Put on some shoes, we’re leaving ”, he urges Alejandro Vigil, Argentina’s top winemaker that years ago, in these same pages, was nicknamed the ‘Messi of wines’. What follows is not an interview. Is a road movie: a road movie.
Along the way, the truck’s FM signal is cut off at times, threatened by the wild immensity of this land and these mountains that boil, like everything else in an atypically scorching March. The winemaker’s right hand fumbles on the dial for some clean, lingering sound as he advances, eyes fixed ahead and his left on the steering wheel, kicking up dust on the roads of Mendoza.
It is a routine that he repeats daily, whether it is Tuesday or Sunday, that of adding numbers to the odometer on his way from one vineyard to the next to see “how everything is”, as if he were a doctor on the rounds.
To be Alejandro Vigil, you have to get up every day at 4:40 in the morning, drink mate and read, “because then you won’t stop anymore.” After 7 o’clock you have to take the kids to school and, there, yes, go on the tour.
Drive and drive, sometimes as far as Gualtallary, 1,450 meters above sea level, or even beyond, to La Consulta. And, even if it rains or it’s devilishly hot —like today—, you have to stop the engine, get out of the vehicle and go into the vineyards, tireless, like a king in his domain; like an animal in his primitive garden.
“Poor things, how they suffer”, laments the man whose hands take the green leaves of the vine, lost in the suffocating temperature. “They bend like this because they don’t want to lose more water… You have to harvest now.”
For Vigil, an agronomist from the National University of Cuyo, Adrianna Catena’s “partner and friend” at the El Enemigo winery and current president of Wines of Argentina, there was never an alternative. The good thing is that he knew it forever, since those childhood summers when he went to see his maternal grandfather, in San Juan, where they had a malbec with criolla and made wine. “Whatever happened, it was this,” he says.
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In other words, fate was set…
Absolutely. There is a word that is used a lot in this world now, terroir… If you come to me with the theoretical definition, I don’t understand it, but in practice, yes. For me, it’s about the centuries-old experience of growing vineyards and making those grapes in a certain place. And the important thing is the knowledge acquired. That is why I am here today.
So, for you? terroir It is not so much the place, but the man?
He terroir it is man, because man interprets the landscape and puts it in the bottle. You see the leaves and understand what is happening. And, walking through the vineyards, you know what is going to happen. Without this experience, transmitted from one generation to another, there are no wines, even if the soils are wonderful. I once had a big offer to go to California. With Maria (his wife) we thought about it. And we stay here. I don’t see myself outside of this circuit. I wouldn’t understand. Our world is this.
And his wine would not be the same…
Clear. Because when the wines stop having the fingerprints of those who make them, they are from the vineyard. That is why it is very difficult for me to think about making wine in another part of the world, because I have eaten something else, absorbed another culture and lived in a different way.
How has your professional life changed you?
My life changed when it stopped being ‘professional life’. That separation does not exist. I don’t understand those who say ‘I work 8 hours and then live’. So, part of the day they were dead? What changed me was patience. I no longer want the vineyard to grow fast, but at the rate it has to grow. Before, I always wanted to see the end of the movie. Then I began to think: ‘When this plant gave me grapes, its roots were 10 centimeters, but in 30 years, it will be four meters and the wine will be different.’ And I can not do anything. Just wait. Such is the way.
* * *
Of jazz and angry old women
It is time to follow the route. Back in the truck, Vigil, the Ale, as everyone here calls him—everyone who doesn’t ask him for a selfie or the autograph in a bottle, of course—, he sings, drums on the steering wheel and shakes his head to the beat, now, of a resounding song by Huey Lewis and the News. The sun is going down. Suddenly, summer becomes friendlier.
“Welcome to the pyramid”, he says, as soon as he crosses the entrance that leads to the heart of the Catena Zapata winery, which has been owned by the family since 1902. Later, as he advances, the succession of greetings to the staff is confused with the creaking of the steps on dry earth and gravel until entering the building, where a woman with a kind look comes out to welcome. “Can you get me a drink, please?” The glass arrives and Vigil heads towards the fermentation tank, which smells of a promising and unpleasant mixture of ripe fruit and alcohol, where the wine can spend from two days to 30, she explains, depending on the case.
“Some need to structure themselves; they will be longer. Others are already born structured, so they must be removed quickly. It all depends on your personality. This one, for example —she describes, while he opens the key to a tank and a sweet, pink fluid appears—, is a little friend. From here, instead —he opens another— blood comes out. And this one?” she wonders when he turns the tap on a third party and a blackened waterfall gushes out. “This is an angry old woman… (laughs).”
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At one time, these stainless steel giants where the must becomes wine were named after jazz musicians or rock bands. ‘Bring me a 2011 Ramones’, the winemaker asked at the time. Or a Charlie Parker. “I was cataloging them that way, because of their sensitivity, their impact. A Charlie Parker is always mellow at first, but then he gives you a long tone. Billie Holiday had pomposity, character, but it finally passes… Like a first love. And a Dizzy Gillespie was a wine from a cold zone, with acidity, turgidity, sharpness… Nonsense that he did, no more”, he excuses himself.
