Born: Philadelphia, United States
Education: English literature degree, Amherst College
Profession: Freelance journalist and author of The Vineyard at the End of the World which will be published in January 2012
Reading: Heat by Bill Buford
Last film: A good one was Inception while a bad one was Resident Evil: Extinction
When did you first visit Argentina?
My wife and I visited some friends in Sao Paolo in May 2002 and I suggested we visit Buenos Aires as I’d always liked Borges. It was just after the economic crisis and the streets were quiet at night. Taxi “sharks” would drive slowly round the block, praying they would get a customer.
Despite the weirdness, we fell in love with the place and it reminded me of New York in many ways that a New Yorker can say “this neighbourhood is like West Village and that’s like Mid Town.”
Both you and your wife are from the US yet you chose to settle in BA.
Part of our bond is that we always wanted to live abroad which turned all our trips into an audition. Go to Vietnam — “can I live here?”. I know few couples who are both native English speakers and moved here together. It is random but if it’s not now, then when?
What was your first impression?
I’d taken Spanish lessons from an Argentine in New York and his mother found an apartment for us in Barrio Norte. I arrived there and the realtor called the owner to make me leave the apartment as I hadn’t signed the contract and she was afraid I was going to squat. So my first impression was handing over all my money then being asked to leave all my possessions behind in a locked apartment and leave the keys. But it worked out in the end.
What did you find hard to adapt to?
Language, of course. I had a Matrix moment after a year. You know when the bullets slow down in that movie, well, suddenly all the words were separate and weren’t all mixed together. I could see them!
Plus, coming to accept that some things won’t work and there’s no explanation. If you compare Argentina to the US, you won’t survive. I’ve seen expats become bitter and lose all perspective on the basis that this different country becomes a de facto version of your home one. It’s not.
Name a lost-in-translation moment.
A year or so after arriving, I was at dinner in a nice restaurant with my wife. As dessert time arrived, there was something akin to “ice cream with pear” on the menu. I got a little too exuberant with my “r” and I asked for helado con perra. The waitress was, as you can imagine, a bit taken aback by my exaggerated request for “ice cream with bitch.”
What’s your most Argentine trait?
I’m terrible on the roads. I don’t pay attention to “stop” signs in the US — and you have to! I don’t think much about “smaller” rules. And when we go to the US, we joke it’s tea time as we have dinner with our families at 6.30pm. And I have a son who kisses everyone. An uncle might try to shake his hand in the US, but he looks at the extended hand like it’s a UFO.
After six years, do you plan to stay?
I find it progressively harder to see myself going back to the US. I don’t know if I could be in Philadelphia,for example, and be scrambling around for work. I like the “Latin” lifestyle and there’s something addictive about being a foreigner.
My son was born here and I see what my friends go through in the US, dealing simultaneously with a child and a life. It’s a more sane existence here — we have a nanny, he goes to state school and is bilingual.
Where have you travelled to?
As a journalist I’ve always managed to find an excuse to sell a story and editors didn’t need to send me from New York to Bariloche, for example. I’ve been everywhere a middle-class Argentine from Buenos Aires has travelled to. I haven’t been to Chaco or Formosa, for example.
So Mendoza offered inspiration for your first book?
An editor had called about a story about a Chilean wine family so I wrote that, plus my mother was into wine and wanted to go to Mendoza. One day I had lunch with an entrepreneur living in San Rafael who said: “It’s a shame there isn’t a good book about Argentine wine.” Of course, it was a sit-back-and-smell-the-smoke moment as the gears started to turn.
So I looked around and there really wasn’t anything. There are books about the wine industry and plenty of corrupt bodega ones in which a winery pays to gets its seven pages of nice things written about them — and everyone makes the best wine, of course.
This book is about the characters going back to 1561 in the west of Argentina who are fascinating. It’s the lawless, wild west combined with Italian immigrants arriving at the end of the 19th century. It’s a great microcosm of Argentina and it’s about this great subject, wine.
Did you have a prior interest in wine?
I’d written articles for other publications and been to the wine country several times. So I wasn’t a complete neophyte. Having the knowledge of a story-telling journalist was better than being part of the industry as I could not only see the stories and the characters but also the whole process of wine making from a layman’s point of view. I needed to be told in small words what makes one better than another.
