More than 5,000 people are making homemade wine in Mendoza. Emilie Giraud checks out the thriving community of Vino Casero
Wandering the roads of Mendoza, you may be intrigued by the amount of chalk written boards advertising all kinds of home-grown products – empanadas, vegetables, eggs, olive oil and wine. Do you dare to stop and try a “ vino casero “?
Yes, I know, they don’t have a great reputation. But to challenge my pre-conceptions, I decided to organize a little blind tasting with some wine-lover friends, including a sommelier and winemaker. I picked three bottles of “ vino casero” and a bottle of mass-produced wine of more or less the same range of price.
The first home-made wine left us somewhat crestfallen.
“Oh, this one has an aftertaste of beetroot. I definitely don’t like beetroot,“
“ This one is too metallic and bitter …definitely too evolved “
The conventional wine on the other hand was described as “superficial”, or “probably made with wooden chips ”.
But after a while, the home-made wines grew on us.
“This one has spices, a little bit of violet flowers, red fruits. The tannins are silky “.
“It’s round, balanced, I would definitely go for another glass.”
The winner is an 80 peso home-made Malbec from a 70 year-old vineyard in Vistalba, proving that homemade wine can definitely be of quality.
Above all, what seduced us is the David vs Goliath effect that plays in this wine style’s favor – the idea that an amateur making wine in his garden shed can reach results comparable in terms of quality to what a large-scale winery produces.
You can also feel their little touch of soul, that something personal. It’s not that these wines are made to please you but that they instead force you to enter their very special universe.
“This wine is warm-hearted,“ concludes one of my friends, draining the last drop from her glass.
To understand a little more the motivations and challenges of the homemade vintner and what makes their wine so particular, I decided to go and explore two very different places.
FINCA LA OMA, DIY WINE
After I got lost in Coquimbito with a bewildered taxi driver, I finally reach Finca la Oma. Vero, the vintner is waiting for me. We are in a typical middle class Maipu barrio. First surprise, there is obviously no finca. We are in what is obviously the heart of suburbia.
Immediately after greeting each other, we pass through Vero’s living room, and enter the small winery she and her husband have created in a house extension.
The space feels very cosy and very intimate for a winemaking space. She definitely has put a lot of herself into this place. Handcrafted collages and white fabrics with laces adorn the cupboards. The shelves are packed with her own marmalades, oils and peaches jarred in syrup. There is even a comfy corner furnished with barrel furniture to welcome potential visitors.
Sharing with my hostess a perfect and delicious piece of home-made chocolate cake, I understand to which extent “home“ is such a determinant factor in the spirit of homemade wines. In her little cocoon, winemaking seems an extension of her domestic life, and as she speaks about the wines, I can almost picture the parallel action of the yeast fermenting in her wine and the bread yeast slowly baking in the kitchen. Her home is an environment where love, care, housework and winemaking are all blended together.
Making wine for Vero is part of her blood, a family bind linking generations.
The name of her winery comes from the surname of her Croatian great grandmother, Oma. Back in Yougoslavia, her family had vineyards and she brought the tradition to Argentina, making her own wine from Chincha grape. “A black and chewy grape with a sandy skin that tastes of grape sweets”, explains Vero.
Her eyes are glowing with pride when she remembers her grandmother coming with kilos of grapes from a little vineyard 15 blocks away from her home. Vero helped her to press the grape with her hands, little by little soaking herself in the familial tradition.
Showing me her palms stained by this year’s wine, she explains, “when you dirty your hands, you connect with your roots, the earth. You connect with the most elevated part of yourself”.
Building up her own small production winery is definitively a joint project with her husband. It wouldn’t be possible without his help.
“He says that I am the brain and he is the muscle of the winery. We don’t have children. The wines are my children.”
When I ask her what is the most exciting part of the process, she shows me a tank in fermentation and made me listen to the musicality of the wine that is slowly being made.
“You can’t see the yeasts, but you can listen to them, you can listen to the process of creation. It’s an amazing transmutation, you are changing something ephemeral in something durable”
Vero is a very attentive mother, she listens to her wines, raises them, lets them grow up, and then lets them leave.
“ Wine runs my entire life”, she concludes.
This very intimate link Vero has with her wines is the reason why she never aimed at working in a large production winery. She studied winemaking in her late thirties with the objective to develop this specific project – a small-scale production of good quality wines made with love.
“If there is someone else involved in the process, it’s not your wine anymore“, she says firmly. She wants to do everything – harvesting, vinifying, designing the stickers, creating her website and selling her final product.
When they started their production in 2009, Vero and her husband made 250 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, they hope to make 2000 of two different styles: Cabernet and blends of Malbec and Syrah co-planted in the vineyard. She would like to one day reach the 4000 litres maximum allowed under the category vino casero, in order to generate a larger part of the family wage. Like many home vintners, wine-making remains a secondary activity. At weekends, she works as a tour guide in a winery in Maipù and her husband works as an electrician. Her dream is to keep the project at a scale her and her husband can manage by themselves and preserve this personal warmth that she can give to her wine. Eventually, they would love to buy a vineyard for their Finca la Oma to be complete.
