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Sampling Chile’s melting pot

This shaded vintage horse-drawn carriage carts visitors around fields Viu Manent Winery north Santiago.  The winery was founded 1935

This shaded, vintage horse-drawn carriage carts visitors around the fields at the Viu Manent Winery, north of Santiago. The winery was founded in 1935 and specializes in Malbec. | DAVE HOEKSTRA

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IF YOU GO

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Updated: March 20, 2012 8:06AM



SANTA CRUZ, Chile — The thirst for cultural identity makes for a good time to soak up South America.

I discovered this a couple of years ago as Colombia began its transformation from a drug cartel into a food, dance and beach destination. The same thing is happening farther south in Chile. Democracy was only re-established in 1990 in Chile after General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte’s dictatorship (1973-90) was voted out. Pinochet had established Chile as one of the most open economic systems in the developing world although leftists criticize economic inequality.

But what is Chilean identity?

Even Chileans admit many gringos think Chile is somehow related to Mexico.

The Chilean copper miners made international news, and the government got props for a seamless, high-tech rescue.

Until I visited Southern Chile a few weeks ago, my connection to Chile was Nobel Prize poet Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. But I discovered effervescent people with a keen sense of wonder, a highway infrastructure that works better than Chicago’s and splendorous country Wine Trails. The Chilean summer ends on March 21, and winter begins around June 21.

Tapping into the embryonic identity, Lollapallooza Chile returns to Santiago (pop. 5.4 million) March 31-April 1 in O’Higgins Park in downtown Santiago, or what locals now call “Sanhattan.” Last year Lollapalooza made its first venture outside of the United States, and it chose Chile. The festival was a success, drawing between 40,000 and 60,000 people daily and featuring more than 20 acts who appeared in Chile for the first time. This year’s headliners include the Foo Fighters, Bjork, Joan Jett and Chilean-born Indie pop star Yael Meuer, now based in Los Angeles.

During my week in Southern Chile there was a Lollapleasant surprise at each turn.

I bumped into a charter tour of American wine enthusiasts at the Hotel Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley, a wine region about 130 miles south of Santiago. I know more about tequila than wine, but I had high expectations for regional vino because I have enjoyed the rustic tones — and affordability of Chilean wine.

The tourists were a middleaged group, and if they had been in the Napa Valley you would have thought they were truckin’ to a Bob Weir concert. The Southern region of Chile gets compared to Northern California because of cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean that permits grapes to ripen slowly. The climate is arid. Wine Enthusiast magazine named the Colchagua Valley “Region of the Year” for 2005.

Chicago is at the root of this economic and tourism development.

During the mid-1950s hundreds of Chileans studied free-market economics under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. The teachings were organized by the U.S. State Department and funded by the Ford Foundation. The economists returned to Chile where they became known as “The Chicago Boys,” introducing currency stabilzation, decreasing union power and opening Chile’s markets to open trade during the 1970s and ’80s. “You have to remember that Chile, as a socialist government in the 1970s and ’80s was very protected,” Raul Fernandez, Counsel General of Chile in Chicago said last week.

Fernandez, 52, is a native of Santiago. He arrived in Chicago three weeks ago after serving similar posts in Mexico and Europe. “Our identity is not only Hispanic, we are from every place in the world,” Fernandez said. “Asian, a number of Arabs and Palestinians. Yugsoslavia. Germany.” Be on the lookout for the roadside Bavaria restaurant chain. Schnitzel and breaded pork steaks are served at Bavaria restaurants, whose yellow and red roadside signage replicate Denny’s. The national chain was founded in 1964 in Santiago.

Fernandez continued, “Our advantage over Peru or Mexico is that they have a very old history. We don’t have the weight of history. It is not complicated to change the structure when you don’t have an enormous weight. We are open to globalization. It was easy for us to take.”

The country is only 110 miles wide at its average width, but stretches 2,700 miles long, more than half the length of South America. It is surrounded by natural barriers: the ocean to the west, the Atacama Desert to the north (the world’s driest desert), the Andes Mountains to the east, and the Patagonian Ice Fields to the south that claim a part of Antarctica. Soils and topography are deep and diverse. The barriers make Chile virtually free of pests.

The colorful Hotel Santa Cruz is owned by a pest to the United States.

Carlos Cardeon is one of Chile’s biggest wine enthusiasts and is a major player in tourism in the valley. He opened the Hotel Santa Cruz in 2000 and painstakingly rebuilt his hotel after the 8.8 earthquake in February 2010, which leveled Santa Cruz (pop. 32,000). The 116-room Colonial-style hotel is across the street from the quaint Plaza De Armas park. The Santa Cruz native also raised money to rebuild a 19th Century church across the street from the plaza. He owns a 10,000-item museum next to the hotel that features a new exhibit honoring the 33 rescued Chilean miners. Miner Samuel Avalos sold $8,000 worth of his mining artifacts to Cardeon. Cardeon’s Museo de Colchagua is the largest private museum in South America.

The Hotel Santa Cruz features a glorious tiki-inspired outdoor swimming pool with an adjacent lounge and Los Varietales restaurant where we enjoyed traditional Chilean corn pie. The pie is locked and loaded with beef, onions, a piece of chicken, an olive and a quarter boiled egg. The top layer of fresh corn is creamy, and after it is baked the pie is sprinkled with sugar and then broiled.

What may be most bizarre at the Hotel Santa Cruz is a small hideaway casino in the back of the property that includes slots, blackjack and live entertainment that consisted of a young Chilean woman singing karaoke on the night I dropped in. The Hotel Santa Cruz does offer a wine tour package ($169 a person, double occupancy with Jacuzzi suite, one night, two days; chile-hotels.com/santacruz.htm.)

While the Hotel Santa Cruz is in a small downtown location, the Viu Manent Winery is a country estate just four miles southeast of Santa Cruz.

The winery encompasses 543 acres. The Viu Manent was founded in 1935 by Catalonian immigrant Miguel Viu Garcia. The current Miguel Viu Manent family has owned the estate since 1966. The family has planted more than 20 varieties of vineyards, but they specalize in Malbec.

Viu Manent is a good place to explore Chilean identity. The ranchero-inspired gift shop features colorful custom made wine labels designed by Chilean artist Catalina Abbott for the family’s Secreto line. Her work is influenced by graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Picasso. Abbott’s abstract style complements the edgy blended wine (there are six different labels). I did learn that most of the Secretos are made from grapes from the youngest vineyards, which accounts for a fruity flavor.

Viu Manent is making inroads into agritourism unlike any other winery I visited. Guests are taken across the grounds in a shaded, vintage horse-drawn carriage that holds about eight people. Stops are made in the vineyards, the wine cellar and for a wine tasting by the wine vat. Lunch is served in the new Rayuela Wine & Grill, which features an indoor cantina and a sprawling colonial patio with a view of the hills of Apalta that frame the valley. A visitor’s center includes a gift store and options for horseback riding on the grounds. The staff is bilingual; viumanent.cl.

It would be easy to spend the afternoon living the high life at Viu Manent, then scooting over to Santa Cruz for a more gritty experience. Chilean culture is evolving at a colorful and kinetic pace. There’s something to toast high, low and in-between.

For more on Chilean art and how a novice can win the wine-making contest at Viu Manent, visit blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association.



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