31 October 2008

+/- 2

I will miss:

1. los Andes.

The one feature I was most curious about three years ago remains for me the most defining element. There was never any doubt that the Andes would provide plenty of inspiration, education, pleasure, and even a little pain, but never would I have imagined the intoxicating tranquility they would impart. The Rockies are home. The Sierra Madre is dusty and cinematic (and sin nieve). The far Northern Alps are forever a part of my hitchhiker's memory. The Tien Shan is a tricky puzzle. The Andes are like that crazy-beautiful foreign exchange student you can't help but stare at during class. Aloof and mysterious, unfathomable though absolutely irresistable, the Andes push away as much as they pull, repel as much as they enchant. And that tension might be their ultimate attraction.

When I say the Andes what I really mean is the Central Cordillera. I have the most experience in and the most knowledge about this particular section of the world's longest mountain range. However, I know now more than ever that even within this middle section of the Andes, my experience and knowledge are limited to a part that is equivalent to the size of a peso. In other words, this place is big country.

And not only is this place big country but it's also frustrating country and difficult to access and difficult to find information about and filled with trial and error route finding. It does what it wants when it wants and any good days spent in them are a matter of categorical luck and pure synchronicity.

Here is Aconcagua determining its own weather forecast for the otherwise pleasant spring day.

The Andes are intimidating; they rise rapidly and abruptly to an average height of 4,000 m (13,000 ft)--higher in the Central Cordillera--less than 100 miles (160 km) from the ocean. Above about 2,400 m (8,000 ft) there are no trees and hardly a shrub, bush, or evidence of any vegetation at all. They are bone dry and when they are not dry and baking under the sun they are dumping three meters of snow on you.

They are inhospitable. And, by and large, they are empty. To quote an observant observer in the 2008 Chilean Winter trip report thread on Telemarktips, "The back country looks incredible. Has anyone else noticed that (in) nearly every photo the only tracks are from the group posting the pics?"

Yes, we've noticed.


There is nothing like the feeling of an incurable crush. Except, maybe, an incurable crush that unhinges into a full-blown love affair, complete with obsessive and irrational emotions, sweating, shaking, giddiness, hysteria, and the heartbreak of separation. Adieu, mon amour. Hasta pronto.


30 October 2008


Our time here is rapidly coming to an end. I just put my new Switchbacks on my skis so I really, really hope I have a chance to try them out at least once more before we leave. The prospects for my other two winter projects look dim. I'm not hopeful for the condition of the snow. We have a million other things to do so I'll also be forced to prioritize. Vamos a ver.

One thing I can find time to do is to reflect on what I will and will not miss about this country. And because, as a backcountry skier, I believe in pain before pleasure, I will start with a few of the negatives.

I will not miss:

1. Chile's social, cultural, political, and economic systems based on good ol' fashioned classism.

This insidious disease trickles down to almost every aspect of daily living and contributes to one of Latin America's greatest disparity between the rich and the poor. Skin, hair, eye color, and family names are the first and most obvious discriminatory springboards but this also affects the nation's health care and educational systems as well as incorporates itself into everyday words and expressions. Thus, public and private institutions are not only based on a rigidly delineated system of inclusion/exclusion but the same is true for the mundane concerns of day to day life; it's a part of the Chilean world view. It's a mentality and it is one that Chileans must work very hard to defeat.

2. los cuicos.

If there is one group of people who perpetuate class differences in this country it's the cuicos, or nouveau riche, or new-moneyed brats.

With no thanks to Salvador Allende, the Chile of 30-ish years ago was poor, poor, poor. Don Augusto put a swift and violent end to that. Under the General and his team of Chicago Boys the "miracle of Chile" worked and the country experiences one of the most stable and prosperous economies in the world. And that's great. Problem is, civility and culture aren't able to transition as quickly.


For a population that supposedly enjoys Chile's good life (expensive cars and homes, expendable income, leisure time, decent health care and education, mistresses and masters, etc), these are some of the most miserable, nervous, aggravated, uptight, pushy, and arrogant people I've experienced. And don't get me started on the self-righteous Opus Dei. Outside of their tan bodies, pressed shirts, and fast cars the only thing that seems to exist is their own sense of entitlement.

Definitely worse than the new rich we lived around in Guadalajara, Mexico, though that might be because the rich in Guadalajara are most likely criminals forced to keep a low profile. And, if it were not for the fact that the cuicos don't carry guns and aren't really physically dangerous, there would be a close race for the Most Insufferable People On the Planet award between them and the new rich of Kazakhstan.

