Interview: Miguel Sanz, Driving Mendoza Wine Tours

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All you have to do is spend a few minutes on the Argentina forums of FlyerTalk or TripAdvisor before you see all the kudos for Miguel Sanz, a driver and personal tour guide for visitors to Mendoza. To call Miguel a “driver” hardly does his role justice. He’s more like a concierge or chaperone. He can make appointments with the wineries, arrange a memorable lunch, and make just about anything happen. Since practically everyone’s heard about Miguel, we thought it would be interesting for people to get to know him better.

 

Where is your hometown? Tell me about it.
I live about 15′ from downtown in a great city called La Heras. My house is in a calm residential area, where the kids are still playing outside without a problem.

 

How long have you lived in Mendoza?
I was born in Mendoza City and grew up there until I was 22 years old; then I moved to Canada for a period of 7 years. Than I came back to Mendoza for the holidays and decided to stay.

 

You have quite the fan base on TripAdvisor. Why do you think you’ve become so popular with Americans?
I guess because I understand the needs of the visitors and probably because I had great training working in the Park Hyatt and Cavas Wine Lodge hotel the first three years as a driver.

 

You worked in the wine business before you began Driving Mendoza, correct? Where did you work, and what did you do?
I have a degree in Export Marketing and Logistics and I did work in the wine industry. I worked for Familia Zuccardi as a Logistics Manager and also for Wines of Argentina too.

 

How did you get started driving visitors?
In February 2007 I had a full month off. My brother was a driver of a tourist agency and the owner needed to replace a couple drivers so they offered me to work for him 15 days. In those 15 days I drove many people and three of them wrote the manager of Park Hyatt a letter about my great service and knowledge, so the manager call my brother’s boss and asked him to do what ever it took to keep me in the hotel. That’s how I started.

 

How many days is a good visit to Mendoza, that gives people enough time to get to know the wineries and the region?
Well, there are three different regions to visit in Mendoza, so I would say at least three days.

 

Some people think renting their own car is a good idea. What do you think of that?
First of all, the rentals agencies don’t have automatic transmissions. So if you don’t know how to drive manual transmission, that is the first reason. We have zero tolerance in drinking and driving. And besides that, there are no good signs. GPS can help a little, but if the one you get isn’t updated to the very latest version, you’re still getting lost.

 

What are some of the less-discovered wineries that you think visitors should take more time get to know?
Well if I tell you all my secrets, my competitors will start to copy me.
Okay, I’ll give you some: Altocedro, D’Angeles 1928, Sin Fin.

 

What if one of the member of a group is not a wine drinker? What other places and activities in the region do you enjoy taking visitors to?
There’s many options, mountain trips all the way to the Aconcagua Park, outdoor activities like horseback riding, rafting, zip lining, trekking, 4-wheel drive tours on a road through the mountains, shopping tours. Night tours, etc. You ask and I provide.

 

What is the biggest mistake foreign tourists make when traveling to Mendoza?
Try to arrange the winery appointment by themselves. It’s not impossible, but sometimes they make appointments each hour to try to get most of their day and they forget that some wineries are 30km apart and hidden.

 

What’s your favorite story of something that has happened when you were leading a tour?
I was in La Azul restaurant and this guy told me that he was going to propose to his girlfriend. He did it with the surprise that I told everybody in the restaurant and we filmed all the proposal.

 

What are some differences to consider when you are choosing a driver or tour company in Argentina?
First, my tour is totally private and if you decide to come back after lunch to the hotel you can do it. You can choose your wineries, or at least share the names of the wineries that you like to visit. Sometimes it isn’t possible because availability from them, but normally, we work it out. On a group tour you have fixed tours and you don’t know what kind of people you will sharing the tour with.

 

How has the wine industry in Mendoza changed since you began giving tours?
A lot, because many wineries are open for tourists, so now we have more than 150 wineries to visit.

 

What do you see as the biggest change that will come in the next five years?
Well Argentina is just beginning. New investors will come and now with the new government that just started, I think this type of service will grow.

 

You can learn more about Miguel on Trip Advisor or request his services at DrivingMendozaWineTours.com. You can also email Miguel directly here.

 

Amalaya Gran Corte 2012

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4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)
Amalaya Gran Corte 2012

Most of the time in this space we talk about wines from Mendoza, but some of the most exciting wines in Argentina are being grown in other areas.

