09 August 2010

if i'm going to commit a cultural faux pas, at least it was over wine

Try as I might to be a polite-as-can-be traveler, I am not perfect. In fact, I committed a cultural faux pas during my recent volunteer stint in Peru. I bought Chilean wine – on the eve of Peru’s Independence Day. The purchase was intentional, although the resulting insult most definitely was not.

I make every attempt to eat and drink locally when I travel (and at home, too). But after sampling dozens of Peruvian wines, from splurge to steal price tags on previous trips, Peru’s winemaking seems a little elementary compared to some of South America’s great wine producing nations (specifically Chile, Argentina and up-and-comer Uruguay). Peru’s wines aren’t necessarily bad, as the majority of bottles are blends (versus single vineyard designates); they’re just not all that remarkable. If I didn’t know better, I’d say maybe their wine style just isn’t geared toward the American palette (which is perfectly fine), but I haven’t found any other wine in South America, umm, quite like what’s being produced in Peru.

So, on the eve of Peru’s Independence Day, I found myself scanning the wine aisle at a Plaza de Armas grocery store, absolutely tickled by the selection of super cheap South American wines. Like a kid in a liquor-stocked candy store, I picked out a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina and a Carmenère from Colchagua Valley, Chile – mindful of the recent earthquake and its devastating effects on the latter wine region. My train of thought deduced that the latter purchase would surely wrack up some good retail karma. The total came to 24 soles or about $8.50 USD for both bottles. Deal!

Pleased with my selections, I grabbed the bag and headed with the two other volunteers to meet Karikuy founder and volunteer coordinator, Julio. Realizing that we didn’t have a means to open the bottles (which we fully planned on drinking in the Plaza), we took them to customer service to do the deed. Happy to oblige, the service lady pulled the Carmenère from the bag, scrunched up her face and spouted off something in warp speed Spanish to Julio. His expression was abhorrent as he quickly informed me that it was “sacrilege” to buy wine from Chile. Had it not been within hours of his country’s day of independence, I would’ve gone to bat and argued the virtues of Chilean wine.

As we made our way to the Plaza, Julio started to explain the political tensions between Peru and Chile to one of the volunteers. As far as I’m concerned, a good glass of wine is a good glass of wine (made even better when it’s also a good value) and I don’t care where it comes from. He refused to drink the Chilean wine and eventually ventured off to buy a Peruvian bottle. I gave my host country's grapes another chance, and while it was perfectly approachable and palatable, like alcohol spiked Kool Aid, its didn’t begin compare in quality with the two South American selections. I fully admit in defense of Peru and its grapes that the country has it all over Chile when it comes to Pisco production.

Wine is such a subjective thing. If I didn’t love Peru, its people, culture and cuisine so much, I probably would’ve felt worse about this wine buying offense. When it comes to local beverages though, I play my part in supporting Peru’s economy with Pisco, Fanta (with real azucar!) and cerveza consumption. That counts for something, right? Would I commit this heinous crime again? In a heartbeat. Only this time, I’d check my calendar first, and then buy two extra bottles to bag check and take home. There’s a time and place for everything, and although I try to be as culturally aware as possible in my travels, not much is going to get between me and a great tasting, good value wine. South America's got 'em in spades, but Peru, no hard feelings; I'm afraid you still have a lot of learn.

Postscript: The Karikuy volunteer crew took a five hour bus/road-trip to Ica, Peru’s wine-producing region late last week. There, we visited Viña Tacama, Bodega Lazo La Portada and Tres Generaciones (the latter two for Pisco). We sampled more than 10 locally grown wines, mostly of the super sweet, fruit bomb variety. The majority of the high-octane, 44% proof Piscos were superb.

The verdict: If I was nonplussed about Peruvian wine before, I’m even more so now, especially since I’ve seen the growing climate. It’s next to impossible to grow decent wine grapes in a desert and just because you can make wine doesn’t mean you should. End of story. If Peruvian palates demand sweet wine, so be it, but it doesn’t do much for me. I’ll stick to Pisco.

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