Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Can I Log This Dive?

Bubbles In Your Blood = A Bad Scuba Dive
As a scuba diver, you experience an increase in pressure on your body as you descend.  While underwater, your ability to expel the nitrogen that makes up almost 80 percent of the air we breathe is reduced due to the pressure of the water.  Nitrogen is not used by the body so it has to get out of your system.  The deeper you go and the longer you stay means that nitrogen accumulates in the tissues of your body.  Avoid staying too long and/or going too deep and ascend at an appropriately low rate, perhaps stopping for a time at various depths, and the accumulated gas in your tissues slowly comes out of solution and is expelled as you breathe.  Break the rules and the nitrogen comes out of solution as bubbles.  Think about what happens when you open a soda pop bottle.  The bubbles sometimes appear in the joints and a case of the "bends".  Pain ought to be the least of your worries at this point.  Crippling paralysis and death are a very real possibility.  The protocol is to get the afflicted individual on oxygen and hightail it to a hyperbaric chamber.  In a chamber, the patient, often accompanied by health care professionals when the chamber is large enough, is subjected to increased pressure, usually while breathing pure oxygen through a mask.

The higher pressure in a hyperbaric chamber (sometimes called a decompression and occasionally a recompression chamber) makes any bubbles in the patient's tissues get smaller and prompts the gas to go back into solution so that it can be expelled through respiration.  Then the pressure is slowly reduced after the gas has hopefully been expelled.  Hyperbaric treatments have also been shown to be effective against carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation, gas gangrene caused by certain bacteria, radiation tissue damage, thermal burns, non-healing skin grafts, crush injuries, wounds that fail to heal through conventional treatment and serious blood loss.

Taking A Chamber Ride For Fun
I hope never to have to "take a chamber ride" as we divers call it but it doesn't hurt to learn about the process and to experience it.  So, with all this in mind members of the H2Ogres dive club went to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois recently to see what hyperbaric medicine is all about and to actually take a ride in their chamber.

Dan Mazzolini, director of chamber operations, presented a 40 minute program describing the chamber

H2Ogres head to the chamber
How Deep Is "Deep"?
After hearing a presentation about the chamber and the hospital's hyperbaric medicine program, we walked over to the chamber which is kept near the west side of the hospital but is outside the walls of the hospital since it is a large pressurized vessel.  This is what is called a multi-place chamber with room for 12.  There were 13 of us so we just squeezed a little closer together.  The chamber is designed to be pressurized to a simulated depth of 160 feet but we were advised that most of the time the chamber is used it is pressurized to a depth of 66 feet which is equivalent to 3 atmospheres.

On land at sea level we experience a pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch.  That pressure doubles at approximately a depth of 33 feet of seawater since water is much denser than air.  Take an open gallon jug held with the mouth of the jug pointed down to a depth of 33 feet and you will see the volume of air reduced by about half.  Put the cap on the jug before you descend and you will see the jug crushed to about half its volume when you reach 33 feet.  We were to be pressurized to a depth of 130 feet and were told that demonstration "dives" like these were the highest pressure to which they run the chamber.  The conventional recreational depth limit for scuba divers breathing compressed air is 130 feet.

The chamber is about 6 feet wide and 22 feet long
Chamber interior (photo by my brother Rob)

Chamber control panel (photo by my brother Rob)
Divers Down
Once we had taken off our shoes or put booties over our footwear, we were seated in the chamber.  We were given a list of math problems and many of us had brought things like a beach ball, balloons, styrofoam and tennis balls to see how they might react to the pressure.  The door was sealed and many of us took off outer layers of clothes.  Even though the weather was cool outside, more than a few of us had worn shorts.  Increasing pressure brings a couple of interesting changes in the chamber.  As we descended the chamber technician called out our depth in ten foot increments.  We "cleared" our ears frequently.  This involved yawning or flexing our jaws to allow air to flow up the Eustachian tubes in the back of our mouths to behind our eardrums so that the pressure in the inner ear was equal to the increasing pressure outside our bodies.  One member of our group had some trouble equalizing pressure so the technician paused our descent and actually brought us up a few feet.  That resolved her problem and we were on our way back down.  The temperature moved past 92 degrees in the temperature as we approached maximum depth.

