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Mendoza, Argentina
March 2006

Federico, 23, used to work at the Hyatt in Mendoza, shuttling luggage for hotel patrons. But he wanted more conversational contact with tourists he served. So he quit to come work at a country inn situated among a working vineyard in the outskirts of Mendoza, a small tree-lined city anchoring Argentina’s burgeoning wine industry. The city, which sits on an alluvial plain at the base of the Andes on Argentina’s mid-western border, is watered with a web of streetside canals fed by a river from the nearby mountains.

A Mendoza native, Federico is tall and thin with curly blond hair. He is fluent in Spanish, English, German and Italian. At the vineyard inn, he conducts an informal early evening wine tasting for guests. He notes the relatively high altitudes in which grapes are grown in the region; from 1,400 feet to 3,900 feet above sea level. That, along with its low humidity, hot days and cold nights, make for growing exceptional, thick-skinned wine grapes. The Malbec grape is king here, joining great beef and fine leather goods as trademarks of the country. Here, the soil and climate yield much higher quality Malbec wines than its predecessor plants ever did in the more traditional winegrowing climates of France.

And while wine is the big tourist draw to the Mendoza region for Europeans and Americans, they have followed the trail blazed by ambitious winemaking investors from the United States, France, Chile, Spain and other countries who are busy producing attention-getting vintages.

Randall, an American chef staying at the inn, says he wants to check out a microbrewery tucked into the lower altitudes of the nearby Andes. It’s an early stop on the nearby road through the mountains to Santiago, Chile. A fan of tasty beer as much as fine wine, Randall had already sampled one of the “Jerome” beers at the inn. Federico offers to drive us the 50 miles or so up to the mountain brewery early the next morning before his midday shift at the inn.

We climb into Federico’s small Renault and on the way stop at the huge gas station along the highway out of town where cars and trucks fill up before going over the pass to Chile.

Federico’s car runs on gasoline. But to keep fuel costs manageable, he’s had his engine retrofitted to also run on natural gas, a common practice among Argentines. While Argentina has plentiful oil and gas reserves of its own, fuel costs reflect those in the United States and Federico notes, “They never go down.”

Argentines like to drive fast, and Federico is no exception. Speeding tickets are expensive, he says, and traffic fatalities are common in the Mendoza region. January set an all time record for local car fatalities, he says, some startlingly high number like 30. People drive too fast and don’t pay attention, he says, making eye contact while he tells us this.

As we drive higher into the jagged desert mountains resembling those above Palm Springs, Ca., we skirt a vast aqua-blue reservoir. It was formed five years ago upon completion of a dam, built to regulate what had been Mendoza’s seasonal feast or famine water supply, dictated by the seasonal river flows.

A crack was found in the dam’s concrete surface before it was cleared for service, says Federico. But it was filled with concrete, he says. But a second smaller dam was then constructed upstream from the main dam, as something of an insurance policy should the big dam break.

But Federico makes one thing clear: “If the dam breaks there would be no more Mendoza.” And to keep unwanted vibrations out of the water, which are believed to weaken the dam, all motorized boats are banned from the reservoir. But other outdoor activities, such as whitewater rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking and windsurfing, are offered by outfitters along the reservoir.

We veer off the main highway and climb what is now rugged alpine country on a narrow twisting road, passing stables and garden rich homes. We turn down a dirt road and pull over as two German Shepherds give halfhearted barks from behind a wire fence.

We’re in El Salto Protrerillos, home of the Jerome brewery. We’re greeted warmly by a smiling and energetic Eduardo Maccari, who looks to be in his mid-30s. He started the microbrewery with the help of his father in 1998. The name comes from a beloved German Shepherd Jerome, who lived for 10 years with the Maccaris, and whose two descendants had greeted us earlier. Even now the loss of Jerome brings sadness to Eduardo’s eyes. “He was like a brother,” he says. As a tribute, the labels of all Jerome beer display its logo of a sitting German Shepherd’s silhouette.

Eduardo tells us the brewery got its unlikely start in the wake of a mountain climbing rescue. It was during a winter in the 1980s when Eduardo’s Czech friend hadn’t returned from a climb of “El Plata,” one of the highest peaks in the Andes. Eduardo asked the Air Force for help finding his friend. A crew took him to the campsite where they found the friend’s tent, and the friend inside, showing no vital signs, apparently frozen to death. The friend was taken to Mendoza where, over time, he recuperated.

