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Posts from the ‘Adventure’ Category

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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Winos crossing borders…

Yesterday was our final day of work at Lapostolle. We had an amazing experience and a fantastic initiation into the wine industry here that we won’t soon forget. After we said our farewells to all of our friends at work and had one last party with the roomies (thanks roomies!) we were off to Argentina early this morning via bus. The purpose of our trip was twofold: one, to visit Mendoza where Malbec reigns supreme and two, to avoid becoming illegal aliens. That’s right, we aren’t working in Chile any longer so our visas will expire today. We only really need to step foot over the border to be allowed back into the country but as long as we’re there, why not have some fun?

So we have a scenic 6 hour bus ride through the Andes to contemplate the rest of our stay in Chile and our next harvest. After an awesome discussion about living life to the fullest with our roommates Roberto, Alejandra and Evelyn last night, a trip to Peru for a hike up Machu Picchu is now definitely on our radar. I mean, we left our other jobs to do this, we had better make the most of it, right?

And our prospects for the harvest in Europe include an amazing winery in Bordeaux and possibly an early harvest in either northern Italy or Slovenia, which happens to be the motherland of my grandfather’s family. As I learned in my previous job, nothing is final until it’s on paper so we don’t consider anything 100% confirmed yet. However, as David Bowie put it (replace the ‘I’s with ‘we’s), “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” Enough said.

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The Vines!

On Friday, the Enology staff at Lapostolle had the opportunity to take a guided tour of some of our vineyards. Led by resident viticulturalist Jorge Castillo, we started off listening to a presentation on Lapostolle’s biodynamic practices. I won’t get too much into the details of biodynamics, but it is an organically focused agricultural system that views the entire farm as a connected, living system. On a side note – on the day of our tour – Lapostolle received word that they are the largest biodynamic winery in the world!

Taking the tour out of the classroom and into the vineyards, Jorge piled us into his truck and we headed off for San Jose a couple of kilometers down the paved road and then another several kilometers into the foothills on some really fun dirt roads. San Jose is the site from which we get the grapes for the Cuvee Alexandre, San Jose de Apalta Syrah. The vines were planted in 2006 and some of the “roads” leading to the top of the vineyards would be adventurous on foot, Jorge navigated these trails with ease in his truck. Roberto, Rodrigo and I enjoyed the views and the fresh air from the back of the pickup. Most of the leaves were already off the vines, but those that remained were a beautiful red.

After San Jose, we made our way through the Clos Apalta vineyards encountering many of the vineyards non-human residents along the way. We saw ducks, peacocks, sheep, goats, alpacas, and the occasional cow. We also stopped to check out the property’s vegetable garden. Then we wrapped up the tour with a stop at Casa Barrone, complete with its 100 year old vine trellis. We heard that the winery’s owners stayed in this house while the winery was under construction. Now the house is used for special events and the occasional guest. The views are incredible and I can imagine that it makes for a great outdoor party. The house sits at the base of a slope that produces some of Clos Apalta’s most reliable Carmenere.

While I may not have understood every technical spanish word regarding the winery’s biodynamic practices, from seeing the vineyards up close and personal, I do feel like I have a better understanding of and appreciation for Lapostolle’s sustainability efforts. Jorge and the viticultural team put a lot of work into making sure that the agricultural practices do not damage the earth. It is a more difficult way to approach agriculture, but it is also very environmentally-conscious. The most important ingredient in making great wine is to produce great grapes; with Jorge at the helm, I think Lapostolle’s vineyards are in good hands for years to come.

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Harvest Part Deux

It’s hard to believe the harvest is nearly over. Slowly but surely all the tanks (or cubas) are being drained of their juice, the grape skins are being pressed, and the wine is being moved into barrels for aging. The winery will soon be transformed from the controlled chaos that accompanies the fermentation process to a sleepy retirement community where wine goes to rest until bottling.

With one harvest under our belts we are now shifting our focus onto the northern hemisphere’s 2012 harvest. Following the harvest from North to South around the world isn’t a new idea. In fact, all six of our assistant winemaker roommates at the winery have worked harvests in at least one other country if not multiple. For Matt and I, coming into the game a bit later in our professional careers and without a formal wine education, gaining worldly knowledge of the wine industry becomes that much more important. As our good friend and winemaker/brand representative at Lapostolle, Diego Urra wisely said, “The world will be your classroom.”