I Get High With A Little Help From My Friends
Dalton's law of partial pressures tells us that the total pressure we are experiencing is the sum of the partial pressures of the various gasses that made up the air we were breathing.  The higher pressure of nitrogen meant that more nitrogen was being dissolved in our blood and tissues.  Nitrogen impairs the conduction of nerve impulses and mimics the effect of alcohol or narcotics.  As we passed 100 feet of simulated depth, most of were feeling the effects of nitrogen narcosis and things got very silly very fast.  The technician held us at 130 feet for 5 minutes or so and reported that things sounded awfully jolly in the chamber.  The situation was magnified by the fact that the higher partial pressure of nitrogen caused our vocal cords to vibrate faster making us all sound like characters from Looney Tunes.

The increased pressure deflated the beach ball substantially before we even reached 30 feet.  Styrofoam cups shrank in size and acquired a wrinkly appearance.  Tennis balls were dimpled at 40 feet or so.  While we were at depth, a few balloons were inflated and as we ascended, they grew in size an popped.  Those of us who tried to do the math problems at this depth also made many more mistakes that we might have under normal circumstances.

To The Surface
Finally, it was time to go up and the technician's voice over the intercom called out the depth as we ascended.  The temperature dropped immediately and many of us had brought sweatshirts to put on.  the affects of narcosis went away immediately as we ascended.  The moisture that had accumulated in the heated air condensed and a light fog was visible as you looked down the length of the chamber.  Since we did not spend enough time under higher pressures to put much nitrogen into our tissues, we did not have to do any "stops" along the way as we ascended.

Groups and individuals can book this hyperbaric chamber experience for themselves by calling the hospital.  We paid $20 each for the experience and it was well worth it.  Be advised that this is a popular experience and that many dive groups and others have made reservations so you will probably have to book a year in advance.

As a diver this experience certainly gave me a close look at the chamber and its operation.  I'm glad we have one close by and glad that Divers Alert Network, the diver association to which I belong, supports these chambers and keeps track of them worldwide in support of the dive community.  Finally, I have new respect for the danger posed by nitrogen narcosis for deep dives.  I'll continue to go deep but will watch myself carefully.

Smart Divers Play It Safe
There are any number of steps a diver can take to eliminate or reduce the possibility of an injury:
  • Reduce the chance of an injury to as close to zero as possible by staying well clear of the depth and time limits of scuba diving.
  • Don't dive beyond your experience level or in conditions that might provide too many complicating factors like frigid water, currents or substantial exertion.
  • On deep dives, do a "safety stop" by stopping your ascent for three to five minutes at a depth of between 20 and 15 feet to allow gas in your tissues to dissipate. The dive tables that specify maximum depth and times might not require a safety stop but it is good idea.
  • Maintain physical fitness since research does show that obese individuals are at greater risk for decompression illness and that less fit individuals are at greater risk for decompression illness, have a decreased ability to rescue themselves or their dive buddy and are at an increased risk of panic in stressful situations.
  • If you are on a scuba charter boat make sure they have an oxygen kit on board.
  • If you are diving on your own, have an emergency plan in place by knowing how to summon help and where the nearest decompression chamber might be.
  • Carry insurance against the high cost of treatment.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Wine Roads Of The Andes

In late March 2012 we hopped a flight to South America for a bicycle trip that included parts of Argentina and Chile.  We had made plans to spend a few days in Buenos Aires on our own and then join the trip offered by R.E.I.  We would be going from early Spring in the northern hemisphere to early Autumn in South America.  We looked forward to seeing two of the continent's major cities, Buenos Aires and Santiago, and to miles of riding in the vineyards and countryside, all in the foothills of the incredible Andes mountains.

Buenos Aires
We elected to fly into Buenos Aires, Argentina a couple of days before our tour was due to start and to stay at the Esplendor Buenos Aires hotel, the same hotel in which we were due to stay for the first couple of nights of the tour.  The Esplendor is in the Microcentro section of downtown Buenos Aires.  It is a 5-story building situated at the intersection of two busy streets (San Martin and Avenue Cordoba).  The hotel goes for a sort of modern vibe but doesn't quite pull it off.  The place was a little worn and torn but the location could not be beat.