Some musicians started making wine. What does he think about that?
I complain a bit, because this is a way of life and you have to have a concept. Taking a wine that comes from anywhere, that someone else has felt, because they planted it, thought about it and did it from a certain point of view, and stamping your name on it, is nothing. Because it’s not you.
His wine is called El Enemigo and his restaurant is inspired by the Divine Comedy. Because?
Because it’s what I think of life. The Divine Comedy questions you about your choices: do you want to live in heaven, in hell or in the worst place of all, purgatory? It is a position. There are people who take happiness. Others live in the permanent introspection of pain. Does being unhappy make you happy? Well go ahead. But the worst are those who do not know what they want. That’s a problem: not wondering where you want to be.
And the enemy, who is he?
That comes from an incredible moment. In 2001 I joined Catena and, two months later, Nicolás Catena asked me to create a blend of the emblematic wine. It was very played, but I did it the way I liked it. I always think that the purest way to do something is like a child: ignoring the danger, the status quo… That’s how it was. In the blind tasting, my cut won. Time passes, I decide to make my own wine and I don’t know what name to give it. Then Nicolás Catena, who is my mentor, reminds me of that situation: ‘How did you make the wine for that tasting?’ ‘Like a child, playing’, I replied. ‘Well, there you go: fear is man’s worst enemy. It is the origin of not doing. Put ‘enemy’, to always remember it.
The ancient Kabbalists spoke of the opponent. He is linked with it?
Well, I have a Jewish, Sephardic part. My maternal grandmother was Jewish. And from there certain looks are born. The Vigils, on the other hand, are Celts, they come from Scotland. I like to study the subjects. I get up very early and dedicate myself to studying. I read a lot of ancient philosophies… I always end up linking them with the earth.
Is he religious? Do you meditate?
Everything is a meditation. When I walk, when I am in the vineyards, when I spend a lot of time on the road… I have a deep sadness. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s deep. I want to think that it is that genetic memory that we have as human beings: the pain of humanity. There are religions that call it karma… When one has holes in the soul, he has to learn to cover them. I weave (he accompanies the verb with the gesture in his hands), I weave inside of me to cover the gaps. But beware, I am an optimist. I think that the world is doomed to success and that everything is possible.
And yet, it speaks of sadness and melancholy…
It is that if you do not feel melancholy, you do not feel happiness either. Without one there is no other.
two street dogs
The next day is a Sunday, Alejandro Vigil is sitting in a tavern in front of the Plaza de La Consulta —100 kilometers south of the capital Mendoza— flanked by two stray dogs, with a vermouth, an omelette and a casserole of tongue with vinaigrette on the table. To get there, it took just over an hour and a half to drive. Always with background music, always with reflections. Weaving, he would say, that on June 14 he will reach half a century of life.
What would be the next step in Argentina, thinking of the consumer?
We need to plant in more places that give us totally different products. To add more people you have to add diversity. Here the criteria began to change in the 90s, when we began to travel and try other things. But the big change was already in the following decade. Until 2000, if one looks at the statistics, we had planted more Bonarda than Malbec. The fine wine was cabernet; malbec was not thought of as quality.
Was it the table wine?
The table wine was criolla with Malbec, which gave it its color. For this reason, when I presented the malbec zoning project, they began to call me crazy, that it was impossible. At that time, most people in viticulture told you: ‘this is how it is because it is already done like this’. It didn’t matter to do anything anywhere. I was a revolutionary and I wanted to change everything. Why do you make cabernet differently than malbec? Because they are different. When that began to change, people joined the change. But you had to give him options.
And they told him that it could not be…
The metaphor of Champagne, in France, is beautiful. It is a place where it is cold, it rains, the grapes do not ripen. They were told that no drink could be made. And what did these crazy people do? Champagne! (Laughter). They reaped earlier and transcended that limitation. One of the most expensive wines in the world comes from a place where wine could not be made. Everything is possible. Even so, there are people who refuse to believe it.
And in terms of policies, what is needed for the sector?
The most important thing is that we become sustainable as an activity. And the main aspect of sustainability is that the people who work in this live well. That is not cost, but investment. I put the case of Spain. The viticulturist charges, let’s say any number, 400 per kilo of grapes. The winery pays 200. The other 200 are paid by the European Union. Because? Because he wants people to stay in the countryside and live well. I don’t know if I ask for so much here. But in regional economies, where a small investment has a huge impact for the recipient, it has to be done. You have to keep the field running.
He has said that wine is drunk to celebrate. But not everyone takes it in moments of joy…
So it’s not wine. There you are drinking alcohol. Wine is closeness, friendship, experience. And alcohol is something else. In wine, one seeks a link, sharing, dreaming of changing things.
* * *
We have to go back. Before night falls. She says that she has to be at home to help her daughter with an English homework for school. Tomorrow, at 4:40, the mate is waiting for you. Later, the truck, the music, the land. Feel again on the skin the leaves and the fruits of her Eden.
THE NATION (Argentina) – GDA
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