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Planning the Tasting
The main reason we decided to visit Mendoza was for the wine. We wanted a full day of tasting and we didn’t want to end up at the big producers – we wanted to see smaller operations. Two months before our trip, I started reaching out to various wine tour operators and was very disappointed. Of the six groups, only one ever responded to my several emails. I found these tour guides through general internet searches and through TripAdvisor. The one who did respond offered us a tour option that wasn’t a good fit. Their suggested tour included a large 45+ person tour bus. We wanted a more curated experience.
I then reached out to the Park Hyatt Mendoza for guidance. Within the hour I had received a quick questionnaire to help tailor my experience. The following day I had received a proper quote for a private tour including driver/guide and vehicle. The tastings and meals were separate and would be paid at each stop.
The price for this experience was AR5270 or 137USD. Considering the alternatives, this was a really great option. A much better fit than the massive tour bus option.
The day of the tour arrived and we met our guide in the lobby of the Park Hyatt. Our guide was a retired energy consultant who spent most of his career acting as a mining consultant in Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. He was a round and jovial man, who laughed with nearly every sentence he spoke. He was welcoming and very knowledgeable about the region, its history and the people. Like many people we interacted with in Argentina, their dislike of Bolivians wasn’t hidden. I was taken aback by the near immediate and frequent racist comments about Bolivians. It was awful.
As we left Mendoza, our guide told us of the history of the region, including the original Spanish settlers and the more recent Italian and German immigrants. Our first stop was a gas station about 20 minutes outside of town – we needed to get water, lots of water for the day. Because of the altitude, the temperature and the relative dryness of the area, we were quite parched. Plus an entire day of drinking wine wouldn’t help us in that regard.
We continued on to our first destination in the Uco Valley. We chose Uco as we really wanted to step outside of the city and being only an hour away, it wouldn’t eat up a large portion of our day just getting there.
La Azul – Tasting
Our first stop was La Azul. A small family producer that greeted us very warmly upon our arrival. This wasn’t a tiny producer – there were several other tasting tourists there. We sat down with a group of Americans, who were also staying at the Park Hyatt Mendoza. It is such a small world. The guy who sat in front of my on the flight from Buenos Aires to Mendoza was part of this group. He was much nicer today, when he wasn’t slamming his seat into my knees.
We worked our way through a couple of tasting with a member of the winemaker’s family. She was a bit robotic and on autopilot, but she was able to provide us some fun details on the wine, the vineyard and production.
After tasting a few bottles we moved on to their production facility where we were able to do a barrel tasting. This was definitely more for show and offered no real substance, but it was fun nonetheless.
We enjoyed the wine at La Azul and picked up a few bottles to take home.
Gimenez Riili – Tasting and Lunch
Our next stop was Gimenez Riili. It took us about 40 minutes to travel between the vineyards. Again, like at La Azul we were greeted very warmly – like old friends. Perhaps it’s because our guide did indeed know everyone we were meeting with. By extension we were family. As with any proper family visit, you should be greeted with some sparkling wine, right?
The views at Gimenez Riili were utterly spectacular. The Andes Mountains looming like giants in the distance. Purple mountains majesty never felt so real than in this moment.
Our tasting was also our lunch for the day. We dine alfresco at small tables under trees in the vineyard. This meal reminded me so much of our time at IPNC. Honestly, even the Argentine weather in November reminded me much of Oregon in July. The sun baking down on our skin, dry, but not drying. It was one of those battery recharging moments for me.
The meal was spectacular. Not surprising, but it was a very meat centric meal. Our slow and casual lunch was filled with beautiful wines, stellar views and such warm and welcoming service. The food was no slouch either. We ate and ate.
The one complaint I do have was the timing. I do love a slow and casual meal, but this was a bit extreme. The service fell off a bit and at one point our dessert was delivered before our entrée. We had another vineyard to visit before the day ended and the slowdown here was starting to impact our plans. A quick reminder of timing and plating helped get us back on track. Honestly, I could have stayed here all day, eating, drinking, relaxing, but not if we’ve got another vineyard to visit. Chop Chop.
Corazon del Sol – Tasting and Tango
We picked up a couple of bottles at Gimenez Riili as well and quickly headed off to our final stop of the day. As we arrived at Corazon del Sol, the sun was hovering over the Andes and providing such a warm embrace, I couldn’t have been happier. We sat outside and listened to a local tango group. Tango. Spanish Guitar. Flamenco. I loved it. As we lounged outside we were given some rosé. This part of the tasting was purely entertainment. We were given no guidance on the wine. We were to site back, bask in the glory of the Andes and let the music flow. It was so relaxing.
After the concert we made our way into the tasting room. Our friends from the flight, and the first winery ended their tour at the same winery as we did. We ended up chatting with them a bit more during the proper tasting. There wasn’t much of a program at Corazon del Sol. It seemed more like a mad rush for them to pour wine and make sales. We didn’t end up buying anything at this stop. There were a couple of items that we really did want to buy, but nothing was available at that time. The next vintage would be released soon and we could order and have it shipped home. We opted not to do that.
