Wine, Art and Altitude: Stir Well - The Buffalo News

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Wine, Art and Altitude: Stir Well

Our friends love modern art but don't really drink; my companion and I are closer to the reverse. So as we researched places where we could travel and all come away happy, Colomé, in northwest Argentina, stood out. It's a mountain winery with a contemporary art museum and sounded like the perfect two-couple compromise – a little bit high culture, a little bit grand cru.

I envisioned a lethargic, tippling road trip like the one in “Sideways.” What we found – after what seemed like a long and needlessly perilous journey through Death Valley-like deserts and narrow one-lane dirt roads that corkscrew up and down towering mountain ranges – was more like Herzog's “Fitzcarraldo,” a film about an eccentric tycoon fixated on erecting an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

In this case, the tycoon was Donald Hess, a Swiss business titan and winemaker who chose this remote corner of Argentina to combine his two great passions. Colomé is the vineyard. It is also a museum devoted to the massive, hypnotic trompe l'oeil light installations by American artist James Turrell.

Together, the Hess winery and museum may well be one of the most puzzling one-man grands projets since the pyramids of Egypt. It takes money, hubris and multiple generators to grow organic wine at 10,000 feet (Altura Máxima, which means Maximum Height, is billed as the highest vineyard in the world). Choosing that isolated, sparsely populated and energy-deprived area to present the work of one of the most power-dependent artists in the world is truly a folie de grandeur. We grew fascinated by this mysterious man who used his fortune (he literally turned a bottled water empire into wine) and more than a touch of Swiss perfectionism and obstinacy to fulfill such a discordant fantasy.

The region of Colomé, close to the borders of Bolivia and Chile, is far and very different from Buenos Aires, where we first spent a delightful warm-up week sightseeing, shopping and dining.

The road to Colomé becomes all but impassable during January and February. I wasn't sure it was passable even in dry weather. We arrived, white-knuckled, to a sudden oasis of lush elegance hidden behind stone walls and wrought iron gates. Connie Bearzi, who manages the hotel and restaurant, led us into the bodega, a wine snob's paradise.

We sampled Colomé Torrontes over a light meal with freshly baked bread and salad greens picked from the garden. Our table, overlooking sloping vineyards and, in the far distance, snow-brushed mountaintops, was tastefully appointed with crisp white linen – a décor that coordinated with the few other guests, whippet-thin Europeans and Argentines in taupe and gray après yoga outfits. Most lingered over their wine without checking out the Turrell museum.

Turrell is famous worldwide but not locally. His abstruse light installations can be polarizing. Bearzi said that when she invited Raúl Dávalos, the elderly former owner of Colomé whose family founded the vineyards in 1831, he replied, “I'm not here for stupid things.”

We, on the other hand, couldn't wait.

Inside, each installation is a dizzying immersion in color and light.

The tour ends with a big finish: Visitors lie on mats on the floor of an open-roofed atrium and for about 40 minutes gaze at an elaborate, evolving interplay of artificial light and natural sky.

Our friends wanted to go through the museum again. We were ready for some serious wine tasting with the French winemaker, Thibaut Delmotte, who explained why Hess was so obsessed with growing wine at the utmost altitudes. There are lots of reasons that involve the word “terroir,” but basically higher altitudes produce a thicker-skinned grape that delivers a more robust taste.

I didn't want to leave the comfort of Colomé, but we felt obligated to visit Altura Máxima, at 10,207 feet, the only one of Hess' properties in Argentina that is 100 percent biodynamic. It's a bumpy journey and an extraordinary sight – we danced around the edge of a manmade reservoir on what looked like the top of the world.

Building anything there requires massive amounts of money, manpower, ingenuity and persistence. For me, the most telling emblem of the Hess ethos was the gem-perfect stone wall that encloses his Altura Máxima property.

And it was while staring at those ramparts that it finally all clicked. Turrell's light installations are majestically austere and exactly the wrong match for epicurean Colomé, except that they require the same kind of attention to detail and determination that Hess lives by.

There wasn't synergy in Hess' dream community, so much as parallel play. The four of us came to appreciate the harmony behind the colossal mismatch. And the malbec didn't hurt, either.

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