We opted to be picked up at the airport by a car arranged by the hotel for the 40 minute ride from the airport to the hotel.  I was happy I had picked up a few Argentinian pesos before departing the U.S. for minor expenses like tipping the driver.  While I never tried to pay any bill with U.S. dollars while we were in South America, I had the impression that most places would not have accepted them.  We arrived early in the morning after our eight hour flight from Miami.  Argentina charges a $140 "reciprocity" fee to enter the country.  The fee is good for ten years and is collected at customs via a charge to your credit or debit card or in U.S. dollars or Argentinian pesos.  Travel hint: When paying in U.S. dollars, bring clean, newer currency.  Each bill we presented was carefully looked at and a couple of 20's were returned to us due to tears or stray marks on the bills.  We stowed our luggage at the hotel and struck out on our first walk through the city.

Argentina in general and Buenos Aires in particular have been more heavily influenced by Europe over the past few centuries than have other South American countries.  The city is the nation's capital and its largest city and primary port.  It is situated on the western bank of the Rio de la Plata river, 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the Atlantic.  European influence, especially French, is apparent in their culture, the faces you see on the street and the architecture.  The city has been called the "Paris of South America" and it does seem that way but this ain't Paris.  The city contains many wide boulevards, including the widest in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio which is 16 lanes wide and is actually made up of a couple of parallel streets.  There are any number of narrower streets with similarly narrow sidewalks in various states of repair.  Porteños ("people of the port"), as the nearly 10 million people of the greater metropolitan area are known, love their dogs as much as do Parisians.  I just wish they cleaned up after them as well.  Graffiti was also featured on a number of buildings.

Still, there were many bright spots.  Few people define Argentina as does Eva ("Evita") Duarte de Perón, especially as she is portrayed in the musical "Evita" (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice).  The Cementerio de la Recoleta is a very popular tourist site and they all flock to the Duarte family vault in the cemetery to see her final resting place.  The cemetery is stuffed to overflowing with the remains of everyone who was anyone in Argentina from presidents to Nobel laureates.  Some of the vaults are lovingly tended while others are in very sad disarray.  The Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar next to the cemetery dates from 1732 and is as beautiful as the cemetery is somber.  There is a lovely park in front of the basilica (below).

In addition to the world's largest collection of Argentine art, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes contains a knockout collection of Flemish, Dutch, French, Italian and European paintings and other art objects.  This museum should be near the top of the list of any art lover visiting South America.  Additionally, the wonderful gardens in the city are worth a visit.

Jardin Japonés (Japanese Garden) is a wonderful walled garden oasis.
Within the Parque Tres de Febrero is the Paseo del Rosedal or rose garden which features more than 12,000 rose plants representing more than 1,000 species

Argentinians eat dinner late.  We found it easier to get into this practice than we expected.  One memorable meal was at Dadá (San Martin 941 in Microcentro, Buenos Aires).  To avoid the crowds we arrived at a few minutes past 7:00 one evening.  The place looks like a pub but the food was supposed to be great.  And it was!  Pam selected the Lomo Dadá, a fillet of Argentinian beef atop a stack of sliced potatoes a la Rosemary.  I had the chicken fricassee and we washed it all down with a bottle of Malbec from Ruca Malen that the waitress suggested.  Why did Ruca Malen sound familiar?  We tried our Spanish but the waitress spoke flawless English.  We asked her if she had spent time in the U.S. and were very surprised to learn she had not.  She got started learning her English, she said, by translating Jon Bon Jovi lyrics!  We paid for our dinner with a credit card which was cheerfully accepted but tips during our trip had to be paid in cash and could not be added to credit card transactions (another good reason to bring a few pesos on the trip).  By 8:30 Dadá was hopping and there wasn't a table to be had.  Go here but go early.

The Tour Begins
After two and a half days on our own, we met our fellow travelers as the tour began in our hotel lobby the evening of March 24th which I will call tour day 1.  There were 12 of us comprised of five couples plus two single women.  Ages ran from early 40's to early 70's and it was immediately apparent that we were going to be a jolly group.  Our guide was Victor, a porteño and married father of three who had been leading tours in Argentina and Chile and the wine regions of these countries for several years.  We hopped into a comfortable van and we were off to dinner.