To thank Eduardo for his good deed, he invited Eduardo to visit the Czech Republic, where he was introduced to a beer brewer. The brewer, using a family recipe for Belgian-style beer, taught Eduardo the art of making the family’s liquid pride. He took the recipe home and started brewing his own beer as a hobby, using local glacier-fed stream water. He initially shared his homemade brew with friends, but then decided to make a business of it.

Built on a hillside in two levels with cinder blocks and concrete, the Jerome microbrewery is truly a no-frills, grass roots, at-home brewery.
Watching a Discovery Channel segment on microbreweries and their equipment, Eduardo’s father designed and built a machine for filling nine bottles of beer, using air siphons, hoses, and operated with metal foot pedals and hand levers. He figured out how to build the thing after seeing a factory made one in use at the American brewery on the show.

“My father really isn’t a very mechanical person,” says Eduardo, showing us how the machine siphons air out of empty bottles and then fills them perfectly with beer.

Eduardo shuns buying more equipment to automate his tasks. He’d rather hire locals to help him bottle, cork (he corks bigger bottles like wine) and label his beer, noting that local jobs are scarce. He plans to build an expansion onto his small brewery, but doesn’t want to add more capacity after that. He likes the idea of staying small and filling a niche market. He tells us that he’s just got a distributor to sell his beer for the first time in the United States, to delis in San Francisco and Sacramento.

We sit down and sample his lowest alcohol beer, Suave, with 3.5 percent. After all it’s still morning and Federico still has to drive down the mountain and go to work. The cold beer has a creamy head and goes down easy. Three of his other beers, a red, a dark and a “Rubia,” have around 6 percent alcohol in them; while “Diablo,” has 7.5 percent. Maccari’s brochure on his beers describes them having familiar flavors similar to how quality wines or cigars are pitched.

In strangled English the brochure describes the flavor of its “Diablo” style of brew: “With a smooth beginning and a fruit (sic), light profile, but with a (sic) explosive finish, like whiskey. Of good and heavy head, is (sic) ideal for to taste (sic) after dinning (sic), before to sleep (sic), or with old cheeses fruit desserts, and why not, a good Cuban.”

We head back down the mountain highway with Federico at the wheel, squeeling the car’s bald tires around hairpin turns as we talk about water, cops, drug busts and women. Turns out there’s a widely known shortage of men in Mendoza. The best guess, says Federico, is five women to one man, a number he said is made more lopsided by the local gay population. Federico says he has two girlfriends. He figures that’s not a bad thing. “I work hard,” he says.

But at 23, he’s already got a plan for retiring. Five years ago, when the country’s overriding debt prompted the government to freeze everybody’s savings, Federico was convinced to buy a small piece of land near the brewery as a place he can build on when he retires. The 2001 economic moves devalued the Argentine peso from being one to one with the American dollar to about 33 cents. Nobody could withdraw their savings; the government instead issued debit cards to buy with. The good part was that borrowing became easier for big ticket items and Federico took advantage. Since his land purchase, its value has shot up.

As we get back off the mountain and on the country road back to the vineyard, we see a man driving a green Ford Falcon very slowly in front of us. Ford Falcons are everywhere in Argentina, and Federico notes those Falcons painted white or green ignite terrifying memories from 1976 to 1983 for the country’s older generations.

That was a harrowing period known as the “Dirty War.” A post junta “truth” commission found the Argentine military during that time had “disappeared” at least 10,000 Argentines, in actions officially undertaken against “subversion” and “terrorists.” Those actions were backed by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

But human rights groups estimate the number of victims over those seven years came closer to 30,000 and claim they targeted the country’s educators, artists and intellectuals. Federico, who was lucky enough to be born as the military actions ended, says the green or white Falcons were known for pulling up in front of a home. Armed military men would emerge from the car and forcibly enter abodes, and drive away with whomever they’d targeted. Most of those taken away were never heard from again.

After all that, the country’s leaders decided to pursue the ill-fated attempt to fight Britain for the Falkland Islands, leaving a demoralized populace.

Fast forward 20 years, and after a 2001 economic restructuring, letting market forces devalue the peso from the U.S. dollar, heavy foreign investment is reviving some of the country’s industries. But labor tensions appear to be common these days, with strikes by concrete workers and pilots and airline mechanics taking place in March alone. Pilots had gone on strike for more than a week four months earlier. And while busts of cocaine and marijuana shipments are commonly reported, both drugs are generally available in the country.

But today, Federico is reminded after consuming his relatively early morning beer, that yes, he does have a hang-over as he prepares to go to work.

Never mind that he’s got a long way to go until retirement.

“Forty years,” he laughs.