THE WINE I AM DRINKING IS FROM: Argentina— specifically, Mendoza, Argentina. It is called Lo Tengo (which translates as “I get it”), and on the label there’s a photo of a couple doing the tango. As far as I can tell, the connection between the name Lo Tengo and the dance is merely homophonic, a bold pun when you consider that the rest of the label is specifically for English speakers. This label is also a hologram, and the dancing couple moves back and forth when you rotate the bottle. It is made from the Torrontés grape, which, as Karen MacNeil puts it in The Wine Bible, is “a grape that the Argentineans feel chauvinistically proud of since it grows almost no place else in the world.”
Argentina is the fifth-largest wine-producing region in the world. I am not positive, but if I had to guess I would say that the top four are France, Italy, Australia, and the U.S. Let me check if I am right.
I was not right.
It goes like this: France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S. Australia comes in at No. 7, behind—get this— China. And they’re not even sneaking in on some crazy plum or rice wine. Full-on grape wine. Crazy.
HAT BEING SAID: you have probably consumed more Australian wine than you have Argentinean wine. You have, in fact, probably consumed more Yellow Tail, Yellow Duck, Kangaroo Lake, whatever all those Australian wines are called, than you have all other wine combined.
AND YET: there is more Argentinean wine in the world than there is Australian. So, what is the deal?
THE DEAL IS TWOFOLD AND IT IS THIS: Argentineans, up until about 10 years ago, consumed a ridiculous amount of the wine they produced. Let me give you a statistic: the average American consumes one to two gallons of wine per year, about five to ten bottles. Now, obviously, this is an average, because I consume probably a gallon every two weeks. But it shows how we, as a nation, consume wine. One to two gallons consumed per person per year.
Argentina? At its peak, Argentina clocked in at 26 gallons per person per year. About 131 bottles per year, or about two and a half bottles per week. And that’s just an average, so you know there’s some dude down there who’s really packing it in.
WHICH IS TO SAY: the Argentineans are my friggin’ people.
I AM DRINKING THIS WINE WHILE AT: the Rendezvous, a newly opened bar with food in the town where I live with Wine-Allergic Girlfriend. I arrived late and joined my friends at a large three-sided booth, where they were well into the part of the conversation where laughter is more or less indiscriminate. I ordered the Lo Tengo from the bar. It came in what looks to be a juice glass.
Our friend Fafnir is telling a story about her work. I will not get into this story here, but it involves a co-worker whose work is compromised by his near-constant crying, and by the recent dental surgery that gave him access to weapons-grade painkillers.
“Did he get his tonsils out?” former housemate extraordinaire Casey asks—which, though I’m not sure how now, seemed like a reasonable question at the time.
He did not get his tonsils out.
“Does anyone still get their tonsils out?” I ask. “I don’t know if I know anyone who has had their tonsils out.”
“Getting my tonsils out was one of those things, like braces, that for some reason I really wanted as a kid,” Casey continues. “But I couldn’t have them.”
There are two things of interest here: (1) the funny desire that some kids have for medical procedures, and (2) Casey has an extremely funny list of stuff she wasn’t allowed to have as a kid. Like most kids’ parents, Casey’s parents wanted to keep her healthy and safe. But, in addition to the normal “no drugs/no sex” rules, keeping Casey healthy and safe also meant keeping her away from these things: Keds, eyeglasses, stirrup pants, acid-wash jeans, and perms.
The manager on duty, another friend, swings by, asking if we need anything else. I order another glass of the Lo Tengo. “Did you ever, like, get a perm in secret?” I ask Casey. “Or, like, get an illicit tonsillectomy?”
Casey pauses as if she is actually trying to remember whether she had her tonsils taken out in secret and then tried to cover it up from her parents. “No,” she eventually decides, “but I did have some stirrup pants.”
The table loves this.
“Do you think your parents ever knew about the stirrup pants?” I ask in between laughs.
Casey pauses again, takes a sip of her wine, the house red.
“I don’t think they ever did know about the stirrup pants,” she says. “What a weird secret to keep from my parents! I wonder, if I told my mom now, if she would be totally upset with me.”
