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Taking the Wine Road to the Park Hyatt Mendoza

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

 

“Mendoza is like a new-born destination, like a new baby just starting out. That’s the great thing about working here: we’re creating a destination,” says Carl Emberson, general manager of the Park Hyatt, Mendoza City’s only five-star hotel. For the moment, that is. Others are on the way. Still, this place will be difficult to match.

It’s in the heart of town facing Plaza Independencia where on this beautiful midsummer night in January, some kind of a celebration is going on. There’s an enormous display of light. A band is playing. After every number, the crowd bursts into cheers and applause. Across the way on the broad white terrace fronting the hotel that looks like a palace from the Spanish colonial era, young couples are having drinks, their heads bent, nearly touching. There are families with children, sleeping babies in strollers beside them, and hotel guests along with locals who’ve begun dinner in the restaurant but have moved out to tables on the adjacent terrace. It’s too beautiful an evening to spend indoors.

We’re on the far side of the terrace, drinking some wonderful Mendoza wine and taking in the scene. “This is one of the places in the world that is priceless,” Carl says. “Out on the terrace on a lovely evening, having a drink. Hard to beat. A touch of old world glamour with the service of the modern world.”  Nattily dressed and sophisticated, he strikes us as a character of out a Graham Greene novel, only an Aussie, not an Englishman. Actually, he tells us he was born and raised in Fiji; his grandmother was Tongan. He’s a jovial sort, clearly delighted with the juncture of time and place that finds him at the helm of the Park Hyatt Mendoza just as this part of Argentina is making its mark on the international travel scene.

General Manager Carl Emberson - click to enlarge
General Manager Carl Emberson

Bordering Chile, the Province of Mendoza  comes flat up against the Andes, and the mystical mountain range is omnipresent. From our hotel room window, we can spot the snow-capped peaks,  a jagged rim on the western horizon over the rooftops of populous Mendoza City, capital of the province. The city seems to stand like a sentry, looking out from its northern locale across the surrounding countryside, abundant with orchards, farms, and most importantly of late, vineyards.

“Having worked in Argentina before, I knew a lot about Argentine wines,” Carl told us.  “By the time I came to the Park Hyatt Mendoza in 2005, I was aware of their growing reputation worldwide and understood wine was going to be a major element of my job. Soon after I arrived, I began organizing what will be the first ‘Masters of Food and Wine of South America,’ a four-day gourmet extravaganza with an array of internationally well-known chefs preparing dishes at wineries throughout the province.”

He continued, “‘Wine Spectator’ will be sponsoring and promoting the event. Thirty wineries have signed on. It’s an all-inclusive package that includes transfers, three nights at the Park Hyatt, four dining events, and all transportation. Many of the wineries having cooking facilities; if not, we’ll bring them. Some have dining facilities; if not, they’ll be set up in the gardens. The scenery is beautiful; the weather is perfect. Imagine -- great chefs cooking in the winery, great wine that was made in the winery, dining outdoors with the Andes as backdrop.”

He paused, smiled knowingly, then added, “Our inaugural event takes place next month.”

The first annual “Master of Food and Wine in South America” was held February 15-18, 2007, and it was the great success Carl anticipated. Hundreds of people from North and South America, England, and Mexico visited not 30 but  45 wineries, dined on dishes prepared by 35 chefs (among them Christophe David, Cyril Cheype, Ilhame Guerrah, Jean-François Rouquette, Pascal Valero, Kenichiro Ooe, Fabio Brambilla, Fernando Franco, Juan Manuel Guizzo, and, of course, Ernesto Ruiz of the Park Hyatt Mendoza), attended a Park Hyatt launching party with wine-tastings and chefs at cooking stations, and a concluding eight-course gala dinner sponsored by “Wine Spectator.” Plans for next year’s event are already underway with the launching party scheduled for Valentine’s Day. It’s enough to make one fall in love.

The “Master of Food and Wine in South America” event was both consequence and reinforcement of the growing connection between the wine industry and tourism in this part of Argentina, a phenomenon that ironically has taken off in the wake of the economic crisis that hit the nation late in 2001. There are over 1,000 wineries in Mendoza today as opposed to under 600 five years ago. But wine production in a land where the sun shines 330 days of the year, the climate is temperate, humidity low, and rivers combine with streams of thawed ice that flow down from the mountains in the spring along with man-made dams and canals to irrigate the earth is nothing new. What is new is the kind of wine being produced.

