What makes Mendoza, Argentina (the state and city) so memorable is that its charm and sophistication sneak up on you.
As you first drive into it, the environment looks a little industrial and sleepy. However, a short walk and a few right turns from the Sheraton Mendoza, and you're in the midst of a lively pedestrian mall anchored by Sarmiento and San Martin streets, with a seemingly endless offering of leather goods, ice-cream and sweet shops (Bianco & Nero is sublime); unprepossessing clothing stores (like Fascino, stocked with chic sweater jackets costing a mere $25-$50 U.S.); and refreshingly un-kitschy craft boutiques.
Just a short jaunt from the main intersection and cozy artisanal cafes, you'll find side streets lined with artsy shops and homes, a giant menorah gracing the median of Paseo Estado de Israel, as well as picturesque picnic-worthy plazas such as Plaza Espana with its own enticing street markets.
Book-ending the city is the lush Parque San Martin, a sprawling marriage of green space, monuments, zoo, sports fields and public amenities.
Even with its South American small-town charm, Mendoza's major draw among visitors -- and foodies, in particular -- remains its panoramic countryside, which supports one of the world's fastest-growing wine industries, as well as a food culture rich on many levels.
If Buenos Aires reveals the art of fine living like a tasting menu, Mendoza puts its sensory delights out there, family-style and in generous, homespun portions.
An hour outside the city, you can not only commune with nature or ski the Andes, but indulge your senses at other great sites that bring gastronomy to life beyond the table, and with an emphasis on environmentally friendly production techniques.
One of the more noteworthy aspects of Argentine wine production is that several producers happen to put out well-received certified kosher Malbecs and other varietal wines that have found their way into the U.S. and Canadian markets.
In the midst of all of this activity, Pedro Marchevsky has emerged as one of Argentina's most acclaimed winemakers.
When Marchevsky earned his degree in 1972, he went to work for Catena, one of the most influential producers in Argentina. Toward the end of his 30-year run, he was a guiding force in refocusing Catena away from table wines and into fine wines that could take root in the international market.
"I follow all the directions needed to be certified organic with all my wines, including Benmarco, which is named for my father," he says over a glass in the Sheraton Mendoza Hotel lobby. "I place value on using the best sustainable production technology, which makes a wine organic and of top quality. As for the rules of what makes wine kosher, I follow all of them, because I believe in the principles they outline."
Marchevsky's grandfather came from the Ukraine in 1902, and established himself in Buenos Aires. Though his father originally went into baking, he soon realized there was a future in the Argentine wine industry, and went into the table-wine business.
A Family Business
In turn, Marchevsky began to learn winemaking with his father, but realized there was even more potential for success beyond Argentina.
While many of the region's wineries are built with tourists in mind, kosher and otherwise, there are several can't- miss food/wine destinations that go beyond tasting and sampling into multi-sensory immersion into Argentina's truly great culinary culture.
For example, Familia Zuccardi not only offers tours of their wine- and olive-oil production facilities, but a number of ways to get around -- by bike, hot air balloon or classic cars. They also offer opportunities to get even more intimately involved in Argentine country life, with programs that enable you to learn the wine business hands-on in their fields or cook with their chefs.
You arrive at the Zuccardi estate with the family dogs warmly greeting you, your bikes waiting at the porch, and lovely pastries and breads set out to fuel your day.
Once in the hands of your capable guide, on foot or wheels, you will be squired to the family's state-of-the-art olive-oil production facility for a tasting.
As the sun bakes the fields, the guide hands you protective goggles and clippers, and sends you off to work to harvest or prune the vines. There's no better way to appreciate the various wines that will accompany barbecued Argentine beef and the many side dishes.
Trapiche offers tours of their historic winery, which happens to be one of the oldest surviving buildings in the area. However, to fully appreciate their quality, head to Almacen Del Sur and its downtown Mendoza affiliates, Winery (the Bergdorf Goodman of wine shops) and adjacent El 23 Gran Bar.
The charming country cottage housing the Almacen gives way to an interactive experience, thanks to the sprawling kitchen and organic gardens, as well as the solar-powered ovens used to sun-dry tomatoes and other things they will tempt you with later via its retail area and restaurant set up.
The most exceptional sensory snapshot of Argentina's ruggedly beautiful west can be found at Espacio Salentein, which incorporates the Art Deco-inspired Salentein Winery, Killka Restaurant, Museo Killka and Posada Salentein into a blissful awakening.
Near-perfect cuisine, excellent wines, and an eclectic mix of modern Argentine and Renaissance Dutch art is truly worth going to the literal ends of the earth for.
For more information, visit: www. welcomeargentina.com/mendoza.