La Cava de El Querandi is a wine bar and restaurant in San Telmo, the first suburb of Buenos Aires.  The area has become trendy recently and we had a good meal, sampled a few Argentinian wines and got to know one another as Victor started to describe the trip.  Our van had to skirt around a raucous protest as we headed back to our hotel.  The demonstration was not violent and actually seemed more like a party.  For several years now, March 24th has been a national day of remembrance to commemorate the 1976 military coup.  Much of it centers around the Mothers of the Disappeared who still gather to demand justice for the thousands kidnapped and killed by the authorities.

On tour day 2 we gathered at 9:00 a.m. and strolled a short distance through Buenos Aires to one of the parks.  It was Sunday so the downtown area was much quieter than during the workweek.  We met our city guide and jumped on single-speed cruiser type bikes for a ride through the neighborhoods of the city.  We visited a number of the spots we had found on our own before the tour but saw many other parts of the city as well.  After lunch at a local spot, we biked through the Recoleta and Palermo neighborhoods, ending up at the country's memorial to the 1982 war with Britain over the Malvinas Islands which pretty much everyone outside the country calls the Falkland Islands.  That evening we visited a local tango spot.  Argentina identifies heavily with this dance that is said to have been born in the poorer sections of town as a forbidden activity due to its suggestiveness.  Many of us on the tour found the venue to be a little too down at the heels and crowded.  Perhaps a performance of the dance might have been better.

We were blissfully unaware that as we prepared to go to dinner on this evening, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck in the Maule area of Chile, about 175 miles southwest of Santiago.  The trembler set buildings swaying in Santiago and there was some panic but no substantial damage.  On February 27, 2010 a quake measuring a whopping 8.8 struck off the Chilean coast north of Concepcion, a little further south than the one that struck during our visit to South America.  This was the sixth largest earthquake ever measured by a seismograph anywhere and cost more than 525 people their lives.

Flying to Mendoza & Cycling the Central and Uco Valleys
We got up early on day 3 since we had a flight to catch.  We departed from the city airport in Buenos Aires and flew almost two hours to Mendoza, Argentina in the heart of the wine country and in the foothills of the Andes.  We met our van driver Fernando and proceeded to Archaval Ferrer winery.  Since Autumn was just beginning, many of the grapes were in the process of being picked and crushed.  We had a thorough tour of the winery and then sat down in their tasting room for a "vertical" tasting of their Malbec wines made from grapes grown at different altitudes in different Terroirs.

The Malbec grape remains a minor blending grape in the Bordeaux region of France but the Argentines have taken it as their own.  They produce pure varietal Malbecs and blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes.  Control is the name of the game as vintners carefully trim their vines and limit the number of grape bunches to concentrate the flavors of the somewhat small, dark, juicy grapes.  Planting vines on this side of the Andes means that they will not have the benefit of cooling ocean breezes but that vintners can carefully control the amount of water the vines receive through irrigation and letting the intense sunshine thicken the flavorful and colorful skins of the grapes and further concentrate the essence of the fruit.  The vines are carefully trimmed to permit the sun to do its work.  We saw plenty of vineyards where the vines grow thickly until they intertwine and actually form a "roof" that substantially shades the grapes.  These are table grapes and they are very different than the grapes used for wine.

As with any agricultural enterprise, nothing is risk free.  They can largely control the vine's exposure to water through irrigation thanks to the water from the Andes and a fairly dry climate but a rare late season rain could produce watery grapes.  Mostly, though, they live in fear of hailstorms that can damage or even destroy a crop.

We had a late lunch in Tupungato in the Uco Valley and then planned to set out on our first ride in wine country.  R.E.I. provides Zenith mountain bikes and I must say ours were not in top-notch shape.  Combine that with a late start to the ride after lunch followed by a stop to change into biking gear in a gas station bathroom and a few of our fellow travelers were a bit cranky.  We biked 27 miles through the valley past vineyards, orchards and farm fields.  Our guide while on the bikes was a fellow named Santiago, a cheerful guy who, with his limited English, tried to keep track of a dozen independent minded Yankees.  Some thought he biked too slow, others said he biked too fast but the miles flew by.  Autumn had turned some of the thorns on the roadside plants from soft and green to dry and hard and we did have a few flat tires.  Victor and Fernando were following in the vans and any flats were fixed quickly.  Still, the bikes were not up to snuff and something had to be done.

