You can learn a little about a culture by looking at what they throw away. To see what Venezuela is drinking, for instance, you only need to gaze out the window while cruising down the highway. Like runway lights, empty bottles of beer and 80-proof aguardiente (along with the occasional, faded water bottle) ushered me along as I traveled in a taxi through the hills of the western Lara state.
I am not implying that all Venezuelans are drunk-driving litterbugs, although both littering and drunk driving remain serious problems. But the lack of wine bottles scattered beside the pavement reinforced what I had been told about the tropical country: wine is not very popular in Venezuela. Not surprisingly, accepted wisdom has declared the tropics terrible for growing wine-quality grapes.
"I only use wine for cooking," confessed my cab driver, his voice barely cutting over the radio's machine-gun chatter that covered the day's World Cup game.
I arrived in Venezuela at a dynamic time, however. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has not cornered the market on revolutions in the country, for wine could soon be liberated from the confines of the kitchen (and church services). Bodegas Pomar, a company in the scrub-covered mountains around the town of Carora, is not only making wine from grapes grown locally, but their grape haul is twice as large as that of temperate zone wineries. Even more surprising: the wine is drinkable. We were headed to Carora, in hopes that I could uncover how the company has been defying its own latitude for the past twenty years.
At first, the guard at the gate of Bodegas Pomar seemed more interested in commenting on America's poor World Cup showing than helping me find answers. "United States is eliminated!" he barked at me. Since soccer was temporarily trumping politics, I did not have to perform the usual task to which many Americans abroad can relate: the ceremonial disassociating of oneself from the George W. Bush regime. Therefore, I only needed to tender a little soccer--the currency of conversation in Venezuela during the World Cup--so I decided to praise the performance of several Latin American teams. Afterward, he was happy to arrange a meeting for me.
And thus I earned my chance to find out how the company hauls in that mutant grape yield. Before arriving, I had read that the company harvests grapes twice a year (temperate zone wineries only have one harvest per year), which would account for the doubling. But how do they do it? At the company's showcase room, salesperson Almudena Gutierrez retired my inquiry quickly. "Because there is no winter," she answered. "That is why we have two harvests a year: once in March, and another in September." Ah, yes. The tropical curse on grapevines has now been turned into an advantage, thanks to a little horticultural cleverness and a lucky, semi-arid climate.
Labor laws of Venezuela do not apply to grapevines, since the vines only get one month of rest every six months, and then they have to start cranking out more grapes. But when you think of it, don't the wine experts always scream about grapes making better wine if the vines are stressed?
It takes more than a monster yield to make wine, however. The quality of the grapes is suitable for winemaking because the valley where the grapes grow becomes a little cool at night, tricking the vines into thinking that they're happily photosynthesizing along the Rhone River in France. That temperature variation ends up bestowing the grapes with the right sugar content for winemaking, even though the vines are only ten degrees north of the equator.
With such an agricultural cleverness, you'd think the young company would be keen on offering samples of their innovative drink. Any visitor to, say, Napa Valley or the Finger Lakes region of New York expects to stroll into a winery and be festooned with a flight of glasses for tasting. Even at Venezuela's own rustic markets, stalls of aguardiente-pimping vendors will swiftly place a plastic cup in your hand so you may sample their clear, artisan swill. But not at the winery. The company only offers tours and tastings during their dual harvesting months of March and September. I visited in June.
But I can hardly blame Bodegas Pomar. To give tours to visitors, you need more than tour guides: you also need visitors. Despite Carora's storybook-quaint colonial buildings and narrow, centuries-old streets that make vacationing Americans involuntarily pause and sigh, I didn't see any tourists--American or otherwise-in Carora. Nor in the nearby city of Barquisimento. If the company adds a daily wine tasting to the area's collection of craft markets that hawk everything from pottery to carvings, the Barquisimeto area would seem like a natural tourist lure. (Is Venezuela's Ministry of Tourism reading this?)
It certainly doesn't help that wine is not terribly popular among the working class of Venezuela, despite the fact that Pomar's lowest tier bottle goes for B11,000 ($5) in the liquor stores, about what you'd pay for a bottle of aguardiente. Their mid-range bottles of tasty, cherry-like petite verdot cost B23,000 ($11). But the company, keeping in mind Venezuelan tastes, has already started marketing the latter as great for accompanying goat in coconut broth, one of the specialties of the region.
While wine and goat may still remain an unfamiliar dinner pairing, the grapes themselves are celebrities. All along the highway between Carora and Barquisimeto, dozens of vendors set up identical stands hawking boxes of grapes harvested from the area. Could a wine trend be the next logical step? Watch the empties along the side of the road for future developments.
The following week, at the other end of the country, I would discover that the Venezuelan wine revolution has an ally, albeit grapeless. Using the city of Maturín as a base, I took another taxi and braved the spaghetti-thin turns of mountain roads up to Caripe, a town in the eastern Monagas state. My destination was the store El Palacio de las Fresas (Palace of the Strawberries), purveyor of fruit wines.
After a little obligatory soccer banter (I nodded in astonishment during each mention of an extra time period), I met a vibrant man named Rigoberto Duque Sierra, who ferments and bottles everything from coffee beans to passion fruit, all fortified with a little sugar. He even ages his blackberry and strawberry wines in oak barrels, just like what is done to the familiar, grape-based classic.
But according to Rigoberto, his wines, which he has been making for over twenty years, are more than alcoholic drinks. As he lined up his roster of bottles atop the store's wooden counter, he launched into a dizzying run-down detailing each bottle's special power.
"This one is medicine," he said while cradling a bottle of ginger wine. "It will kill a headache in five minutes! Here. Try some." (Without having a headache at the time, I could not vouch for its effectiveness.)
His brother, a chiropractor and a traditional medicines practitioner, has supplied several of the wine recipes that Rigoberto follows, including one for a medley of herbs that will cure the flu. In a low, devilish whisper, Rigoberto pointed out that his rose pedal wine "is a strong aphrodisiac. It works in half an hour!"
His wine, each bottle of which costing me B10,000 ($4.50), didn't seem to clean my intestines--nor make me burp up irresistible pheromones. But I discovered later on that his coffee and cacao wines tasted great when I poured them over vanilla ice cream. At the least, I did my part to support wine's unlikely attempt at a rise to power in a tropical country. However, I doubt that corks will challenge the popularity of kicks any time soon.
Darrin DuFord is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car. He has also contributed articles to Transitions Abroad and GoNOMAD.com. Read his latest travel pieces and recipes on his web site, www.omnivoroustraveler.com.
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