3. Santiago.

Chile is a centralized country and all roads lead to Santiago. Nothing but nothing lives or dies if it isn't cleared through Santiago first. And the reality is that apart from agribusiness, tourism, or mining there is little opportunity for prosperity outside the capital city; people keep showing up here because there is not much to do anywhere else. This, like the problems associated with #1 above is part and parcel a legacy of Colonial Spain.

I've posted some pictures of Santiago's smog (as well as an excellent Lee Hazlewood song to go with it!) before so I won't repeat that complaint. Somehow, someway the problem with Santiago is much more than the pollution. Beyond the poor air (is there anything beyond air?), beyond the sprawl, congestion, and horribly segregated neighborhoods the problem with Santiago is that there is no here here.

Earthquakes have destroyed most of the city's historical buildings and modern development seems like it's about to destroy anything else of value. Shopping malls have replaced plazas and interesting neighborhoods are few and spread between sizable distances. The only thing convenient and efficient about Santiago is its metro system. Above ground, however, the city lacks (sorry about the cliché) a heart, something that holds all the fragments together. I suppose the assumption in a centralized nation is that the center is so exemplary, so dynamic that there is valid reason to throw all the resources into the pot. Here, I think, the opposite is true: Santiago represents the worst aspects of this dynamic country. Class divisions, competitive narcissistic stress, and, yes, an environmental disaster is what breathes below its contaminated haze.

23 October 2008

Un Dia

Transition or decay? Or transitional decay?

Where does water come from?

Still, a day in the mountains is a privilege.

And you never know what you might come across.

A hazy shade of winter.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

17 October 2008

Un País del Vino

I suppose it's about time I write something about one of my other obsessions: wine. Chile is, indeed, a country full of wine. From the northern bone dry and high elevation vineyards of the Limari and Elqui valleys near the Atacama desert to the southerly wet, cold, and rainy climates of the Bío Bío and Malleco valleys. Chile bulges with wine.

On the surface this is quite nice: it's everywhere; it's generally cheap; and everyone seems to drink it regularly. Normally this would be a perfect recipe for a wine culture--a society where art, food, and wine are indistinguishable from each other and the combination of each help form the country's cultural world view. Though I think this is slowly changing, the only culture expressed in Chile's massive vineyard campaigns are agriculture or, more precisely, agribusiness.

Yes, Chile is full of wine. It is also full of businessmen. And lawyers. I won't speak in statistics but Chile usually ranks 5th or 6th in terms of world wine exports, often competing with the US for those rankings. Currently Chile exports about seventy percent of it's wine. I'm more interested in the culture of wine and the products produced in the country that boasts South America's best and safest economy.

On the whole, Chilean wines are good. Some are quite good. Some, too, are a little less than good. Most, though, are only ever good: fine for drinking, far from interesting. Quality has never been an issue. Chile has never been plagued by phylloxera which means that there are some seriously old vines here and few require intervention or grafting. The price to quality ratio has always been Chile's selling point. But if, like me, you enjoy wines that express not only the grapes from where they are born but also the soil, weather conditions, topography, and maybe most importantly, the people who create the wines, then Chile's version of viticulture might fall a bit short.

In Chile, uniformity, not variety, seems to be the spice of life. Sameness a prized ideal. This is true not only in winemaking but everything related to agriculture as well as art, fashion, and most aspects of day to day life. A classic example is the available fish from this country whose western borders never separate from the Pacific Ocean. From top to bottom, somehow, someway, Chile only manages to pull and serve in its markets and restaurants about five varieties of pescado from its bountiful waters: salmon, sea bass, conger eel, merluza, and tuna. The same is true for its tomatoes (all medium-sized and hydroponically grown), color choice for cars (grey), and fashion styles for women (knee-high leather boots, giant black sunglasses, and whispy, macramed sweaters).

The same, I fear, is generally true for the Chilean world of wine. Walk into any grocery store for a bottle of wine (more on that below) and you are greeted to five walls: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Yes, Chileans know about exportation, and a little bit about exploitation, too. They know what sells and they know how to sell it. And in the walls of five to twenty US dollar wines that the grocery stores sell, you would be hard-pressed to find substantial differences within the major varietals. The wines are all of good quality and characteristically correct. Bottle variation is never an issue and even vintage differences are hardly noticeable. Year after year, tank after tank, the wines are all good.

From there you begin to notice that though the labels might look different, a quick check of the producer on the back of the label reveals walls of wines that are made by a handful of wineries. From north to south, hot to cold, a small handful of producers make enormous amounts of wine. Again, this contributes to a certain amount of homogeneity between labels, regions, and producers. Good for business, bad for craft.