End of Day
We hopped back into our guide’s Jeep and made our way back to the Park Hyatt. Our tour of the Uco Valley took about 7-8 hours and was absolutely worth every penny we spent. Not only was the landscape breathtaking, the wine stellar and the winemakers so welcoming, the weather was perfect. Closing out November in the southern hemisphere allows us to kick winter down the road a little bit.
While the initial planning of this day was quite frustrating – I guess these tour companies have so much business they can turn down customers – I’m so pleased with the help that the Park Hyatt gave us. Our guide – despite his blatant racism – was a generous and welcoming host. The price was perfect for what we received – we would have HATED to been on a tour bus with 40 other people, making our way through the factory style wine tasting rooms.
Have you visited the Uco Valley before? Which wineries are your favorite? When we return – and we shall – where do you recommend we visit?
Argentina has been on our list to visit for a few years now. We finally decided to pull the trigger and spend our Thanksgiving break exploring three separate cities in Argentina. These adventures were a great break from a hectic work life.
Our goals for this trip were pretty simple – get away from work for a week and explore a new area of the world. Argentina is well known for it’s wine and it’s beef. As with almost all of our trips we built our experiences around food, wine and seeing beautiful spaces. Of course we had to couple these requirements with our need for a relaxing break. It is a vacation after all.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you my thoughts on the various flights, hotels, restaurants and experiences, including:
- Flight Planning
- United Flight IAH – EZE | Economy
- Wait. Wrong Airport?
- LATAM Flight EZE/AEP – MDZ | Economy
- Park Hyatt Mendoza – Standard Room
- Valle Uco Wine Tasting
- Dining in Mendoza
- Austral Frlight MDZ-COR | Economy
- Sheraton Cordoba – Junior Suite
- Dining in Cordoba
- Walking Tours in Cordoba
- Cordoba Airport
- LATAM Flight COR – AEP | Economy
- Park Tower Hotel – Corner Suite
- Buenos Aires Bike Tour
- Dining in Buenos Aires
- The Bird Poop Scam
- Taxis in Buenos Aires
- United Flight EZE – EWR | Economy
- United Flight EWR – ORD | First
Not to spoiler the ending here, but we loved our time in Argentina. Next time we will do somethings a little differently though.
Have you been to Argentina? What was your favorite spot? Did you have to deal with the bird poop scam?
Each year, we travel somewhere for Thanksgiving. We find it a great time to leave the country as no one is traveling for business that week and most Americans are traveling domestically. We’ve traveled to Ireland, Mexico City, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Colorado, and Oregon for Thanksgiving. This year, we are heading south to Argentina. This will be my first visit to the country, while it will be Mike’s second.
So far, we’ve book airfare down to and back from Argentina as well as flights inside the country. We’ve chosen our cities to visit and the hotels in which to stay. We’ll be staying in Cordoba, Mendoza and finally a few days in Buenos Aires. I’ve only made reservations for one meal while we are there too – our final night in Buenos Aires, we are hitting a lovely fine dining restaurant as we celebrate Thanksgiving.
I need your help though. I’m looking for advice from travelers and locals who can tell us great places to eat and wineries to visit. Frequent readers know that I love a good bike tour, so any recommendations on who to ride while while in Argentina, let me know.
What is the one thing you wish you had done while you were in Argentina? What about the one thing you wish you hadn’t done?
We had a single night for dinner in San Francisco, so I immediately turned to the Fifty Best Restaurants list, a list that has never steered us wrong. Saison was rated number 46 on the current listing. Like many fine dining restaurants you buy tickets for a given day and time and those tickets go on sale two months before your desired reservation time. I marked my calendar and had no problem getting reservations.
We did absolutely no further research on the restaurant or the menu before our arrival. I knew that Saison focused on seasonal produce and meats prepared in a contemporary California style. That’s all we knew – we prefer to go in relatively blind.
We arrived at 19h00 and were seated immediately. Our table was a corner two top where we sat right next to each other. It was a tight fit and for several of the courses the table just didn’t have enough real estate. It got even more crowded with the various wine glasses.
Speaking of wine, we chose not to do all of the wine pairings. Honestly, this choice was made solely on price. The wine pairings added another $298 per person, which would have brought our total bill for dinner to nearly $1,200 and while this is a once in a lifetime experience, we’ve had a few once in a lifetime meals already this year and thought we should be more cost conscious. That being said, we asked our server to select a couple glasses of wine for the entire meal, progressing and pairing as the meal went on. We also asked that our wines be different so we could more properly experience the tasting menu.
We had a team of servers helping us and they ran the gamut from Mr. Congeniality to folks on the very far end of the GADS (Asberger’s) scale – so much so that it was painful to talk to them. They didn’t have any details on some of the courses they served, but they tried. When these struggles presented themselves, the server knew quickly that they weren’t prepared (all three times it happened) and one of their colleagues would return and talk more in-depth about the course. At the end we got where we needed to be.
This meal seemed more elaborate than other tasting menus we’ve seen recently. Everything from a make-it-yourself amberjack lettuce wrap to a barbecued half quail. Dining in late June allowed for the early summer seasonal produce to really shine. The fresh peas and summer fruits for dessert were stellar.
