The expat: Jeff Mausbach

From: Omaha, Nebraska
Lives: Chacras de Coria, Mendoza
Education: International relations masters degree at University of Chicago
Profession: Co-owner of Manos Negras
Book: The History of Western Civilization
Film: Selma
Gadget: My iPad

Black hand gang member Jeff Mausbach.
Black hand gang member Jeff Mausbach.

Meeting his porteña wife in an Italian hotel back in 1991 was the start of a long relationship with Argentina for Nebraska transplant Jeff Mausbach. After living in Palermo for a year then moving back to Chicago to finish his degree, Jeff made the move more permanent in 1996. He and his family now live in Mendoza, and runs Manos Negras winery.

Jeff says: “The first time I visited Argentina was in April 1992 and that was because a year earlier I had been on a solo backpacking tour through Europe where I met a beautiful Argentine woman who is now my wife.

“We were both staying at the same pensione in front of the Vatican and we hit it off so wonderfully, we travelled around the Greek isles together for six weeks before I returned to Chicago. Then I took some time out to visit Verónica who lived in Palermo Viejo, on Thames and Guatemala. I remember it very well – it was a very different place at that point compared to what it is today: there wasn’t any Soho or Noho! It was a very beautiful neighbourhood, there was nothing chic or fashionable about it, but it was a local place where everybody knew each other. There’s a still a club there today, Club Eros, which is better known now but back then it was a local club where we’d go quite often to eat.

“That first trip lasted for six weeks and we travelled a little, going to Entre Ríos and the outskirts of Buenos Aires. After returning to Chicago, I then got a leave of absence from my programme and came back to Bueno Aires in October 1992 and lived here for a year. I went to a lot of pains to organize my life and studies and taught English and studied at UBA. I was very captivated and loved the culture and Italian twist on Latino culture – it was a great place to live.

“I’d had been living in Chicago, which was a dangerous city in the early 1990s, and one of the first things that struck me about Buenos Aires was that this huge city, of 11 or 12 million people, was peaceful and quiet. I remember coming home after the clubs with Verónica at 4 in the morning and seeing 14 year old kids on the bus going home. That peace was one of the big attractions.”

Fast forward four years, and Verónica moved to Chicago with Jeff, during which time he finished grad school and they married before making Argentina a more permanent fixture. He says: “My family were a bit freaked out the first time I went to Argentina – I’m from a medium-size city in the Midwest and I’ll never forget telling my father I was moving to Buenos Aires. He caught a flight from Omaha to Chicago ‘to have a word’ face to face! In the end, however, we married in Chicago and Verónica got to know my family very well so the decision to move on a permanent basis wasn’t too much of a big deal.”

Passion for wine
That said, the outlook was a little uncertain as Jeff wasn’t sure what kind of work he’d find in Buenos Aires. He adds: “I’d just got my Masters degree and it was the Menem times, so there was a lot of international involvement. It seemed like a good place to be with opportunities especially because of my degree. I thought I’d get involved working for banks or something like that, and had a few interviews but upon further reflection that didn’t seem a good fit.

“In Chicago I worked in the restaurant business for 10 years and developed a healthy obsession with wine, training as a sommelier and even setting up an Argentine wine export business, although that didn’t pan up. Argentine wine was opening up to the world at that time and I felt I could join my two passions, my international relations degree with wine. Typically, the proverbial light shining down on me happened at an asado! I had some interviews with some of the large wineries such as Luigi Bosca and Trapiche, but it was Nicolás Catena from Catena Zapata who offered me a job – and I worked there for 14 years.”

The Mausbachs had no qualms about moving west to Mendoza despite having no family connections or friends there, and in fact upping sticks came at a good time. Jeff adds: “By that point we had two small boys and while Buenos Aires is a wonderful city, it doesn’t hold as much attraction for a young family. My wife, who’d spent her life living downtown, was keen for a little green and to strike out so we all knew it would be a good opportunity to move to Mendoza.

“I live in Chacras de Coria, which has a small town feel to it and has a great view of the mountains – it’s a great place to raise family. We didn’t have any close ties to Mendoza, but we’ve built a wonderful life here.”

Black hand gang
When he left Catena Zapata five years ago it was to set up Manos Negras, a winemaking project, with a friend and colleague. “Alejandro ‘El Colo’ Sejanovich and I had been preparing for it and left our positions, fortunately with business opportunities. But of course it was a challenge! I used to have a defined role at Catena, so two people suddenly involved with purchasing, logistics and the financial challenges of running a business without firsthand experience of all that was definitely challenging!

“The most important characteristic of a great wine starts in the vineyard, and we invested everything we had in two, planting one and buying the other. Ale’s experience means we can get high quality grapes at a good price. We’ve vinified in a lot of places, renting space and just bought a third vineyard in Las Compuertas – it can be challenging as a guest and you’re not the number one priority – you have to follow a certain etiquette. We don’t have a physical facility yet but we’re planning to build one this year, which means the 2016 vintage will be made on its own premises, which we’re very happy about.”

Outdoors type
While winemaking doesn’t allow Jeff a lot of free time and he also travels to the US up to eight times a year, he does make the most of Mendoza’s extensive countryside. “What I love about Mendoza are the mountains, so my wife and I take advantage, trekking, horseback riding, making barbecues, whitewater rafting, all those outdoor mountain activities. One of the great things about Mendoza is it’s just the right size and doesn’t have all the headaches of a big bustling city, plus there are a lot of great restaurants because of the wine and tourism industries. My wife has run her own wine tourism agency for 12 years so we often go visit wineries, taste other wines and visit friends and winemakers.

“I’ve been all over Argentina and have visited almost every province! The place I love the most is Patagonia: our honeymoon was four months backpacking through the region and that left an indelible imprint. When the boys were small we’d go to Bariloche every year. We haven’t gone in several years though, as the boys are now 17 and 15 and camping in front of volcano Lanin isn’t their thing right now!”

After more than two decades here, Jeff is very clear about his most Argentine characteristic: “Barbecue! I’m a fanatic of grilling the Argentine way, even it it’s not beef. Cooking like that is so flavourful and I love the rituals behind it, starting the fire, that goes for an hour then you uncork a bottle of wine. I love that way of eating. I tend to barbecue in an in-between style as I prefer rare meats rather than well done so mine has a little more heat in the cooking process. I also embrace the closeness of friends and family. Argentines are more likely to go to someone’s house to eat then go out for dinner, so I enjoy that relaxed comfort.”

Buenos Aires Herald, April 25, 2015

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