The real problem (but also the answer) starts when you journey outside the grocery store to seek something of quality and character and value. In a city of five million people Santiago offers the wine curious exactly two wine shops: La Vinoteca and El Mundo del Vino. Yes, these two companies have maybe six shops spread through the city but they also supply and determine the wine lists for hundreds of Santiaguino restaurants including those in Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. In addition, for reasons I can't quite determine, many high-end and luxury cuvées are priced twice (yes, twice) as expensive in Chile as they are in the US. Almaviva, Clos Apalta, Don Melchor, Alpha M, Seña, and Domus Aurea are all priced at twice the cost of what you would pay for them in the United States. And I only listed the more common high-end wines most likely found in the US. The availability of $100-200 US dollar wines seems to grow with each visit to the wine shop.

This latest trend, however, might be the sheep in wolf's clothing. The increase in luxury cuvées from wineries who can afford to produce them parallels a slower but, hopefully, steadier increase in small producers who craft expressive, region-specific wines with low yields and more traditional techniques. Even within the three years I've been here a number of new labels have appeared. Twenty to thirty years is often the range of time how "behind" Chile is to the rest of the developed world. (Though in terms of the treatment of children and the elderly as real people rather than annoyances and burdens respectively, the US has much to learn from their southerly kin.) I'm not ever exactly sure what that comparison means but if this is true then when it comes to artisanal winemaking Chile is ahead of the curve.

About this time last year--when the temperatures take a turn for the hotter--I was stocking up on white wines when I noticed a new label in the (impossible to miss a new label because it's so) small section of otras variedades, or other varietals, meaning other than Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was the 2005 Meli Riesling pictured above. It's from the D.O. of Maule, the largest and most geographically diverse wine-producing region, located at the southern end of the Central Valley. As of this date, this new project makes one wine, pictured above, apparently created from a "lost" parcel of Riesling in this predominately red wine region. The wine is vinified without any oak, kept at a relatively low level of alcohol (12.5%), and held in its bottle for six months before release. Four almost revolutionary contradictions to a national industry that favors mass production, plenty of oak, high alcohol levels, and immediate release and consumption. The cost of the Meli Riesling to the consumer: más o menos 3,000 Chilean pesos, or about six US dollars.

The first (and second and third) time I tasted this wine it rivaled some of the more austere Sancerres that I've tried. Bracing acidity and a core of minerality gave way to a softer finish of lemon and lime citrus and a touch of honeysuckle. Perfect with shellfish (mussles, oysters, and machas, or Chilean razor clams). A different version of a Riesling definitely, but not unlike the current and tasty examples coming out of New Zealand. I opened another 2005 vintage bottle last night that had been sitting around the basement for a while and what a difference a year makes. The Meli is much more round around the edges, ripe, and honeyed, resembling more those found in the Alsace. In fact, I haven't tasted a Riesling that well developed since I opened our last bottle of 2001 Albert Mann Riesling a few months ago.

Within months after its release, Meli started showing up on the wine lists of hip bistros in Valparaiso. The cool kids are ready for a change.

Meli is not the first to take the route of hand-crafted wine from low yields and site-specific properties (though it might be the first Riesling to do so). Thankfully there are a number of producers carving out the future and hope of Chilean wine, both in and out of country. Here are a few I've found worth pursuing:

Viña Tabalí: Though not an especially small winery (they make eight different bottlings), the wines from Tabalí show off the rich mineral content contained in the soil of the far northern Limarí valley.

Viña Pérez Cruz: Located in the Alto Maipo region, only 45 kilometers from Santiago, Pérez Cruz is not for the faint of heart. These are big wines but full of character and structure as well. Made mostly with traditional varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot) with bits and pieces of others like Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Côt.

Viu Manet: Another not-so-small winery. Here I'm mostly fond of their Secreto line of wines that bottle single varietals with a "secret" blend of an unnamed secondary grape of up to 15%. I'm not sure how popular these wines are but to me they add depth and character to some over-used varietals. Here's a clue: they definitely add Viognier to their Syrah with nicely perfumed results.

Matetic Vineyards: For me, a bit of a controversial winery. Flashy, expensive, and beautiful, Matetic would not be out of place in Napa Valley. Though they are also not afraid of oak or alcohol, it's hard to argue with their commitment to their very special micro-climate and soils of the San Antonio valley.

Viña Garcés Silva: Matetic's more sophisticated San Antonio neighbor in the adjacent Leyda valley. A family winery, each of their five wines (with the exception, maybe, of the barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc) reflect the cool coastal climate from which they are born.

Loma Larga: Another family vineyard located in the larger but equally cool climate of the Casablanca valley. Limited production wines (only the Syrah is ever made over 1000 cases) made from small French oak barriques and steel tanks.

