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Posts by Winos Without Borders

Santa’s Workshop for Wine Lovers

It was an exciting week for us in Bordeaux, which included a tour of the Sylvain Tonnellerie (barrel-making factory). Sylvain is one of the world’s premier tonnelleries and their barrels can be found in wineries around the world. In their warehouse, we saw barrels tagged for delivery to Chateau Angelus (France), Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (Napa Valley, California), and other wineries in Australia, Italy, and around the world. Sylvain produces approximately 120 barrels per day, or 33,000 per year, which represents about 10% of the total French Oak barrel production.

Our Chilean born, trilingual tour guide explained how the entire wood buying and barrel making process works. Each year France’s national forest service selects and releases a catalogue of mature oak trees (of two varieties) to be sold from their forests. The trees are in the neighborhood of 250-350 years old. The barrel makers are given time so that their inspectors can visit the different forests and then the trees go up for sale. These trees are not planted but grow naturally. As the older, taller trees are cleared each year, the younger trees gain access to more sunlight, which aids in their growth. Several months after the sale, when the weather cools and the sap runs into the roots of the tree, the winning buyers go back the forests to collect their wood.

Sylvain purchases trees exclusively from three forests in eastern, central, and western France. When they arrive at the Sylvain factory, the trees are split, shaped into staves, seasoned (air dried for 24-36 months), then bent and formed into barrels. Sylvain takes extreme care in every step of the process. On average, only 20% of the wood from each tree is suitable for barrel making and the rest is used for furniture and other items. Each piece of wood is inspected for knots, worm/insect damage, and splits, and the wood is sorted according the width of each ring. The trees with the tightest/smallest rings are the most prized and are used in the premium barrels.

One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the toasting of the barrels. While many of the workers in the tonnellerie switch positions from day to day, the “toast masters” are specialists and practice the same craft each day. Technology has certainly made certain parts of the barrel making process easier, but the toasting is still done by hand, the old fashioned way.

It was a great tour and a really interesting process to see. France produces the lion’s share of the world’s wine barrels so it is great to see that they have found a way to do it sustainably. Of course, ending the tour at Sylvain’s winery with a tasting and lunch didn’t hurt our opinion of them either.

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Machu Picchu

Well we just crossed off the newest addition to our bucket list. Although we didn’t drink much wine on this adventure it was well worth it. Machu Picchu is definitely all it’s cracked up to be.

Peru is different from both Chile and Argentina. We noticed more people wearing traditional attire, more visible poverty and more vegetarian items on the menus. The food was Meghan’s favorite so far in South America with menu items such as trout ceviche and quinoa risotto, it was a pescatarian’s dream. Although Matt decided to skip the guinea pig, he did try and enjoy the Alpaca. While they do produce wine in Peru, most of the places we ate at served only Chilean wine, possibly due to tourist demand and unfamiliarity with Peruvian wine. We will definitely be on the look out for a good Peruvian restaurant when we get back to the states.

We started our journey in Cusco, formerly the capitol of the Incan Empire. For $50 US dollars we spent our first night at Niño’s Hotel II, a very cute boutique hotel that doubles as a non-profit, funding afterschool programs for kids in town. They have a cute Café with fantastic Mate de Coca and tea cookies that they wouldn’t give Meghan the recipe for. The people are extremely friendly and we highly recommend a second floor room with private bath. We stayed there on our way back from Machu Picchu as well and had a 1st floor room, which was a little noisy due to the wood floors upstairs. We did find it interesting that they use both American style plugs and European style plugs in most of the bedrooms and cafés we visited. Not sure if this is a result of all the tourists shuffling through or if that’s the way it has always been.

A 4-hour train ride from Cusco brought us to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the Machu Picchu ruins. We booked this trip on short notice and unlike our experiences in Chile and Argentina, who are currently in their “slow” tourist season – Machu Picchu’s high season is May – September. Accordingly, we struggled to find an available hotel room. Luckily, after a bit of searching we were able to book a room at Gringo Bill’s Boutique Hotel. Most hotels in Aguas Calientes have a reputation for being overpriced, and while Gringo Bills was quirky, we don’t have any crazy complaints to report. The hotel itself looks like it may have started out as a small hostel and slowly expanded as the owners acquired and remodeled surrounding units. Gringo Bill’s is now a full service hotel complete with restaurant, bar, and reliable Internet.

The trek from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu ruins involves either a 2 hour walk or a 20 minute bus ride. To get as much sleep as possible, we opted to take the bus up and to walk down.

As the bus navigates through a steep series of switchbacks, every turn makes you want to snap photos paparazzi-style of the mountains, cloud forests, and roaring river below. Similarly, upon entering the Machu Picchu ruins, a glance in any direction reveals another striking photo opportunity. It can be difficult to put the camera down in order to simply appreciate the view.

We’re sure that there is some scientific or anthropologic explanation as to why the Inca civilization would want to build a city in that place, but seeing the city in person, it is difficult to rationalize. It sits perched on the saddle between two granite peaks with nothing but vertical cliffs as access routs. The master engineers who designed the city seem to have thought of everything. Spring fed water still flows through the drainage channels that the Incas carved into perfectly placed granite blocks.  The amount of labor that must have gone into the construction of this city is unbelievable. It’s crazy to think that it was only “discovered” 100 years ago, by a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham.

