11/11/2011 08:26 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

A Tipsy Heaven In Argentina

You know she's coming long before you see or hear her. The three dogs -- usually napping by the pool or lazily petitioning for a backrub -- come bounding around the corner, tails wagging and eyes beaming. Their mistress is here and it's quickly clear to animals of all varieties what the fuss is about.

Gabriela Furlotti is the owner of Finca Adalgisa, the rustic and enormously charming hotel and winery that was the last stop on my recent trip to Argentina. By every standard it's a terrific place to stay. But its story- and the woman those dogs call mom- are what make it truly special.

The five acres were originally purchased by Gabriela's grandmother in 1936. Malbec vines and olive trees had been planted at the turn of the century and meticulously maintained, though Lila Moretti was mainly interested in the property as a place in the country.

Three generations later, Lila's 'country' has changed, from an exclusively agricultural area, to a town, to a bustling city. With commercial development closing in, Gabriela decided to preserve the family home and traditional vineyard by converting the property into a hotel and working winery.

Anyone who's been to northern California may not find the idea of opening a boutique vineyard hotel noteworthy. But for western Argentina, Gabriela's idea in 2000 was not only controversial. It was unfathomable.

"At the time, there was no tourism in Mendoza. It was very expensive to travel here. As a result, there were no hotels -- small or large, boutique or chain."

In addition to a lack of potential guests, renovations and new construction began before- and continued straight through- Argentina's 2001 economic collapse. Finca Adalgisa (translation: noble land of promise) opened 7 months later and by January 2003 was at 80% occupancy from the influx of visitors eager to take advantage of the exchange rates.

Gabriela had- to put it mildly- hit the jackpot.

I asked whether it was wisdom or passion that propelled her through so many obstacles. "Neither. To open the hotel was simply an idea. I had no experience in the business, done no research, had no training. I just did it, though everyone told me I was crazy. Why not? Something I can't explain pushed me to do it, and it worked. The money, the guests, the American dollars after the crash. It wasn't planned."

Planned or not, subsequent ventures have proven her golden touch to be more than a stroke of luck. On yet another hunch, Gabriela started the first Fair Trade network in Mendoza, transforming the livelihoods and lives of many of the area's producers of grapes.

"A friend of a former client came to stay at the Finca. He'd spent time in Mexico and was talking about Fair Trade. It sounded like a good idea, so I acted."

A year later, Bodega Furlotti is producing 100,000 bottles and counting of Fair Trade Certified wine a year. Gabriela is also spearheading a real estate development project on 80 acres that prohibits subdivision and mandates generous amounts of ongoing planting... guidelines previously unheard of in the area. Told that no one would ever purchase such a property, Gabriela again went forward and has been met with great interest. "Doing the right thing for Mendoza- doing something agricultural- is being seen as the opportunity that it is.

In a world where fear and the opinions of others stop so many of us, I wanted to know what has her continually move forward.

"I don't know, it comes naturally to me. I do have my doubts and I am always thinking. I have my fears, my own ups and downs. But I work hard and sleep well at night. Many times, there's not enough money, but things always come together. There is always a solution. And knowing that keeps me in action."

Her viewpoint is quite a gift- one that serves all aspects of her business, including creative touches that make Finca Adalgisa so beloved by both new and returning guests. Vineyard-side cooking classes with a local chef, an informative and inspirational hotel newsletter, and an interactive blog are slowly but surely finding their way into other area hotels' promotional materials- a testament to the success of a woman and business the others are eager to replicate.

Her advisers tell her to set the record straight, but she's not interested.

"I don't care what people say. Or if they copy me. I never have. I know these are my ideas, and that is what is rewarding to me... that I was able to conceive of and develop an idea, rather than copy someone else's. Why would I spend time pursuing others when I can put that energy into other areas and new ideas?"

While waiting for Gabriela's next great brainstorm, I was thrilled to sit by the pool, surrounded by the vines and olive trees, with wine, cheese and empanadas a 'por favor' away. There really is a magic to the place... something you can't put into words or promotional materials.

"Other hotels may be more luxurious and expensive. They may have better views. Yet ours is something very different. I was born here; this place is filled with soul. It's living and breathing. And you can't package that."

Nor could her essence, in her own words, be better expressed:

"I love people. I love to be here, running this place. I'm living the life that I want."