“You should tell her!” I say. “That would be hilarious—like, to her, stirrup pants are essentially as bad as drugs and perms, and so it would be like going to her now and saying, ‘Mom, I gotta come clean—for three years growing up I had a vicious angel-dust habit. And I had my tonsils removed when I was 8, Mom! Your repressive regime cannot hold me back any longer! I’m going to buy Keds!’”
WHICH BRINGS ME TO THIS REFLECTION: There are the secrets we keep from everyone—our big secrets. Then there is the weird genre of secrets that we keep only from our parents, holdover secrets from childhood that we have no trouble telling anyone else but that we still, to this day, have not told our parents. Secrets about stirrup pants, for instance, or, as in my case, pornography.
THE INTERESTING THING ABOUT ARGENTINIAN WINE PRODUCTION, AT LEAST AS FAR AS I AM CONCERNED, IS THIS: Argentinean wine is in a transition from being a very regional product to a very worldwide one. This is the second part of why you have not had much Argentinean wine. The country has only recently made the change from producing wine for its own consumption to producing wine for a worldwide market. The change occurred relatively recently, and though I will not get into the absolutely crazy political and social history of Argentina, suffice it to say that Argentina’s shit was fucked up in a postcolonial way, and the country swung between very conservative and very radical regimes, with a strong theme of American-sponsored military dictatorship throughout. And, because of this, Argentinean economic policy moved from export heavy, in the early part of the century, to extremely, dramatically repressive and protectionist (e.g., most Argentinean wine being consumed by Argentineans), to reaching a relative stability in the ‘90s and really needing to open itself up and look for outside capital and markets. And what is one of the country’s main industries? Oh, yes: wine.
SO THE QUESTION IS: How does wine production change when you stop keeping all the wine to yourself and you start sharing it with others? Or, more to the point, when you move from a repressive regime to a more open one, how do you start sharing with others?
WELL, AS YOU PROBABLY GUESSED: you follow the example of Chile, which, as Ms. MacNeil explains it in_ The Wine Bible_, had “virtually reinvented its wine industry by improving the quality of its wines, recrafting some of them to fit international tastes, pricing those wines higher, and then exporting them, especially to the United States and Great Britain.”
To understand what Ms. MacNeil means by “international tastes,” I share with you what some guy manning a Spanish-wine table at the Boston Wine Expo told me:
“The international style is dominated by the American palate, and the American palate is raised on soda.”
SODA, IT SHOULD BE SAID: is also something that former housemate extraordinaire Casey was not allowed to have.
ND NOW, A SECRET THAT I HAVE NEVER TOLD MY PARENTS BUT WHICH I TOLD MY FRIENDS AT THE BAR THAT NIGHT, AND WHICH INVOLVES THE STEALING OF PORNOGRAPHY: At 13, maybe a little younger, I developed a strong desire to look at naked female bodies. This was to be expected. Because I was 13, however, and because this was before the Internet, I had no access to naked female bodies, real or otherwise. There had once been a divine Playboy in the woods behind my house that my friends and I found (why is there always a Playboy in the woods?); and my friend Matt Kafka (his real last name, no joke) had come home from a family trip to Europe with some racy images clipped from German newspapers. But these merely stoked the fire and soon I wanted pornography of my own.
I developed a strategy. I did not have an older brother, and I didn’t live in a place where an adult shop would have been OK with a 13-year-old patron, and so I worked out a way to look at pornography in the only place I had ever seen it: the magazine racks at bookstores and gas stations.
Here is what I would do: take an innocuous magazine from the middle of the rack— Boating Monthly or something—look, make sure I was alone, or at least alone enough, and then stretch, placing Boating Monthly on the top rack, in front of an adult magazine, and, after looking to make sure I was still alone enough, take both magazines down, sliding the adult magazine inside the innocuous one at the last second. Now I could flip through the adult magazine to my heart’s content while anyone who strolled by would simply think, “Oh, there’s that nice kid who really likes boats.”
NOW: because I had gotten away with this little maneuver many times, I developed a dangerous cockiness. Soon, just looking at the magazines wasn’t enough and I started ripping pages from them, quickly stuffing whatever I’d ripped into my pocket and running to the bathroom to review my prize.
