So I’ve written about a night with my father, and how a flight of Philip Shaw Shiraz labels, representing progressively higher vineyards, gave us a first try at thinking about the effect of altitude on wine. The point of that story, I think, was less about the technical winemaking question than about the pleasurable, subjective elements of the wine journey. Altitude means a lot to my father and me, simply because we’ve spent so many precious times in the High Sierra—up where the air is clear, the light stark, the grass low and thin. Projecting all those bound-up feelings, through language, onto wine was effortless for both of us. It helped that the difference in flavor between Shaw’s three wines lent itself to that kind of thinking about altitude: His highest-altitude wine, the Philip Shaw No. 89 Shiraz Viognier, has a soft, restrained elegance, and the dash of Viognier gives it a whisper of lilac.
Well, altitude again, with a 2005 Bodega Colomé Estate Malbec, a Malbec-Cabernet-Tannat blend from the Hess Collection. The night itself was no big deal. The day had included a bloody cut on one finger, from a broken tape measure snapping against it; a bloody nose dripping everywhere, from the dust in my poor house; an article finished just on time, about a great conservationist named Michael Fay. And the food was equally simple: L whipped up some tomato-basil pasta while I horsed around with the girls. But just as I sat to eat, in a dining room without Sheetrock on the stud walls, and opened that bottle and poured that much-needed first glass of wine, the thought of high-altitude Argentina sent my mind across the vast, empty pampas on the road up to El Chaltén. The mountainous heart of Patagonia, that is, near the Chilean border—a landscape of haunting, staggering beauty, with all the arid majesty of the American west and a kind of antipodal, end-of-the-world timelessness.
I don’t mean that I left my family behind—little H allowed that Mom “did a pretty good job” on the pasta, and even-littler A thought maybe it would be fun to get her big sister’s purse, bring it to the dinner table, and then dump out all of its contents, including the stuffed puppy, the single ballet slipper, and the lip balm. But memory and consciousness are like that, if you’re paying attention: superimposed tapestries of smell and sight and sound, past and present. And so across that dinner table of that young family getting started in the world, and triggered by the fresh, bright fruit and striking oak of that Malbec, came a weaving memory of stepping off the bus at the end of that long, dusty road, and standing on Chaltén’s dirt main street, and dropping my bags in the luggage room of a boardinghouse. Mount Fitz Roy, that operatic rock fang filling the sky, was free of clouds for the first time in weeks (I later learned), and I was hiking toward it within an hour. Much happened in between, like waiting out a storm while huddling in a rock cave, and crisscrossing a glacier, but that trip culminated back in Chaltén, with several days of weather so foul that climbing and hiking were out of the question. And that, in turn, meant a lot of hours spent over huge Argentine steaks and bottles of Navarro Malbec, all with great views through the storm clouds, to the high, airy peaks where no climber would want to be—or at least not until the sun came out.