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A Bumper Crop Of Reasons To Visit Chile

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Somewhere along the line, and I don't exactly know when, wine went from beverage to something more. I like wine, but truth be told, always felt a little intimidated by the complexity of the stuff and all those rules: glass size, glass shape, glass thickness. I'm reaching for a simple tumbler and pouring myself some Wild Turkey.

Keep this is background in mind as you picture me taking a wine tour of Chile. The men who invited me to accompany them on the tour ohad to promise me I wouldn't have to know a Burgundy from a Beaujolais. There would be mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding.

What could I do? I said yes.

This is how I learned wine tourism is a recognition that no matter how much anyone loves to imbibe, there are certain times when non-drinking activity has to take place. After one's morning coffee for example and the period of time that breaks up several afternoon wine tastings. Drink too much and loose the ability to appreciate the taste and after that, what exactly is the point?

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So this filling in the times in-between wine consumption is where non-oenologists get to have fun because life on the vineyard makes for some downright entertaining things to do.

Here, with no particular relevance to how much I enjoyed each one, is a list of the things I did while not drinking wine in Chile and a little explanation of the when, where, why and how. You'll also find the links to each vineyards in case you want to try a visit yourself. Mark and Stevie not included.

Viu Manent

When the director of tourism at a vineyard starts talking about adding day care, a small hotel and a wedding chapel to the place, you got to figure there's more to do at this winery than just drink wine. You figured right.

Viu Manent is located in Santa Cruz, a good 2-hour drive through breathtakingly beautiful scenery in the valley called Colchagua. When we arrived, we were taken by horse drawn carriage into the fields where the Chardonnay grapes, at their peak and ready for plucking, were waiting for us to help harvest.

Truth be told, there were professionals in the fields who kept right on working while we tourists fumbled with our aprons, gloves, hats and clippers and snipped bunches of white grapes like the neophytes we were. There is nothing like wrestling with the tenacious tendrils of a vine unwilling to surrender its fruit to make one appreciate the skill of the folks who do this day in and day out.

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Viu Manent doesn't just let you pick the grapes, they let you follow their path. We saw the presses, the fermentation, the labs, the casks and finally, we rested under a grape arbor at the winery's lovely restaurant where we washed down lunch with several bottles of the house product.

Viu Manent has an art gallery (ask to hear the stories that go along with the original art on the labels) and a gift shop. Stay tuned, someday soon they'll offer overnight accommodations, too.

Viña Tarapaca

"Who wants to ride a horse?" My hand shot up in the air and so did Stevie's and Stacy Slinkard a Colorado girl who owns two horses of her own and who writes about wine for About.com.

Viña Tarapaca, farms 1,400 acres of vineyards so I figured this would be a nice way to get an slightly elevated overview and a little exercise at the same time. I hadn't counted on a horse who knew where he was going and was in a hurry to get there. As I hung on to the saddle for dear life, the more experienced Stevie and Stacy calmly listened to the guide as he told us about the fields and the grapes at Viña Tarapaca.

I caught up on what I missed at the beautiful museum of wine on the property. We did not stay here long enough to swim in the pool, use the sauna, golf the 4-hole course, or play on one of the two tennis courts, but before leaving I did snatch some fresh figs off a giant tree on the shaded walking path by the Viña Tarapaca airfield.

And had I a say in the matter, we would have spent at least one night at the 18-room Tuscan-style manor home and toured the adorable nearby village of Isla de Maipo. Viña Tarapaca is a 45-minute drive from Santiago.

Errazuriz

You go to a vineyard thinking its all about growing grapes, then a place like Errazuriz shows you that life of all kinds is bursting forth. Our guide gave us hats, warned us we were gonna get dirty and promptly marched us off on an uphill hike to see the magnificent grounds of the vineyard in the Aconcagua Valley.

Along the way we stopped to pick red peppercorns from the giant trees - rubbing them between our hands and enjoying the fresh peppery smell.

Rosemary bloomed along our path and the cactus were laden with prickly pears. In the midst of all this sensory stimulation we ate and ate and ate the grapes. Was a tasting even necessary after all this?

The Errazuriz buildings are a creative blend of historic and contemporary. We descended into the 19th century cellar on the brick ramp on which in the past, the wine was carted by teams of horses.

We examined the award-winning wines on display and heard the story of Chile's late-discovered but now-famed red-leafed Carmenere grape. Then we walked across the stone patio to examine the high-tech, geothermal climate-controlled, architecturally-significant, thoroughly-modern addition to the winery - the work of Chile's Samuel Claro.

A trip to Errazuriz should be paired with other activities in the area as it is a 2 hour drive from Santiago and there are no overnight accommodations at the vineyard.

Emiliana

Many of the vineyards we visited in Chile were striving for organic, carbon neutral, even Biodynamic certification. There's no better place than at Emiliana Organic Vineyard in the Casablanca Valley west of Santiago to get an look-see at how farming on a large scale can still be earth-friendly. The first hint that this is not an ordinary vineyard is the presence of alpacas, horses, geese and other critters on the property. They're there to "contribute" to the farm, their output being useful for the soil. In the case of the chickens who get to call the "mobile chicken coop" home, their input is equally valuable. They eat the bugs and pests that may otherwise harm the vines.

Many visitors though, just enjoy petting the animals and taking their photos as if they were rock stars.

The guides at Emiliana offer a spirited tour that explains many of the ways the vineyard differs from modern high-production farms and guests are welcome to hike through the fields, lunch al fresco or try the wines in the sun-filled indoor tasting bar.

While there, I recommend buying a box or two of the chocolates. They pair very well with wine.

De Martino Vineyards, a 40-minute drive outside of Santiago in the Maipo Valley is the place to go for a start-to-finish understanding of everything wine-related, no tricks, no gimmicks and no snotty attitude. I knew De Martino was going to be a down-to-earth experience when the first thing our guide, Francisca Rodriguez, did was walk us down a ladder into the dirt, to show us how soil composition enhances the growth of grapes.

This awareness of the land and all the factors that yield good grapes - what they call terrior - infused much of what Fran told us during our visit. De Martino is a vineyard with an earth-friendly attitude, 100% organic and with carbon neutral production.

During the tasting, Fran explained that we were "drinking the place" and we understood what she meant; all the contributing factors from seed to cask were rooted literally in the soil and figuratively in the culture, a paring that that played out in the mouth and in the mind.

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A little flush from the experience, Fran then turned us loose in the winery's vast tiled tasting hall with several bottles of Cabernet, Carmenere and Syrah so that we could create wines blended exactly to our own tastes, before shepherding us off to a barbeque lunch.

Visitors to De Martino won't be distracted by the kinetic activities that kept me entertained at many of the other stops, but it was just the right place to turn a bourbon drinker into a someone with an incrementally better understanding of how and why wine will always be more than a drink.