To experience the views firsthand, we climbed both Cerro Machu Picchu (3 hours round trip) and Waynapicchu (2 hours round trip), the two peaks between which the ruins rest. Our legs are paying the price for it now, but the hikes were well worth the effort, sunburn and possible altitude sickness. Cerro Machu Picchu was the longer hike with more exposure to the sun, but reaching the Cusco flag at the peak, we were rewarded with the classic postcard view of the ruins. The hike up Waynapicchu, though shorter, was the steepest terrain that we’ve ever covered. More ruins at the top of Waynapicchu demonstrated that the Incas must have had a pretty high pain tolerance and also provided us with another breathtaking panorama.

Thankfully for our co-passengers, we were able to shower off at Gringo Bill’s before jumping on the train back to Cusco. After a great victory meal at Niños II and another night of sleep above 11,000 feet we made for the airport to fly back to Chile. In Peru, we’ve seen more tourists than in the rest of our South American travels, but for good reason. If Machu Picchu isn’t already on your bucket list, consider a new addition.

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Three days of wine tasting in Mendoza was a pleasant way to relax after wrapping up our first harvest. Of course, over the last decade Mendoza has exploded onto the international wine scene with it’s first class Malbecs. Originally used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, Malbec has found it’s home in Mendoza. This grape can produce excellent bottles by itself or when used as the principal varietal in blends that typically incorporate small percentages of other grapes such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and/or Cabernet Franc. Overall, we were very pleased with the quality of the wine, the variety of the styles, and the hospitality of the many people we met.

Before we left for Mendoza, we booked a hotel (which did NOT look like the picture online once you got past the lobby), rental car and set up appointments with 3 wineries per day. Most of Mendoza’s wineries are located within 30-45 minutes of the city in sub regions known as Maipu, Lujan de Cuyo, and Vistalba. To get our bearings straight we setup our first two days worth of appointments in these areas including Alta Vista, Nieto Senetiner, Catena Zapata, Weinert, Tapiz, and VistAlba. On the third day we decided to venture out a little further to the Uco Valley, in which more and more of Mendoza’s premium wines are being produced each year. In the Uco Valley we toured and tasted at Andeluna, Bodega La Azul, Salentein, and Clos de los Siete.

Our absolute favorite tours and tastings were at Catena Zapata, Vistalba, and Clos de los Siete. The premium wines from Catena Zapata are very impressive, along with some of the wines that they only sell in South America. Vistalba, though a relatively young winery, proved able to stand up to Mendoza’s best. And Clos de los Siete, a project between multiple wineries, with Michel Rolland as both part owner and winemaker, delivers an incredible blend at a great price – about $20 US dollars.

Combining a great wine list and delicious Argentinean cuisine, Ocho Cepas was our favorite restaurant of the weekend. Although the restaurant at Bodega La Azul was a close second with it’s amazing view of the Andes, relaxed atmosphere and classic rock music.  An unexpected find right across the street from Salentein, the chef there performed a small miracle by turning instant coffee into a culinary masterpiece.  We’re still not sure if he was lying to us when he said he was out of espresso.

One thing to remember is that if you rent a car in Mendoza, you have to leave your headlights on all day. The police will stop you if you don’t, we know from experience. Despite our brief run in with the fuzz, we still agree that a trip to Mendoza should be on any wine adventurer’s short list.

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Michel Rolland is coming!

Today world famous wine consultant Michel Rolland and Lapostolle winery owner Madame Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle (of the Grand Marnier empire) will taste the 2012 Clos Apalta that we’ve been pouring our blood, sweat and tears into during this harvest. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Rolland, he is the equivalent of a modern day Bacchus, a sort of wine God if you will. Whether or not you like his influence, the power he holds in the wine industry is undeniable.

He consults at over 100 wineries, in over 16 countries around the world. He is a winery owner, consultant, oenologist and wine maker and a very successful one at that. Many wineries, like the one we are working at, trust their wine to his palate in deciding how to blend or proceed with their wine making process to ensure the highest quality and best tasting wine possible. At our winery, Clos Apalta, he works with the very talented Technical and Winemaking Director Jacques Begarie and Senior Winemaker Paola Muñoz.

We recently switched to our round of the night shifts so unfortunately I don’t think we will have the chance to meet either Madame or Michel, but I am excited about the fact that they will both be drinking the samples of Clos Apalta that we prepared for them in the wee hours of the morning (pictured) and have been spending our last month and a half working on. That maybe the closest we come to meeting them. Hopefully they agree that this is the best vintage yet!

Corner office with a view

These pictures were taken from and around the beautiful Clos Apalta winery where we worked.


This is what adventure looks like, our adventure anyway. Here is the formula; you throw a few belongings in some body bags, put the rest in a 10′ x 20′ box with a lock on it, leave your awesome job, kiss your friends and family goodbye and throw caution to the wind with the person you love.

We are off to Chile to pursue a life in the wine industry because as our (former) landlord put it on our last day at our old place, “you’re young and you can.” Our first go at a wine career will be at a French owned winery called Lapostolle. We’ll see where that leads us. Here’s to adventure!


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