Viña von Siebenthal: From the beautiful Aconcagua valley, Viña von Siebenthal produces only red wines: two Bordeaux-styled wines are made from combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. Two (mostly) single varietal wines: a Carmenère and a syrah called Carabantes. All are excellent.

Viña San Esteban: Along with Viña von Siebenthal, the Carmenère made under the In Situ label represent two of the country's more interesting versions. Elegant, structured, and expressive, these two cool climate Carmenères are a far cry from the more popular Merlot wannabes produced in the hotter Central valleys. Their Syrahs, too, are more reminiscent of the Rhone than many produced in this country. I also know for certain that these wines are featured at a prominent US retailer.

Viña Litoral (no website): Another single bottle production winery made by the hands of the very busy Ignacio Recabarren. The Ventolera Sauvignon Blanc is made within six miles of the Pacific Ocean. Intense, viscous, and full of salty minerals, the Ventolera could pass for a Sancerre.

There are others and I hope even within a few years time there will be others still. Whether it's a question of easing up on the mass market mentality, following more oenological muses, or a combination in between, I don't exactly know. Hesitation and cultural reluctance aside, the foundations are certainly here and available for the creation of unique, geographically specific wines. I hope the muses win the contest.

A few more resources:
Wines Of Chile
Andes Wines
Planeta Vino (in Spanish)
Wikipedia entry

07 October 2008

Winter Projects Rediscovered

One bad thing about goals is that they can obscure your vision. I was able to take care of one goal early in the season--albeit under less than favorable conditions. And since then, El Plomo and La Paloma have been lingering reminders that I don't have nearly enough time to accomplish what I want to accomplish with the rapidly shrinking time line here. Such ever-present reminders, in fact, that I had nearly forgotten about the west side of Ojos de Agua until I had skied into it, as well as one of the lines pictured above that is a part of the annual El Monumento del Cristo Redentor trip. And it almost didn't happen.

The central Andes pose many challenges: steepness, difficult access, blistering sunshine, freezing winds, low humidity. Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the unexpected. Sure, there is always the chance that the road will end abruptly and you will drive your Buick headlong into the torrent of the Rio Aconcagua:

Then there is the danger of sudden meteorite showers:

But even these possibilities are mitigated by the presence of higher powers that take shape in the beautiful folk architecture of mountain cathedrals. Here there is safety. Even if the sky is falling down on top of you.

In the Andes, the unexpected takes many shapes and forms. In this case the unexpected took the form of the temperature that dropped about 10 degrees Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit) in about 1000 meters (about 3200 feet) as well as in the shape of snowflakes as they fell from the chilly spring sky. And the unexpected didn't let up, either.

The unexpected also took the shape and form of the group interested in skiing up and around Cristo del Redentor. What started out earlier in the week as a group of hombres turned into a large group of proud papas taking their progeny out for a lesson in ski-touring. In and of itself this is a great idea. The problem was that the first round of unexpectedness wreaked havoc on the snow conditions and, thus, on the tiny legs and bodies of the new recruits.

The snow was impenetrable. Other than the color it was hardly recognizable as snow. It was at best difficult and it must be noted that the little people performed magnificently. Their papas should be proud.

While they all struggled up the steepest and most miserable part of the tour I took the opportunity to explore. The snow stopped and the sun broke through the clouds frequently enough to soften the northern aspects. I headed up.

Looking north toward Aconcagua still shrouded in clouds. The old Chile-Argentina border crossing and Cristo del Redentor monument is pictured in the middle of the long saddle, at the top of the switchbacks. Yes, that means that there was a time when you had to drive, walk, or crawl up that road to enter or return from Argentina.

El Camino del Diablo and the current Chilean border station.

The dogs and I made our way up and over to our unexpected winter project. The condition of the snow was pert' near perfect.

So the unexpected weather didn't ruin the day after all. I unexpectedly rediscovered a winter project that I first spied three years ago. Even the impenetrable ramp the others skinned up had unexpectedly softened enough to provide a decent descent.

Perhaps the most unforeseen surprise was the sight of a ragged and sunburned gringo who approached us with skis on his back as we prepared to leave. He spent the last two months traveling around Argentina and the last three days alone in a tent waiting out the (unexpected) cold weather at the very windy and very closed Los Penitentes resort. He was tired and broke and a little worse for wear. He stunk. He was young. We told him we would take him to Santiago where he would recuperate for a few days before returning to Seattle. We waited for him at the border crossing and bought him a beer. I drove with the windows down and he couldn't stop talking about the mountains--that they were the most beautiful and intense he'd ever seen; that they seemed inhabitable and at times frightening. Another victim of the Andes. He'll be back next year. I hope I will too.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)