Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wining and Driving: Mendoza's New Winery Bus

Over the past couple decades, I’ve driven literally hundreds of thousands of kilometers through Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in the course of creating and updating my guidebooks to those countries. In the course of doing so, one of my favorite activities has been visiting vineyards, as the wineries of all three countries have achieved a growing presence on the global stage.

There’s a risk in this, though, as driving and consuming alcohol is, obviously, against the law. In Chile, with one of the continent’s most restrictive drunk-driving laws and a professional police force to apply it, visitors should be particularly attentive. If at all possible, use a designated driver or take a tour though, in regions like the Colchagua valley where the wineries are spread out, tours can be an expensive alternative.
In a few places, this isn’t an issue – in the northern Argentine town of Cafayate, for instance, many wineries (such as Bodega El Tránsito, pictured above) are almost literally within staggering distance of each other, so the big issue can be crossing the street. Fortunately, Cafayate’s traffic is far less ferocious than many other Argentine towns.

On the highways, Argentina is another issue entirely. In all the years I’ve been driving there, I have seen plenty of dangerously and even willfully reckless driving, but I have never seen an Argentine policeman pull over anyone for a moving violation. It’s common, though, for Argentine police to camp out on the roadside and, between sips of yerba mate, pull over motorists to see whether their brake lights or turn signals are malfunctioning. Safety, though, is rarely their concern – rather, it’s the opportunity to supplement their meager salaries with a coima (bribe). This is common in Argentina, where particularly corrupt provincial governments control the police.

Given the slack police work, and the legal obstacles to getting any DUI conviction in Argentina, one might think alternatives for getting around the wineries in a city like Mendoza might be few, but they’re increasing in a city where more than 120 of them are open to the public. When I first did this, after the economic collapse of 2002, it was preposterously cheap to hire a car and driver for the day and, for a group of three or more persons, that’s probably still desirable. Nevertheless, there’s a new option in the Bus Vitivinícola, which connects downtown Mendoza with wineries just south of the city.
The new service offers two itineraries, known as El Sol and Luján Sur, with a hop-on, hop-off service that’s valid for up to ten hours, allowing extended tours and tasting of up to three wineries. The more northerly El Sol itinerary also stops at the suburb of Chacras de Coria, which has critical mass of accommodations and fine restaurants, and five different wineries, including Bodega Vistalba (pictured above) and Bodega Lagarde. The more southerly Luján Sur route offers a choice of seven, including Bodega Séptima (pictured below), Terrazas de los Andes, Dominio del Plata, and Bodega Tapiz. Most of these wineries have restaurants, and several also offer accommodations.
Given Argentina’s relatively lax treatment of potential DUI’s, it’s a little surprising to see this forward-looking service establish itself here first. Chilean and Uruguayan wineries would do well to look at its example (the Uruguayan cities of Montevideo and Colonia have similar sightseeing buses, but nothing that serves their wineries).

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