It's four hours door-to-door from Salta to Colome. There are five of us in the jeep: Alejandra, the massage therapist; Luli, who works at the foundation leading excursion for kids and setting up workshops for adults; the driver, me, and an anonymous salteño who would sleep the whole ride with his mouth open. Everyone insists that I take the front seat (since they see the scenery every time they go up to work!), so I sit back with my camcorder on standby to enjoy the ride. This is the second time in the last month that I had been in a car. The last was coming back from Uyuni, nauseous from altitude. An hour outside of Salta, the highway vanishes and the driver weaves down dirt roads, rounding cacti, low-hanging trees and boulders. Skillfully and deliberately, the jeep climbs and climbs and climbs. We would clear a mountain top momentarily, then dive back down into the valley, only to ascend once more minutes later. Driving through Molinos, the first town since the outskirts of Salta, I see a sign for Colome: 19 kilometers.
'This is the only road to Colome?', I ask the driver hesitantly.
'Si, señorita', he replies with a smile. I try to imagine a container stacked with pallets making the same journey in the opposite direction. A container must be twice the width of our jeep, at least four times as long, and infinitely heavier. With this multiplier, you'd need considerably more patience to haul a vehicle of that size from Colome to Salta.
Several employees of Colome make this 19 kilometer journey daily. It's again, a quiet dirt road etched around red-sand badlands, where the speed limit can't be more than 50 kilometers per hour. 'Look', says Luli, 'this is the village of Colome. That's the foundation, where I work,' she says, pointing to a small adobe structure on the side of the road, 'and opposite the foundation is the school, and next to the school the clinic, and...' her voice trails off. The town is already in the distance before she can finish her brief oral tour. 'Well I'll have to come back tomorrow,' I grin.
The lonely remaining kilometer between the town and the hotel, the morning commute for the majority of the workers at Colome, felt like nothing after the 4 hours of road behind us. Luli, Alejandra, and the napper disappear the second the driver yanks the emergency break. A man in a Colome jumpsuit, the uniform I would soon find out, hoists my pack from the trunk of the jeep and shows me to my room. Informed of a 6:30 tour of the on-site James Turrell museum, I rush to gather my camera and a light jacket, don't bother to lock the door, and brave the 200 meters to the museum entrance.
'So,' you ask, 'what the hell is a James Turrell museum doing at a winery 4 hours from a small city in Argentina?'. 'Damn good question,' I'd reply. No, but seriously. Donald Hess, Swiss owner of Colome, calls himself an art addict. He started his collection when he accidently bought a Picasso. Now he buys as much as he can from artists around the globe, but always stops collecting when the artist passes away. Turrell, a modern artist and Renaissance man, is alive and well in Flagstaff, Arizona. His pieces always focus, as the guide told us, on light, color, space, and perception. I'm tempted to try to explain a piece, but I could never do it justice. First off, because Turrell doesn't divulge the engineering of his pieces, so you never really know what you are looking at. Second, because this kind of art is about 90% emotional and 10% mathematical. Go see an exhibit for yourself if you are curious. He has pieces in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Napa, Houston... and travelling exhibitions all around the world.
After the surreal experience of a semi-private tour of a world-class exhibit, I walk back to my room to wash up before dinner. Fifteen minutes later, I stroll down the path between the vines, illuminated by an electric crescent moon towards the hotel library. There I meet Pierre, the quebequois irrigation master here at Colome, Rafael, the salteño-tucuman vineyard expert, and David, an American chef visiting the bodega.
We each take seats in firm, coffee-leather chairs, surrounded by rounded bookcases overflowing with books. Not a bad place to try my first class of Colome wine, a white 'Vino Misterio' only available here at the winery. Besides the fact that hectars of Malbec surround the hotel and museum, the glass in my hand is the first indication that I was sent to Colome for the bodega.
'It's a misterio,' explains Pierre, 'because when Donald Hess first bought Colome, there were a few hectars of whites scattered around the property, but we didn't know what varieties they were. We decided to harvest them all and make a single wine. We estimate there must be about 7 different varieties in your glass right now. Sure, we did lots of tests, even DNA tests, but some remain unidentified,' he says. Salud, chin-chin, cheers. Besides the Malbec Reserve we uncork for the main course, the rest of dinner is free of wine-speak. We mostly explain our backgrounds, light-hearted life-philosophies, and enjoy the remarkable presentation of our dishes materializing from the kitchen. After a verbena ice cream and drop of cognac we are all ready for a good night's sleep.