How has your perspective of Argentine wine changed?
It’s the most professional industry in Argentina. You can’t cut corners making wine. People are well trained, go to conferences in France and California and it’s become a down-the-line industry.
How did research go?
I moved to Mendoza for a month and every day I lived, spoke, drank wine from 9am until midnight. I immersed myself, read every book that’s ever been written about Argentine wine, historical and academic. I then spent a year reading, writing and drinking wine and finished the book about a month ago.
Can you face another glass of wine?
I think I’ll switch to beer once the book is published in January. I’ll be doing readings in AA rehabilitation… No, I still like it, but I have little time for wine bullshit at this point.
What’s in your cellar?
I only have space for about 10 bottles in my kitchen. But some days I’ll pay nine pesos and other days a lot more. I decided to try all the bottom-end ones which you wouldn’t normally bother with but I think you should. I can say Termidor is very bad while for an average night, I like Benjamin Nieto.
You presented The Vineyard at the End of the World at this year’s Buenos Aires Book Fair.
The US cultural attaché approached my wife and I as we have a blog which we haven’t written for about a year. They didn’t know that and asked us to speak about being freelancers. I said: “Well, that’s interesting and by the way I have a book coming out.” Which they liked more.
So I read from the book for the first time. People came in and out and I managed to pack the audience with a few ringers for the whole 40 minutes. I did a master’s degree in creative writing and have done readings before, which helped.
Do you harbour the fantasy of owning a vineyard?
At one point I did, before the book. My wife and I almost bought a working vineyard in 2009. A certain amount of arrogance goes into wine making. “Look, I can make wine.” After being around these people and seeing the technical intricacies as well as people’s grapes not being there, I’m happy to just drink it.
I heard two phrases while writing the book. “How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a large fortune.” And the other, which (winemaker) Ricardo Santos said, was: “The only person crazier than the one who goes into winemaking is the banker who lends them the money.”
WINEMAKERS: ‘Yes, I heard it on the grapevine’
While the wine world has its own international superstars such as Michel Rolland and Paul Hobbs, Argentina certainly isn’t lacking in its own protagonists.
As journalist and author Ian Mount says about his book The Vineyard at the End of the World: “Very little has been written about the Argentine wine industry from a journalistic perspective. There’s a lot of gossip in the industry and it will be interesting to see who feels the book was too harsh on one person and perhaps not harsh enough on another.
“You talk to one winemaker who invariably says ‘well, so-and-so’s an idiot. They buy Tannat grapes and pass them off as Malbec.’ It’s a catty industry.”
ICON. The winemaker widely credited with pushing Argentina, and the Malbec grape, onto the global stage at the end of the 1980s is Nicolás Catena from Bodega Catena Zapata.
“He’s an icon in the industry,” says Mount, describing him as a quiet, slight guy who is an economist. Catena’s business was started by his grandfather, so Mount considers him to be part of the industry.
“Some people who haven’t done as well as Nicolás say he’s a terrible person, but he is in fact a fascinating character,” he adds.
Catena travelled extensively to the US and tasted wine there, when it was challenging French cépages, according to Mount.
“He realized US wine was as good as French wine and that Argentine stuff was crap.” Discussing a lack of investment and facilities in Argentina, Mount adds that these days winemakers often study or continue their studies abroad, and little foreign wine entered the Argentine market as it was so expensive so they had nothing to compare to their own cépages.
“Catena was responsible for turning Argentina’s wines into an exportable model,” the author says. Mount also spent time researching his book with Catena’s former viticulturist Pedro Marchevsky, who he says “knows more about vines than anyone else in Argentina.”
RANKINGS. Following his submersion into the world of wine , Mount says: “Twelve or 13 years ago, Argentine wine was the ninth most-imported. But once you get past fourth, those statistics mean nothing. It was making about US$13.2 million a year in 1997, according to the US international trade commission. Argentina was tied with Brazil which as we know, is ‘a wine capital!’
“Argentina now ranks fourth in the world in exports to the US. The order is headed by Italy, then Australia, France, then Argentina, and followed by Chile and Spain.”
First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on June 13, 2011. Photo by Mariano Fuchila.