Our meal lasted about two and a half hours, but at the end we sat around for another 45 minutes sampling a couple of wines and chatting with some of the servers, who had just recently visited Chicago and spent a week eating – so we talked fine dining to beef stands. It was a great way to end the meal.
While not without room for improvement, the food really stood out at Saison. I wish we had a slightly different table and that our team of servers were a little more well-rounded in their training and delivery. If Saison has been on your list of places to try whilst in San Francisco, you must go. It was quite the experience.
Have you dined at Saison? How was your service team? Which course was your favorite? I loved the Peas, the Antelope and the Orange dessert. So refreshing.
After doing a bit of research on fine dining in Montreal, I decided to give L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon another try. I wasn’t overly impressed with it when I was in Hong Kong, but I had delayed planning a nice dinner until late in the game and I couldn’t find a reservation that would fit into our overall schedule. L’Atelier it is! I didn’t realize, until the day of the reservations, that the restaurant is actually in the Casino, which honestly, if I had known, I likely would have changed my plans. Casino food can be hit or miss and if I wasn’t sold in the excellence of L’Atelier from a previous visit, I was sure the locale wouldn’t make it better. Plus, it was too late to cancel without a forfeiture fee.
I roll into the casino about 5 minutes before my reservation and like all casinos, it was like a maze finding the restaurant. Eventually, after a few escalators, an elevator and a flight of stairs, I arrive. The Maitre d’ greeted me by name as I walked up. The restaurant was booked full and I was a single diner showing up about 10 minutes after my reservation time – process of deduction lead them to me.
The welcome crew was great, no comment about my tardiness. There were a couple of single seats around the counter, of which I had my choice. Selecting a corner seat gave me extra elbow room and only one opportunity to have a talkative neighbor.
The menu was delivered right as I sat down. Before I could even get situated, I was presented a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and was asked if I’d be joining in a pre-dinner glass of champagne. OUI! Madam, OUI!
As I sipped my champagne and perused the menu, I finally got a chance to check out the restaurant. It looked remarkably like the Hong Kong version, bar seating, highboy tables around the perimeter, although this restaurant looked out on the river and was quite bright and sunny, despite the deep red and black lacquer finished.
I had basically decided I’d be doing the tasting menu this evening. The final decision was which menu to try, the Decouvert de Saison or the Experience. I was pushing for the Experience, but I didn’t want the sweetbreads and I couldn’t swap out a course, so it was the Decouvert for me. It wasn’t a big let down, I just really wish I could have had the canard – I love duck.
I decided to do the wine pairings as well – why not, right? So I sat at the bar, alone, enjoying a 10-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and I couldn’t be happier. First up, an amazing bread basket was delivered. I knew I wouldn’t eat all that bread by myself…but I did a damn good job. I just left one of the olive loafs behind. So perfect, so buttery, so not needed based on the amount of food I was eating!
Service was surprisingly smooth and knowledgeable. I kept replaying the dinner in Hong Kong and how disappointing it was. Not at all like that here. The service was well timed – a glass delivered, then the wine poured with about 20-30 seconds of explanation of the grape, the region and why it was chosen to pair with the next course. I’d have about a minute or two to smell, taste and admire the wine before the plate was delivered – again with a 20-30 second explanation of the dish, then I’d be left to enjoy it in peace. Dinner continued like that for about two and a half hours.
By the time the L’Asperge Blanche was delivered (which was SCALDING hot by the way), a couple sat next to me. She was loud and brash. She ordered a double spicy, extra horseradish Bloody Mary. The server confirmed and gave her fair warning that that drink would likely destroy her palate, truly diminishing the tasting menu. She ordered the tasting menu and a second double spicy, extra horseradish Bloody Mary. All before the champagne was served.
Despite my initial frustration with this woman, we ended up having a really great time chatting. Her husband (boyfriend?) was more of the silent, look at his phone type of guy and she was a chatty Kathy. She ended up being quite respectful, when my dish would arrive. She’d turn and lavish attention on her date, who couldn’t care less about her (or so it seemed). Once I finished, she let me savor for a moment, then she’d jump right back into her story, without missing a beat. It made for an enjoyable experience.
Finally the petits fours were delivered. Eric Gonzalez, the head chef, came out and chatted with me for about 15 minutes. We spent a lot of time talking about port (I love a beautiful Portuguese fortified wine) and about proper duck preparation and how he doesn’t really dig the whole duck press service. I loved pressed duck, but many places do it so poorly.
The Departing Conclusion
My early dinner came to an acceptably timely close a little before 22h00, which gave me plenty of time to head back to the hotel, change and meet up with my friends that evening. The L’Atelier in Montreal is head an shoulders better than the one in Hong Kong. I was thoroughly disappointed in so much of the Hong Kong experience and despite the casino location, this team did a phenomenal job. I’d head back and dine here in a heartbeat — but will I dine in Paris, or Shanghai or Taipei or any of the other cities with a Joël Robuchon restaurant? Time will tell.
Have you dined at any of the incarnations of Joël Robuchon’s restaurants? What did you love? How was the service?