“The big change is from ordinary with no labels to high quality,” said Mariana Cerutti, the public relations director at Vistalba, a winery named for its district (one of 18 in the province) and a premier wine-growing region. “We feel we are at the beginning of something that did not exist in the same way before. The wine industry has pushed the tourist industry. People are interested in visiting the wineries. We need places to receive them. So we create hotels and restaurants.”

An account of the Vistalba winery is emblematic of the larger story of viticulture in Mendoza. Owned by the Pulenta family who also owned Pina Flore, a huge wine-producing company, it began operation in 1948. Years later, the family sold the company but held on to the 131-acre vineyard. In 1999, Carlos Pulenta, grandson of the founder, bought it from his father. He added new vines of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda and Malbec, built a modern winery with state-of-the-art-technology, hired a team of proficient oenologists, and began the production of fine wines. It opened in 2005. Before the end of 2006, Vistalba’s Malbec Tomero (named for the traditional irrigation method of using meltdown from the mountains) was named the best Malbec in the world. 

Enchantingly beautiful, in the shadow of the Andes, and surrounded by vineyards bordered with old olive trees, the property has a pristine two-bedroom posada and a La Bourgogne restaurant (of the brand of chef Jean-Paul Bonoux; there is also one in Buenos Aires and another in Punta Del Este, Uruguay). Its shaded verandah is mere footsteps from a seemingly endless vineyard. On a lovely summer afternoon, having a lunch of chilled creamy honeydew soup, braised duck leg with poached pear and fried apple ring, and orange sorbet accompanied by a Vistalba Malbec one could not help feeling, if just for the moment, all is right with the world.

“The economic crisis spurred an examination of what the country has to offer,” Maria told us. “We are working harder and doing more. Through the wine industry, we grow up.”

Driving the Wine Roads of Mendoza, visitors can go from one winery to another and avail themselves of tastings and tours that begin with the harvested grape, continue through the process –increasingly scientific, yet still retaining a measure of alchemy – of pressing, blending, and aging before being  bottled and ready for sale. All are different, all tell different stories, yet each shares in the larger story of Mendoza’s growing up.

A thirty minute drive from Vistalba brings one to another family-owned winery whose long approach-way, bordered by acre after acre of carefully tended vines, ends at what looks like a Mayan pyramid. Beyond, the vines continue into the distance, stopping at rows of poplar trees. In the background looms majestic 22,851-foot Mount Aconcagua, highest peak in the Americas.

 

This is Catena Zapata is one of Mendoza’s first and best known wineries devoted to the production of quality wines. Completed in 2001 just before the economy imploded, it is built entirely of native products from the gold, topaz and gray-colored stone walls to the marble floors and rosewood furniture. Despite its conventional uses for the business and actual making of wine, it has a spiritual quality, a consequence perhaps of its soaring lines and huge circular atrium that bursts through the roof ending in a glass tower.

Like Vistalba, Catena Zapata is run by the third generation of an immigrant Italian family. The founder knew something about wine-making, and he had a hunch that the Malbec grape from Bordeaux, France would grow well in the high dry climate of Mendoza. In 1902, when he emigrated to Argentina, he brought  some Malbec plants with him, and the rest, as they say . . .

By the time his children were running the business, the Catena firm was the largest producer of jug wine in Argentina. But by the time the third generation came of age, only one of the four descendents wanted to continue making wine.

Nicolás Catena was a young agronomist and visiting professor of economics at Berkeley in the 1980s. On weekends, he would visit the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, and he recognized the challenge Californian wineries were posing to the established European trade. Why not Argentina?’ he thought. The terroir is there.

Returning home, he determined to build a new winery for the production of fine wines geared to export. Not only would its operation be different, its look would be different too, conveying an impression of the Americas.

Using his knowledge as an agronomist, Nicolás launched into micro-climate blending, buying vineyards at different altitudes and blending their grapes. The vineyards surrounding the winery is at 3,100 feet, Catena’s highest vineyard is at 5,000 feet. Since soil differs at different altitudes, he knew their grapes would have different characteristics.