We are focusing on wineries in France and Italy first and then considering Spain, Germany, Slovenia, Portugal, and a few other interesting wine areas close by. We are looking forward to the harvest wherever it might be! The possibilities are endless and very exciting to consider. It certainly feels as though the world is our oyster!

I’ve attached a video of Matt emptying a tank of grape skins for the press, a process called descubar. There is the lovely sound of a barrel being fitting in the background and a fan running over the tank so feel free to turn the sound off. You won’t miss much. Enjoy!

Descubar (finally, after a brief lesson in video conversion, here it is)


Surf’s up!

Our home base of Lapostolle in the Colchagua Valley is only a 2 hour comfy bus ride from Pichilemu and the world famous surf of Punta de Lobos. So far, I’ve made two trips to Pichilemu and I hope that Meghan will be able to join me when I return for a 3rd time. I have only been surfing a handfull of times in my life, mostly during college when I lived in LA, so standing up on the board for any period of time is a major accomplishment. Punta de Lobos has a lot of people in the same boat as me, but also a lot of serious pros. In different sections of the beach, you can find waves for people of all ability levels. The water is very cold because the current comes from near Antarctica, but with a rented wetsuit and boots, it’ve very comfortable – even refreshing.

In addition to the waves, Punta de Lobos is just flat out beautiful. On my first trip, I did more surfing and less sight seeing, though we did venture into town after we were all surfed out. On the second trip, I surfed for about 3 hours and spent the rest of the time watching a pro surf competition. I’ll interject here with a little additional info – Punta de Lobos is most famous for it’s annual Big Wave, Tow-in surfing world championships, but the event that I watched was a tricks competition. The waves looked huge to me, but I guess they get much bigger. After watching the pros pulling off ridiculous tricks for a while, we made our way to the actual “Punta” of Punta de Lobos. If I had to guess, I would bet that this is where the biggest waves are found. One of our coworkers from Lapostolle, Ismael, is an experienced surfer who grew up in Pichilemu and knows these waves well. He was the only one from our group to venture out into these waters.

Other than the surfing and sightseeing, I enjoyed my first Chilean-style Churro- filled with dulce leche. The last bus back to Santa Cruz left at 7PM, and at 6:48, we were lucky to find another surfer leaving the beach who was willing to give us a ride back to the bus terminal in town.

On both trips, I left for Pichilemu after working an all night shift, so on both occasions, I took advantage of the 2 hour bus rides to catch some shuteye. Returning from my first return trip from Pichilemu, I slept right through a 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

I’m really grateful to have been able to experience Pichilemu first hand, the photos don’t do it justice, and am already looking forward to my next daytrip there!

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Workers Day!

A bunch of folks at the winery, including me and Meghan, had the day off on Tuesday. It’s a holiday in Chile. The upside is that you get a day off work, the downside is that 99% of the population has the same day off work so all stores, shops, restaurants, etc. are closed. Fortunately the buses were still running and with the help of our friend Patricia, we decided to make an adventure out of it.

The first plan was to visit the thermal pools at 7 Tazas Park near Talca. Unfortunately, after Patricia did some research, we found out that this would be an impossible single day feat. So instead we set our sights on the hot springs outside of Rancagua. An early morning huge bus, short taxi transfer, and smaller bus ride later we learned that these hot springs were (like everything else) closed for the day. The good news is that we ended up in a beautiful park outside the city in the foothills of the Andes where a lot of people were gathering for the holiday. After asking around, we decided to take a hike to top of the park’s highest hill. After a short, steep 15 minutes we had to stop and ask for directions. If there’s ever a case for stopping and asking for directions – this is it. The brief conversation lead to us renting horses to haul our sleep depraved butts up to the top of the “mountain.” The horses weren’t really necessary, but they made for a really good time. I don’t know if the photos do it justice, but I hope my horse got paid extra, he was dripping sweat by the end of our time together.

We spent the rest of the day in the park relaxing, meeting people and watching a rodeo. In the end it was a day off work well spent and a memory that I’ll never forget.

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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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