First thing Friday morning, sun shining (as it does every day at Colome), I go back to the hotel to snap some photos of the rooms, the pool, the spa, the massage tables, and the restaurant. Then Pierre, David and I get in a 4x4 to the stables, where Colome keeps its 32 horses. We have a gaucho ride scheduled so that I might try out a Peruviano, the rumored most comfortable horses, see the mountains in their organic splendor, and have some fun with the lasso tied to my saddle. Unfortunately I don't know how to use a lasso, so it mainly serves as the butt of every joke whenever we spotted wild donkies in the distance. This was, in all the riding I've done in my life (which is quite a bit), by far the most wild, lighthearted and fun experience, although according to Pierre I become very serious the second I sit in a saddle. These horses balance perfectly the thrill of excitable horses and the relaxation of a tame ride. They know the road well, they sometimes ask you gently to give them more rein, but they always respond to strict instruction. At first I keep my dark bay on a tight rein, having been warned that he can be jumpy, but ten minutes down the path I give up my English riding education and let him loose. We (the horse and I) trot though arid brush, up hills producing clouds of smoke for the unlucky horse-gaucho pair behind us, and then launched into a rhythmic gallop whenever a valley comes into sight. An hour of this mayhem and the horse's once dry flanks drip sweat. I can hear his nostrils expanding, inhaling in more air at once than I could in 400 meters at a sprint. Sensing exhaustion, I scratch his mane, pat his neck, and whisper, 'Tranquilo, tranquilo.' He stutters his stride, comes down from the canter, trots a bit, and stops under a tree to wait for our friends. A bit more light trotting later, we're back at the stables, and dismount. 'So,' I think, 'when do we get to talk about wine?'
In retrospect, the order of operations of my visit to Colome was quite fitting. The most important aspects and contributors of what goes on at Colome (the road from Salta, the town of Molinos, the town of Colome, the foundation, the museum, the hotel, and the stables) must be seen, experienced, and understood before the grand finale: the viñedos. The wine can't exist without the villages, because most people who work at Colome are locals. The foundation is a strong pressence in the town, providing workshops, activities, and employment for the citizens. The Turrell museum represents Hess' passion for art collections, and attracts many visitors for that aspect of Colome alone. Then there's the hotel, another source of employment and a European tourist haven. Its 9 rooms are full most of the year. Finally, the horses, keeping the Gaucho tradition alive. Most incredibly of all, everything mentioned is self-sustained and organic. All the power in Colome is either hydroelectric, or solar; the vegetable garden and farm produce the vast majority of the food consumed; and finally, the vineyard is biodynamic.
My limited exposure to biodynamics in the past, besides a general knowledge of the art, comes from a short experience in Alsace-Lorraine at Domaine Barmes-Buecher. From what I learned informally at that small-town Alsacian vineyard, it's a complicated methodology where one farms in accordance with cosmic and terrestrial forces, nursing the plant with organic preparados at times of the month determined by the lunar calendar. I had never seen any of this done live, unless you want to count walking through overgrown vineyards. Go figure that out of my two days at Colome, the workers would be performing a twice annual dynamization.
Excited by such a rare opportunity, soon after returning to the stables, David, Pierre and I walk over to the vegetable garden to witness the preparation of the vine treatment. The porteño biodynamics expert gives us a detailed explanation: there are two main preparados (which look like soil to the untrained eye), one for the fall and one for the spring. This is the spring treatment, applied in October when the annual life cycle is on the rise. The ground starts to breath, the sun is stronger, flowers bud. It's at this time that you nourish the earth, choosing moments of maximum absorbsion. They picked this particular day because the crescent moon (strangely bright at this time of the month, as I noticed walking back to my hotel room the previous night) is shrinking, and the workers treat the plants in the evening, as the sun goes down. Think of the soil as retreating inwards, taking everything the cosmos has to offer to feed itself and grow stronger the following day.
To make this preparado, the workers churn this dirt-like substance into barrels filled with 150 liters of water. They stir clockwise first, then once they've created a strong whirlpool that almost mixes itself, they interrupt the flow and start stirring in the opposite direction. This goes on for 20 minutes. Then they pour the solution into a machine that will chug through the vines, spritzing out solution like rain. Having witnessed their secret weapon, human harnessing of cosmic and terrenal power to feed the vines, I can't wait any longer to see the heavily anticipated bodega.
'There's nothing secret about what we do down here. The key is in the land, in the vines, the biodynamics. Once it gets to the cellar, it's typical winemaking,' Pierre warns. He's right, the cellar is similiar to most that I've seen in my lifetime. It's clean, well kept, organized. I take a few photos of the barrels, some cases, some presses, but the remarkable part of Colome lies outside the bodega. It's the 150-plus people who contribute to the project. It's the town, the foundation, the 70 families that live here. The cacti, the mountains, the Inca ruins hidden in the hills. The fact that these vines somehow grow in a place that looks fit for snakes, wild donkeys, gauchos and their lassos is puzzling when your mental image of wine country resembles Bordeaux and Sonoma. But suspend your judgment here, because this oasis' Turrell pieces, Peruvian horses, and Malbecs are worldclass. Retrace your Colome bottles' journey back to northern Argentina if you don't believe me.