“I call this vineyard the university of wines,” said the vibrant Jimena Turner who conducts tours of Catena Zapta. “When I  began in the industry, I had to learn a great deal. One of the oenologists said ‘Everybody can make good wine; but wine is more than quality. It is the passion you give to it and the way you keep on doing the service, how you sell the wine, what is behind the bottle.’ There is a lot of this kind of thinking in Mendoza.”

Jimena Turner before winery old photos at Catena Zapata - click to enlarge
 Jimena Turner before winery old photos at Catena Zapata

Cecilia and Martin Rigal are a young couple who think along such lines. It led to the creation of a new concept in viticulture, not a winery but a wine lodge. Cava Lodge is set in a 40-year old, 35-acre vineyard with what appears to be an old Spanish manor house at the property’s entrance and small adobe structures with weird chimneys that add a touch of the surreal to the landscape. In a pattern that we found over and over again, the Rigals’ motivation to think along new lines sprung from the events of 2001.

“The economic crisis created certain emotions,” Cecilia told us. She is thirtyish, blonde and slender, a high energy person who conveys an infectious enthusiasm. “In Buenos Aires, we knew people who lost their jobs and began designing and making things in their homes. They became  small entrepreneurs. My husband and I are not artisans. He’s a finance guy. I worked in a hotel. Yet we wanted to do something new.

 

“On the beaches in northern Brazil, we saw these small hotels with, say, ten rooms. That gave us the idea. But the beach was not our style. Mendoza, on the other hand, encompassed so many things we did like: the people, the weather, good food, and a growing wine industry.

 

She continued, “We fell in love with this vineyard and had this idea to build a lodge in its midst.  We would immerse our guests in the entire experience of wine, from tours and tastings at wineries, to the wine we serve at meals, to the wine treatments and baths in our spa.”

 

The financial crisis was raging. The undertaking was risky. They began with nothing more than the vineyard and ended up with a place that is uniquely lovely. The main house is high and open with a spacious dining room that leads to terraces and a doorway that leads to a court with a fountain at the center that brings the Alhambra to mind. This is the lodge’s spa with a stunning lap pool ringed by massage rooms as well as guest rooms which don’t have views because they’re in the old Spanish style, yet are luxurious with tiny swimming pools and fireplaces.

Mountain views from the little adobe structures, on the other hand, are astounding. Surrounded by low stone walls, they have fireplaces, sitting rooms and rooftop terraces that look out to the Andes.

Vines share space with olive trees and an abundance of roses. (Someone told us there are so many roses in Mendoza’s wine country because they are susceptible to a fungus that attacks the vines. Once it appears on the roses, growers are forewarned and can take the necessary steps to prevent infection.)

Cecilia and Martin sell the bulk of the vineyard's grapes to local wineries. But they vinify their premium Bonarda for use in the lodge. “It's an Italian grape with a very nice color, very fruity yet light,” Cecilia said. “The wineries were fighting for us to sell them this grape which led us to believe they must be something special.”

Two thousand bottles of Bonarda along with wines from all over Mendoza are stored in small recesses behind steel cage-like doors around a tasting room in the cava or cellar. We had one with a lunch at the Lodge that began with humita,  an Argentinian dish with onions, peppers, and mashed corn wrapped in a corn husk,  slightly spicy gazpacho made with bread and olive oil that gave it a creamy texture, prawns from Chile, salad of avocado and watercress in an orange vinaigrette, and a great Argentine steak.


Cecilia and Martin Rigal

“We are not a resort,” Cecilia says. “People come here to relax, but we encourage them to visit other places. We work closely with the Tourist Board, the wineries, restaurants, and other hotels.

“We had the idea,” she adds. “but the idea alone doesn’t take you anywhere. You need and vision and the willingness to work it through.” Today, five years after the idea occurred to them and one year into its operation, Cecilia and Martin Rigal can say they have worked it through.

One could spend weeks driving up and down Los Caminos del Vino, visiting wineries, dining in intimate, out-of-the-way bistros, watching the sun set behind the Andes and the stars separate outside the windows of charming posadas. One could also indulge in the wealth of seasonal adventure-tourism options from skiing to mountain climbing, mountain-bike riding, paragliding, ballooning, rafting, windsurfing, trekking and horseback riding. But ultimately all roads lead back to Mendoza City, the lovely capital neatly laid out in five sections, each with its own plaza equidistant from the others, its luminous canals, built after the earthquake of  1861, which draw water from the Mendoza River some 16 miles south of the city; its verdant parks, especially San Martine with its lakes, golf courses, tennis courts, and playing fields – it’s approached via a rising avenue bordered with brilliant marigolds and looks straight through to a peak of the Andes; the great old plum trees that line the avenues; and the Park Hyatt Hotel.