BRAZOS TINTOS, THE RESOURCEFUL WAY
The elaboration of home-made wine requires resourcefulness and solidarity to compensate for the lack of a large-scale investment. Exploring the “ how-do-we-make-wine-without-money” question, I arrive at a place called La Casa Cultural, a traditional Mendocinian house covered by colorful wall paintings and surrounded by a garden of curiosities waiting to be recycled. At the entrance, a small board advertises beer, home-made wine and vegan food, while another exhibits a political statement against a huge mining project.
Inside, the large rooms of the Casa accommodate a cooperative of producers working in eclectic fields – cooking, recycling, sewing, beer-making, and of course, winemaking.
The wine that is produced here is called Brazos Tintos or Red Arms, in reference to the deep violet color that stains the arms of the workers during harvest.
Those famous arms are those of the four creators of the project – el Pelado, Diego, El Chicha and El Nano, and their very dynamic network of friends. They are agronomists, winemakers, or simply wine lovers who embrace common ideals of solidarity, cooperative work, and care for the environment.
When I arrive at La Casa, the first person I meet is El Nano. After preparing the ubiquitous maté, he brings me directly to a bedroom-turned-winery where ten small blue plastic fermentation tanks full of must are waiting to be stirred.
El Nano explains to me that these tanks are a good and cheap alternative to the traditional stainless steal or concrete tanks used by wineries. They have been approved by the INV (the national wine regulator) and their small volume allows for good control and manual punching down.
I arrive at a crucial moment. His friends are about to arrive from the east of the province with a precious harvest. The group doesn’t have its own vineyard, but in exchange for harvesting themselves and gifting some bottles of the end product, they often come to reasonable agreements with grape producers from all over the province. Last year, they sourced enough grapes in this manner to make 3,200 liters of wine.
20 minutes later, three men arrived loaded up with plastic cases full of Bonarda, Malbec and Muscatel grapes. It is time to crush.
After reorganizing quite drastically the tiny and unpractical room, they install a seemingly brand new de-stemmer on the window ledge. It is rented from a collective organization of home-made wine producers they are part of.
“This is a luxury. It’s only the second year we have used it. Before we would de-stem entirely by hand which would take hours“ confesses Emiliano, a very involved friend.
When the different elements finally in place, it’s time to celebrate. Everyone cheers with a fresh, and obviously handmade, beer. We put some music on and the show begins.
No need to say the buena onda (good vibes) is a great motivation factor to get things done and entices people to give a hand.
With their diplomas, those guys could have got well-paid jobs in traditional wineries, but working here presents other advantages.
“Even though we need to have other jobs to make a living, here we work with friends. And more, working here strengthens our friendship“ says El Chicha.
Diego emphasises that part of their dedication is also politically rooted.
“We want to show we can think about the economy from a different perspective, in a more fraternal way “.
This is facilitated by their involvement in the many networks of mutual-help, recuperation and barter. Having their own economic project also provides them with the chance to support other socio-economic projects in the area.
Their work with Los Triumfadores del Ambiente, an organization that helps youngsters from impoverished neighborhoods generate a small income through recycling, is quite illustrative of how things work in the social economy circle. They buy from them empty bottles for a price that is slightly below the price of a new bottle. They need to wash those bottles and the fact that they come in different shape doesn’t ease the corking process.
“But it adds human and environmental value to the project “.
La Casa even organizes workshops to transmit their knowledge and help other people start their own projects.
The little world of home-made wine is definitely part of the Mendoza’s heritage. Historically, people working in the vineyards would collect the left over grapes after the harvest and make wine for their personal consumption. Those wines risked oxidizing quickly and were therefore to be consumed within a year before they turned to vinegar. Sometimes, when they contained a high content of sugar, they would ferment again in the bottle, provoking a bubbly taste. For a very long time, this sector of winemaking was off the radar of the national wine regulator and if people were found selling those wines, their production would be destroyed.
It’s only since the year 2003, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, that this sector has been taken into account by the local, regional and national government. Nowadays, anyone who produces less than 4000 liters per year can be registered as a producer of home-made wine. This recognition happened in a context of hyperinflation, when the price of the grape remained stable, provoking a huge crisis among the producers. The idea was to allow these producers to make their own wine and sell them for extra income. New groups of producers were promptly formed and experts brought in to give advice. Small loans became available as start-up capital.
Many involved started to study winemaking, formed cooperatives and expanded. New types of people got on board such as professional winemakers, wine lovers and people who just wanted to have fun.
The list of registered producers is constantly growing, and INTA, the national agricultural research institute, estimates that around 5,000 people are producing home-made wine in Mendoza.
Despite the lack of financial resources, marketing, space or machinery, the end product is getting better.
“The quality has improved a lot and some can definitely compete with medium priced industrial wine“, says Daniel P, director of INTA in La Consulta. “You even have some fanatics that love the sharp tartness and spiciness of these wines and would drink nothing else but a vino casero “ he adds.
So if you do pass by one of those little boards advertising home-made wine, stop and give them a try. If they do not flatter your palate, they will surely warm your soul.