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The desert region of Salta, in the The Calchaqui Valley, is home to several properties from the well known Hess Estate, which has properties in California and around the world.
In Argentina both their wineries, Colomé and Amalaya, are located in Salta.
You’ve seen us talk about Colomé Estate before, and it remains one of our very favorite malbecs in the $25 range. This region is home to some of the highest vineyards, anywhere in the world. Grown at more than 5,200 feet, Amalaya is a celebration of this desert micro-climate. It’s less expensive than Colomé Estate from the same owners, but a delicious celebration of the same region.
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Amalaya Red Blend
Amalaya is widely distributed in the U.S. – in fact, it’s one of the most common mid-priced wines in better liquor stores. More than likely, you’ve seen their red blend in the blue bottle for around $15, and they also make a very good for the price Torrontés.
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Amalaya Torrontés
On this rare occasion we got to enjoy a different bottle we got as a gift – a wine that is typically available only available in South America, the Amalaya Gran Corte. (You can find it at a few select U.S. merchants on Wine-Searcher.) The Amalaya Gran Corte is a red blend of Malbec, Tannat and Cabernet Franc, grown at about 5,400 feet.
On first opening, I got just a hint of a barnyard scent, but after five minutes this wine began to come alive. An aerator or decanter would be a nice idea for this one. If I could get it at my local store, it would definitely be in my regular rotation. There’s a nice combination of fruit, spice, and minerality – it’s not an oak bomb like some lower-priced Argentine reds… there’s an elegance and subtlety going on here that is to be appreciated, especially in the $20 range.
You know, I was originally going to give this wine 3.5 stars – but then I tasted it on the second night. How often can you say a bottle of wine tastes better on the second night than the first night you opened it? Tonight, it’s 4 stars.

Buyer’s Tip: Weekend mixed case sale at Ansley Park Kroger, Atlanta, GA

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One of the nice benefits of the grocery wars in the Southeastern U.S.: a few stores are using huge, impressive selections of great wine as a point of differentiation.

One great example is the Ansley Park Kroger in Atlanta, Georgia, which is having a 10% off mixed-cases sale this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The Ansley Kroger arguably offers the most impressive selection of $20-40 bottles in the city, as well as some great bargain buys, so this is a great opportunity to try some things – assemble a case and enjoy a mix of malbecs you haven’t tried in different price ranges.

If you live in Georgia, this is a sale I wouldn’t miss.

Miravida Soho – A Boutique Hotel for Wine Lovers

If you look at the hotel reviews for Buenos Aires on Trip Advisor, the #1 hotel is the stunning 5-star Alvear Palace, which runs about $400 a night.

Guess what #2 is? An innocuous 6-room hotel in the fashionable Palermo Soho neighborhood, with rooms in the mid $100s.

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Having stayed there twice, I’m here to tell you: Miravida Soho is the real deal. The location is perfect. The rooms are comfortable. And the staff – maybe the best of any boutique hotel I’ve ever stayed in, worldwide. They simply can’t do enough for you.

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When I had difficulties changing a LAN Airlines flight, the front desk manager Pamela (who also served my delicious breakfasts in the morning) spent 1 HOUR on the phone with LAN, helping me get through all the Spanish language menus to make the change. We’re talking 6-star service. They were more than happy to let me store a piece of wine luggage while I spent five nights in Mendoza.

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The back courtyard, where breakfast is served on sunny mornings, is elegant and quiet.

And because the hotel has its own wine bar, the evening dynamic is much friendlier than at more soulless hotels. They’ll happily pour you a glass of first-rate vino at the end of your evening – whether that’s 10 PM or 4 am.

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And it’s wine you’d actually want to drink – from Tacuil, the highest vineyard in the world, to Bramare from Vina Cobos. It’s rare to find good wines by the glass in a hotel setting in B.A – especially at reasonable prices.

In a city with occasional security concerns like Buenos Aires, there’s much to be said for enjoying a nightcap in the safety of your very secure hotel, with fellow travelers who are eager to share stories and tips. And the hotel employees are right there in the conversation, just like your favorite bartender. I enjoyed every evening at the wine bar.

Miravida Soho’s staff quickly become newfound friends. The hotel has recently undergone a change in ownership, but the entire staff remains the same. Ale, Taunya,  Pamela, Felipe, Gabriel, Omar and Roberto – I loved them all, and look forward to returning next trip.

Patience is a virtue, yes?

Patience is a virtue, yes? Rearranging our wine coolers this morning. Here are a few favorite bottles we’ve put away for aging, all 2004-2009 vintages. Need to go back and look at Robert Parker reviews to check the recommended years for enjoying these, but in most cases they should benefit from more time in the bottle.

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What a week!