The 186-room property, with a bi-level casino to its rear whose slot machines and table games keep it hopping day and night, was originally built in 1923. The Plaza Hotel back then, it was the playground of Peron at the end of his heyday.

Although Hyatt redid the entire property at a cost of $65 million, they retained the original façade, and it makes for a first impression of Spanish-colonial grandeur beginning at the white-tiled sidewalk and moving up the red-carpeted stairway to the pillared entrance embellished with wedding-cake decoration. But there the ornamentation ends. Within, the lobby is a gleaming expanse in minimalist mode of soaring granite columns, marble floors, and sleek contemporary furnishings.

It’s an ambience that continues in spacious, deluxe guestrooms and glass and marble bathrooms where amenities are oversized and made with red or white wine, products that one also finds in the Kaua Club. This full service spa is an oasis of tranquility; massages are based on traditional treatments used in Thailand. It opens to a stunning outdoor swimming pool, part of a complex of courtyards and gardened areas in the center of the hotel.

And then there is Bistro M, just off the front entrance where Augustina, the young hostess who is a Mendoza native, delights to be welcoming guests to the storied place she knew as a child and visited only for the most special of occasions. The main restaurant of the Park Hyatt, it has no barrier between the kitchen and dining room. This is South America’s first open kitchen, and it’s all there: the burners, grills, food stations, and a huge wood-burning oven.

Bistro M serves traditional Mendocinean dishes prepared in the French style.

It is an elegant place yet eminently comfortable; the staff is expert yet warm; the food uniformly excellent. Anxious to sample dishes prepared in the wood-burning oven, we had the grilled steak with potatoes, sausages and goat cheese; and the grilled salmon with fennel and asparagus risotto. Both were perfectly prepared and eminently flavorful. With 2,500 regional wines stored in the two-story wine gallery up a spiral staircase, there is no shortage of options. We asked our waiter to recommend a Malbec, and appropriately enough, he brought us a terrific Catena Zapata.

The Park Hyatt opened June 14, 2001, just a few months before the crisis. “We were able to ride the wave of crisis time and today are lucky enough to be the leading hotel in town,” said Carl Emberson articulating yet again the example of the remarkable process  that we saw over and over in Argentina of finding the means to overcome by looking within. “We are the hotel the people of Mendoza have come to love and make part of their own. It’s their place for weddings and social events.”

It’s also the center for the tourist mecca the larger province has become since Mendoza wine has made it to the big time. It’s the place to start and end a wine-centered journey – and the staff will prepare such a journey, be it local or far flung -- or just to enjoy on its own. The food and wine are superb, there is weekend entertainment – jazz, tango, Brazilian music, the facilities and accommodations are luxurious.

“But I don’t think it’s about the shower or the bed,” Carl told us. “Such things are obviously very important. But it’s more about our people. You’ll draw your own conclusions by the time you leave.”

He continued, “Captain Cook originally described Fiji as ‘a friendly island.’ I try to transmit that friendliness and way of being to the people who work here. I want them to relax, make decisions by themselves, to be out to help people have a good time.”

Which is exactly what one encounters at the Park Hyatt Mendoza, be it in the restaurant, spa, lobby, hallways, one’s own room. Everywhere there is the smile, the welcome, the swift attention.

“We were voted the third best business hotel by ‘Travel and Leisure,’” Carl said.  “It’s pretty good recognition; there are a lot of good hotels out there. We have a beautiful hotel, it’s true. But it’s the people that make the difference.”

True. And no where is this precept more obvious than in the person of Carl Emberson himself. Always there, genial, with the knack of being able to put people at ease, at the ready to assist and direct, and at the same time, to sit down and have a drink and nice chat. An example from the top that sheds light on the entire experience of Mendoza’s Park Hyatt.

Park Hyatt Mendoza, Hotel, Casino and Spa
Chile 1124
M5500EOJ
Mendoza, Argentina

Phone: 54 261 441-1234
Web:  http://www.Mendoza.park.hyatt.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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