I built up quite a collection of folded and ripped pictures.
BUT, OF COURSE, THEN THIS HAPPENED: I was in Denver, visiting cousins. We went one day down to the Tattered Cover, a huge, incredible bookstore that I will never set foot in again. We entered; I went straight for the magazine aisle.
EVERTHING WAS GOING SMOOTHLY: an entertainment magazine on the outside, Penthouse on the inside. I found what I wanted and ripped. I put the two magazines down on the rack, was ready to walk away, when behind me, a man’s voice: “You’re going to pay for that, right?”
I froze, hoping, assuming he would just go away. I knew that if I took the entertainment magazine away I would expose the Penthouse inside it; but if I took both up to the counter, getting away from that guy, then the clerk would find the adult magazine. My only choice was to freeze, play dead, become invisible.
“I see,” the man said. I still hadn’t seen him. “Come with me.” He grabbed both magazines and led me across the ground floor to an elevator. As we crossed the room, cousins leapt out of every aisle. “Hey, Matt? Where you going?” “Where you going, Matt?”
“Uh …” I kept walking, speaking back over my shoulder: “Uh … he’s going to go check on a book for me.”
Into the elevator. Out on the top floor. This cannot be right, but my memory presents me with this picture of the top floor: a Nazi maze of cinder-block walls and cardboard boxes, single light bulbs spaced out so that the hallway was a series of spotlights. People marching.
He took me to a room where another person waited. I am sure they were younger than I am now, but of course, to me at the time, they had more than enough authority. “What do you have in your pocket?” the one waiting for us asked. I emptied my pocket, placing the folded glossy magazine page onto his desk. “You know that if you had walked out of this building, we would have had to call the cops? Technically, since you didn’t leave the store, we don’t have to call them. But we have to do something.” All I could think of, all I could say was: “Just don’t call my parents. I’ll do anything; I’ll give you $20. Please, just don’t call my parents.” I had $20 in my pocket, given to me by my parents.
There was silence. The two young men looked at each other. “We’re not going to call your parents. But you do have to pay for the magazine.”
“I’ll pay anything, I’ll pay $20 …”
“You don’t have to pay $20, just the price of the magazine.”
The man who had caught me took me back down to the ground floor and led me to the front desk. “This young man would like to pay for a $5.95 magazine,” he told the clerk.
“OK, no problem,” she replied, smooth, as if she charged people for invisible magazines all the time.
My cousins gathered around me after I left the register. “What happened? Where did you go?”
“I accidentally ripped a page out of this entertainment magazine I was looking at,” I told them. “And these bastards made me pay for it.”
A FEW YEARS LATER: my cousin Lindsey said this to me as we were driving around in Denver: “My brother told me that when we were at the Tattered Cover you had actually tried to steal a page from a Penthouse and that’s why they took you upstairs.”
“What?!” I replied, totally, utterly horrified, feeling just like I did when the guy behind me asked if I was going to pay for the magazine. “That’s not true at all. And if it is true, then I must have blocked it out because it was so traumatic.”
TO THIS DAY: I have never come clean with Lindsey. But right after I told my friends at the bar that night, I very suddenly wanted to call her and do just that.
AND SO: one of the changes that happens when you move from a repressive regime to a more open one in which you are strapped for cash is this: your wine industry modernizes and it modernizes fast, in order to please a palate other than your own, a disembodied international taste. And so two different things happen: you get rid of the stuff the wider world doesn’t want and you introduce the things that it does want. In the case of wine, this would mean getting rid of the Criolla grape (yeah, I’d never heard of that one, either) and introducing new oak barrels and planting incredible amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon.
AND YET: this does not mean you are completely taken over by the tastes of those around you. Oh no! There are personal triumphs sometimes, and this is the case with the Torrontés grape, the grape that makes up the wine I am now drinking at my neighborhood bar, a grape that grows essentially nowhere else, that is purely Argentina’s. You take that unique thing you have, the thing you’ve kept to yourself for so long, and you introduce it to the world, and even though they’ve never seen it before, even though you’ve been the only consumer of it for years and years and years, the world likes it, and it asks for more.