Thanks to The Vines of Mendoza, Bodega O. Fournier, Park Hyatt, Grupo Clos de los Siete, Lares de Chacras, Bodega El Enemigo, Vina Cobos, Luca Wines, Mendel Wines, Bodega La Azul – Tupungato – Valle De Uco – Mendoza, Bodega Altocedro · La Consulta Mendoza Argentina, and Miravida Soho Hotel & Wine Bar, Buenos Aires for giving their time, their hospitality and their expertise. 

In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing our trip in much greater detail, with photos, video and more. Here are just a few highlights from our trip.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

Alfa Crux – Getting reacquainted with an old friend.

4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Alfa Crux Malbec

4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)

Alfa Crux Blend

4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)

Beta Crux Blend

Alfa Crux was one of the first wines I fell love with in restaurants visiting Buenos Aires. An unapologetically big, bold, New World red, it was always located near the top of wine lists, and once we tasted it we were hooked.

An even bigger treat was visiting the winery, O. Fournier, on my first trip to Mendoza. It is a stunning, futuristic, gravity-driven winery that has you half thinking the Martians have landed alongside the Andes. It is as beautiful and iconic as the wine itself.


Located inside the winery is the restaurant Urban, helmed by Ortega Gil-Fournier’s wife Nadia. Hoping to eat there on this trip, because I loved her other restaurant, Nadia O.F., when it was located in Chacras de Coria.

Last week I had old friends over to my loft, and as usual, had been extolling the virtues of high-end Argentine wine. I thought of the perfect bottle to pull out.

An old friend, for old friends.


As usual, they were blown away.

Alfa Crux is available in a 100% Malbec and a red blend. Both are stunning. In fact, in a side-by-side tasting at Nadia O.F., I was hard pressed to pick a favorite.

Further down the price chain is their second tier red blend, Beta Crux, which is also delicious for its price point. Expect to pay just over $40 for Alfa Crux in the States, and keep an eye out for Beta Crux in stores like Costco for under $20 from time to time.


 

 

Superb $18 deal on Colomé Estate Malbec

 

4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)

Colomé Estate Malbec 2010

The best bottle of South American wine you can usually pick up at Whole Foods Market is Colomé Estate Malbec. Owned by the Hess family and sourced from a desert vineyard in Salta, it’s one of my absolute favorites. There’s an elegance to this wine that belies its mid-$20s price.

However, the Whole Foods price of $28 is a terrible value. It’s why I tell people only to buy it during the store’s 20% off sale, when it drops to around $23.

But if you live in a US state that can receive mail-order wine, Ultimate Wine Shop is offering a much better deal. $17.99! With free shipping if you order 4 bottles.

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As a reminder, I don’t sell wine, and I don’t get any kind of financial incentive from the wines I recommend. I figure if I turn you on to great wines at great prices, the karma will come back to me eventually. A world where people are buying less Cigar Box and Diseno is a world I want to live in. If you like what I’m doing, maybe you’ll buy me a bottle sometime.

Can we just talk about Catena for a minute?

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4.0 Stars (4.0 / 5)

Catena Malbec 2012

I mean, regular Catena. Not Catena Alta or Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino or Angelica Zapata or Nicolas Catena Zapata or the other more exotic wines I tend to wax poetically about.

Good old Catena Malbec. The one that is probably on your supermarket shelf for $22. (Unless you’re at Whole Foods Market where it will be a silly $26). The same Catena that you can get for $17 at Costco if you remember to pick some up.

The story has already been far better told by others of how Nicolas Catena transformed Argentine winemaking, so I won’t repeat that here.

I feel like my job on this blog is to make you look beyond the obvious choices. But seriously, if you find this for under $20, Catena Malbec IS the obvious choice. I just opened a bottle, at the proper temperature, used an aerator, and holy crap, this stuff is good. Not just acceptable, but delicious.

I’ve read columns from Luis Gutierrez and other wine experts who say Catena continues to make their whole line better and better. And tonight’s bottle reminds me this is true.

Yes, they have an empire. Yes, they even collaborate with Gallo on a high-distribution wine now. Yes, they have alliances with Rothschild and others. But you have to give credit to a company that despite growth, hasn’t taken their eye off the ball.

To me, Houston’s (maybe Hillstone in your city) is the most reliable, high-quality restaurant chain you can walk into. Everything is going to be good, every time, whether you’re in Atlanta, New York, Boston, or Santa Monica. You just know it’s going to be delicious. And that confidence, adds value. Well, Catena just might be the Houston’s of wine makers. And that is a compliment in my book.