We spent the next two nights at the Uco Valley's Postales del Plata Lodge, a small hotel at the edge of a vineyard.  The chef fixed us a very nice dinner and we collapsed into bed after a long day.

Sunrise over the vineyard at Postales del Plata

Renowned French winemaker Michel Rolland is part of a consortium of investors who created Clos de los Siete.  It is the site of seven different wineries and we cycled there from Postales on day 4.  The day began with the delivery of bikes to our hotel to replace the ones on which we had started the journey.  These bikes were in better condition and resolved many of the concerns we had been expressing about the condition of the equipment.  DiamAndes is the Argentinian operation of a French wine making family.  They have about 320 acres of plantable land in the Clos de los Siete project.  Travel hint: Unlike vineyards and wineries in other parts of the world, the wineries and vineyards in Argentina and Chile require that visitors make reservations in advance.  Your hotel concierge can arrange this.

Clos de los Siete
DiamAndes winery
Some of DiamAndes vats

Aged in French oak barrels which are disposed of after 3 uses

In the tasting room, we gave their 2008 Gran Reserva
(75% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon) high marks

 We started day 5 with a 15 mile ride through the Central Valleys along the back roads.  We saw orchards and even picked some walnuts from roadside trees to sample.

We were getting closer to the Andes
So far, we'd had very good food on this trip but our guide Victor advised us that the best meal was yet to come. We had a lunch reservation at Ruca Malen (translates as "young girl's house"). That's why the wine we'd had at dinner in Buenos Aires sounded so familiar. I'd seen Ruca Malen on our itinerary before we departed and hadn't made the connection. Once we finished our 5-course tasting menu lunch, virtually all of us agreed that it was the best meal of the trip and one of the best meals many of us could remember eating. Each of the first four courses of the meal were paired with a wine in this beautiful restaurant located right in the vineyard:
  • Cold summer vegetable soup perfumed with asahar flower (from the orange tree) and torrontés grapes paired with their Yauquén Torrontés 2011, a white wine that is not aged in oak.
  • Pork sausage (chorizo) served on a slice of grape skins bread, criolla sauce and Argentinean cereal paired with Yauquen Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 which was half Malec and half Cab that are combined, then 30% is aged in oak for six months before the wine is brought back together.  The food was served on a plank of oak that was taken from one of the aging barrels.

  • Beetroot cooked on honey and cinnamon, with seared goat cheese on a spicy arugula infusion paired with Ruca Malen Syrah 2008 which had spent 12 months in oak (80% French, 20% American).
  • Grilled beef tenderloin medallion with potatoes that had been boiled, fried and then baked, baked onions, olives, raisins and Arauco olive oil perfumed with lavender from the winery garden was paired with Ruca Malen Malbec 2010 that had spent 12 months in oak (85% French, 15% American) and Kinien Malbec 2008 aged 18 months in oak (90% French, 10% American) then aged 18 months in the bottle.
  • Seared fruits on a lemon infusion with dry fruits and vanilla ice cream.
No one would describe me as a gourmand but this was a very fine meal.  "Who cooked this?" we wanted to know.  Chef Lucas Bustos appeared and was kind enough to answer our questions for a few minutes.  He's working on a cook book and I have a feeling that he pre-sold at least seven of them with that meal he cooked us.
Chef Lucas Bustos cooked us a great meal
Viticulture was brought to this part of the world with the Spanish in the 16th century.  Nicola Catena planted Malbec grapes in Argentina in 1902 when he emigrated from Italy but it was his grandson Nicolás who became convinced that Argentine wineries could produce wines equal to the best in the world and essentially launched the fine wine revolution in Argentina, if not South America as a whole.
After lunch at Ruca Malen, we traveled to Catena Zapata.  This three-floor winery is in a building reminiscent of a native pyramid.

In front of Catena Zapata

The view from atop the winery was amazing

Some of the more than 3,000 barrels (all French oak) in their barrel room

We tasted their 2009 Alta chardonnay, 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Malbec

Our group in front of Catena Zapata

The Mighty Andes
We continued to ascend the eastern slope of the Andes on day 6 with a drive to Uspallata.  The village resembled the central-Asian highlands enough that director Jean-Jacques Annaud used it as the base in his movie "Seven Years in Tibet" adapted from Heinrich Harrer's memoir and starring Brad Pitt.  We began our biking for the day outside town and after proceeding through town we rode a lonely trek in Uspallata valley toward some pre-Colombian petroglyphs.

