badly of tetra pack wines nor of wine tourism. Every wine has its purpose and every moment to enjoy it should be enjoyed; but all that hand pruning, hand harvesting, hand selection and then double hand selection will often only grace our glasses, and rarely their own. It is enormously important to support the wine industry, which is a main provider for work in Mendoza and has been historically. However, it’s also important to remember that this social imbalance, common in many places around the world, also affects Mendoza.
Take a bus out to one of the wine production hubs for Mendoza, Ugarteche, and the stunning snow covered mountain vista is dotted by ramshackle houses and heaps of working families. They have little to do after work. Education is available but only offered at its most basic, and cultural enrichment is almost zero. Ugarteche isn’t the only place that is under-served – there are numerous barrios around Mendoza and the rest of the country- but it is a place to start.
Last year a couple of friends and I started a volunteer-based non-profit organisation, Fundacion Servir, to try and re-address the balance a bit and offer children, teens and adults in Ugarteche free access to some extra education through weekly classes and regular workshops and cultural outings. It has been a great year with some outstanding support from different volunteers and donors who have enabled Fundacion Servir to now provide five free classes a week of English and computer skills to people in Ugarteche. Pupils range from five-year-olds to 60-year-olds and while most are from Ugarteche centre, a few have travelled miles to get there by walking or bus. In addition to the weekly classes, occasional workshops are held to inspire some creativity, improve work prospects and promote healthy lifestyles. Our workshops have seen kids learning to paint the sky red and the trees blue with renowned Mendocinean artist Gonzalo Anton. Adults have learned the art of home yoga and relaxation alongside healthy nutrition with Panamanian volunteer Lupita Tatis. Kids have thrown a ball around and played touch rugby with coach James Dosser. We even ventured off to play in the snow (some seeing the white stuff for the very first time) in the high Andes and tried out some sledging at Los Puquios in Penitentes last winter. It has been a rewarding year for all of us volunteers and I believe our pupils too, but one of the most rewarding experiences of all was our workshop on an introduction to wine with sommelier Myfanwy Turner.
You have to imagine that most of the adults in attendance that Saturday had been working the vines all their lives, so the thought of three gringas who have been working in the wine industry for five years trying to teach them something was pretty daunting. There’s a fine line between being patronising and helpful, but after ten minutes of Myfanwy talking about what the concept of terroir is, it was evident this was on the side of helpful.
“I’ve been working in the vineyards and winery for thirty years, and I’ve just learnt more about wine in the last five minutes!” The woman next to me exclaimed with a surprised and pleased grin on her face.
It wasn’t just a theory class, but also an end-of-year Christmas class in which we wanted to have some fun and enjoy some of the wine they’d spent years working towards. First of all everyone was blindfolded and Myfanwy and Fundacion Servir Director Michelle Schromm passed around wine glasses filled with different aromas: orange peel, fresh plum, coffee beans, butter and tobacco etc. These are aromas which when you are looking at them are easy to recognise but throw a blindfold on and it gets a whole lot trickier. Any of us who have been to wineries and played this game know that on average most wine drinkers will only guess about 50% of them correctly at first. The men pretty much fell in line with the 50% rule, but the ladies… They would give a sommelier a run for their money. All of our aromas were what you would find in a home kitchen and it was amazing how spot-on they were at guessing.
Once the blindfolds were off we did a blind (this time the wines were blindfolded) tasting of four Malbecs: a damajuana wine, tetra pack wine, a 40-peso bottle from Lujan and an 80-peso bottle from the Uco valley. While everyone enjoyed a different wine more than the other, it was fascinating how in tune some of them were with their sensory abilities. As soon as she was passed the glass, one woman cried:”This is my wine! This is the wine I drink once a week – it is X tetra pack”.
The class was intrigued and genuinely interested in learning more about what they produce. The truth is that most people see working in the vineyards as the only form of income that they can get in Ugarteche without any qualifications or specific skills. And for that they really are grateful to wine, and wine drinkers. Personally I think it is time that we show them how grateful we are for their time, and lives, which they have dedicated to producing the wine that brings happiness and pleasure to our own lives. Salud to them!
Fundacion Servir. www.fundacionservir.weebly.com
On February 27th they will be having their annual fundraising event in El Mercadito in Chacras de Coria. Tickets are $150 pesos, if you can support the event by buying a ticket (even if you can’t make it on the night) please do. All proceeds go to the charity. You can buy tickets in El Mercadito on Aristides 521, in El Mercadito Chacras on Viamonte 4961, in Trout and Wine on Espejo 266 or by contacting Fundacion Servir.
Alternatively if you want to make a donation or can volunteer some of your time please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org