Our biking on day 6 started south of Uspallata at just under 6,000 feet

We moved higher outside of Uspallata...

... and biked toward some pre-Colombian petroglyphs

After our 15 mile ride, it was time to continue our driving ascent toward the Chilean border and for what I hoped would be a highlight of the trip: Aconcagua.

Ask people to name the highest peak in North or South America and many will name Alaska's Mt. McKinley (6,194 meters, 20,322 feet).  While McKinley, located in the Alaska, range is indeed the highest peak in North America, Aconcagua (6,959 meters, 22,814 feet) is the highest mountain on either continent.  Oh, you might say, McKinley might be the second highest.  I was surprised to learn it is not even close.  There are 18 additional peaks in the Andes that are higher than McKinley.  This is one stupendous mountain range.

We walked half a mile or so up to a viewing platform for Aconcagua, the peak in the far distance

The south face of Aconcagua.
The peak lies about 15 miles away and almost 13,000 feet higher from this vantage point.

Argentina and Chile share a border that is approximately 3,200 miles long, the third longest border between any two countries in the world.  Except for far southern Patagonia, most of the crossings between these two countries are in the Andes.  There are only a dozen or so major crossings.  We crossed at Paso Internacional Los Libertadores at about 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) above sea level.  The crossing includes a 3,175 meter (10,417 foot) long tunnel at its highest point.  As of this writing, an April 17, 2012 magnitude 6.7 earthquake has partially obstructed Los Libertadores.

Portillo Hotel is about 1 kilometer after the border crossing.  Although the lodge is closed until the ski season starts, we spent the night there in some of their "chalets" on the hotel grounds.  Believe me, "chalet" is not an appropriate descriptor of these accommodations.  The trip materials described them as "rustic" and they struggled to get up to that level, in our opinion.  More than one ski speed record has been set at Portillo and to my eye, the skiing did indeed look like it would be challenging.  We may have been situated at almost 10,000 feet above sea level but we were surrounded by higher peaks.  As we walked back to our "chalet" after dinner that evening, I pointed out the light of the moon peeking from behind a high cloud bank.   After a moment, I realized that the cloud bank was actually a mountainside.  Despite being at 10,000 feet or so, we were surrounded by higher peaks.  The hotel is situated on the shore of a beautiful small lake.

On the morning of day 7 we departed the lodge and headed for Chile's capital city of Santiago.

On the Argentinian side, the Andes rise step by step over many miles but on the Chilean side they plunge toward sea level quickly.  There are no less than 32 tortuous switchbacks as you descend from the border toward Santiago and they are tightly packed.

Descending into Chile and not a guardrail in sight

We enjoyed lunch at a restaurant near Santiago's Mercado Central and then went on a walking tour of the city that started with the market itself.  The major metropolitan area of Santiago has about half the number of people in the Buenos Aires region.  We found the city to be brighter and cleaner than Buenos Aires, with the exception of the air quality.  The Hotel Leonardo da Vinci where we stayed would be a good choice for someone visiting the area.

Chile is a major seafood producer and it is all for sale at Mercado Central 

Our guide Cecilia describes the wide variety of fruits available in the market 

La Moneda is the presidential palace in Santiago

Chilean Wine Country
The Colchagua Valley south of Santiago is home to some of the country's best wineries and that's where we drove on day 8 of the tour.  After walking around the small town of Santa Cruz and having lunch at a local spot, we spent the afternoon cycling the countryside and admiring the local vineyards.  As we pedaled down one of the roads, we noticed that the right hand margin of the roadway was kind of sticky with tar.  As we approached one of the co-ops that takes in grapes, the sticky path that we thought was tar led right into the co-op.  It wasn't tar we were encountering, it was grape juice that had dripped off of the trucks taking the harvest to be processed!

Our biking for the day ended when we entered the driveway of the Vina Sutil Winery, home to the Hotel Vina la Playa, our hotel for the next couple of nights.  Most trips like this try to end on a high note by housing you in the nicest hotel of the trip and this was no exception.  It is a beautiful property.
Biking the back roads of Chile's Colchagua Valley

  Vina Sutil driveway entrance - only a mile or so to go to get to the hotel

Hotel Vina la Playa grounds

We gathered that evening for our own wine tasting

On day 9 of our trip we set out on our bicycles for the village pf Peralillo.  The village was quite busy since they were preparing for the Vendimia Paralillo, their annual celebration of the grape harvest.  We cycled through the festival grounds and decided that we would visit later in the day after we had completed our biking.  In no time at all we'd left the village behind and were out on the country roads.  It was another perfect weather day.  On the day we toured Buenos Aires a week earlier we'd had some clouds but since then, the weather had been clear and perfect and today was another sparkler.

Hotel Vina la Playa

Ready to ride

 2010 earthquake damage near Paralillo

Our ultimate biking destination on day 9 was MontGras Winery. The Colchagua Valley provided vista after vista as we went through small towns and passed vehicles bearing the grapes that were being harvested up and down the valley.  Unlike Argentina, Chile exports far more wine that it consumes.  The Chileans seem to concentrate more on white wines which grow well in their cool coastal environment.  While Argentina has embraced the Malbec grape, Chile has rediscovered the Carmenère, a red Bordeaux blending grape that came to Chile from France in the mid-19th century.  Both countries of course love Cabernet Sauvignon.
After walking among the vines and tasting the various grapes (the Sauvignon Blanc grape really tasted like the wine), we went to the blending room and divided up into 3 teams.  We tasted wines made from their Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes and then each team made its own custom blend.  Our winery guide and Victor our tour guide were the judges in a blind taste test.  While the winery guide liked ours best, Victor chose another team's wine and they both judged the third wine to be second best.  It was a tie so Santiago our biking guide was called in to break the tie and our wine was not chosen.  All teams then got the opportunity to bottle, cork, label and seal their custom blend.  Afterward, we enjoyed an outdoor lunch in one of the winery's courtyards.
MontGras Winery vineyards

At MontGras we spent a lot of time walking among the vines tasting the grape varieties

Sampling Sauvignon Blanc that had been in the vat just 3 weeks

Our team's custom blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère impressed
 the winery's guide but ultimately was not judged the best

Many of MontGras' wines spend time in barrels made of American oak.

The blind taste test proved our team has no future in blending wine

Time for lunch
After lunch we drove back to the festival in Paralillo where we shopped the stalls, sampled more wines of the area, visited the rodeo and generally enjoyed this really nice small town celebration.  We appeared to be the only tourists at the event.  That evening we enjoyed a final dinner together at the hotel.  We sampled our custom blended wines but agreed that the professionals did a better job.  Many bottles were opened and things got just a little raucous.

Paralillo's harvest festival included a rodeo, bands, wine samples from local wineries and lots of barbecue

There was a little fog over the vineyards for those of us who managed to rise early on the last day of our tour.  Two of the guys and I were the only ones who elected to take the final optional ride.  We enjoyed one last look at the local scenery.  In the vineyards on the grounds of our hotel, it was time to harvest one of the grape varieties.  We watched the pickers arrive as we cycled out for our ride.  After we returned, we watched them as they each picked two containers of grapes, then trotted down the row to the tractor where the grapes were loaded into containers for the ride to the winery.  The pickers were issued a couple of chits for each load and then hustled down the row to resume picking.

Last bike trip among the vines

 These views will be difficult to forget

A wine tasting and lunch at the Laura Hartwig Winery was our final destination prior to heading back to Santiago for our home bound flights. We enjoyed a tour of the winery (300,000 liters of capacity in steel tanks along with 90,000 liters in French and American oak barrels) and a tasting of three of their wines that we had on the front porch of the winery. A horse-drawn carriage took us to the restaurant of the winery where we had a wonderful lunch overlooking the vineyards.

We enjoyed a wine tasting on the porch at Laura Hartwig Winery 

 The wine maker at Laura Hartwig keeps track of the status of wines in their vats

Our transportation to lunch

Lunch came with a view
As we awaited our flight at Santiago's Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez Airport, we looked back on a very nice trip.  Highlights included the spectacular Andes Mountains, the wonderful food and wine we'd had, the sparkling weather and the great group with whom we'd traveled.  For me, South America is a special place.  Back in the early 1980's, it was the first location outside the United Sates that I visited.  The Latin culture, European influence and native heritage make it unique and the geography is stunning.  I look forward to returning again someday.