In the early 70s, there was a time when the gaucho look was all the rage in women’s fashion. Suddenly, suburbs were afloat in bolero hats, leather boots, and gaucho pants, which always looked like bloomers that had somehow lost their bungee. My mom even had a poncho at one point, complete with tassels and a belt. Eventually, the gaucho look went the way of hot pants, platform shoes, and the safari look. But little did I know it would boomerang back into my life decades later in a very curious way.

Fast forward to 2019. In December that year I spent five days in Chile under the auspices of Wines of Chile, the country’s wine PR and trade association. The invite came from good friend and fellow MS, Evan Goldstein. The trek down involved two flights. First, from Burque Flats (Albuquerque) to Houston. Then an overnight connection to Santiago, which took nine hours. After landing, going through immigration, and retrieving my bag, it was time to meet up with the tour.

The group comprised 25 wine professionals from throughout the U.S. including several MS colleagues. After an hour’s bus ride, we were ensconced in a faux-modern hotel next to a grand 19th century estate called Las Majadas. A picnic lunch on a spacious lawn underneath giant trees was followed by the first tasting of the trip, conducted in a ballroom in the manor house. Introductions were made and the trip’s agenda was explained in detail. Then the group tasted more than 50 wines covering a broad range of styles, accompanied by discussions moderated by winemakers.

Dinner that night was at the Las Majadas restaurant. The wine theme for the evening was Carménère. If not familiar, Carménère is a red grape/wine that does especially well in Chile vs. other locales around the globe. Carménère is also a member of the Cabernet Sauvignon family. Other siblings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. Though they are different grapes/wines, one aspect manages to rule them all, to find them, and in the darkness bind them. It’s a chemical compound called pyrazines that smells and tastes like green bell pepper, grass, and herbs. Carménère is known for being the most pyrazenic member of the Cabernet tribe.

To liven up the pre-dinner festivities, the trip’s organizers thought it would be a splendid idea to have a tasting contest of sorts. In short order I was drafted along with two other MS colleagues and paraded in front of the entire group. The game was to taste two Carménères blind and try to identify them from a list of wines tasted earlier that afternoon.

The prize for winning the contest, and I’m finally landing the plane here, was a real-life, honest-to-god poncho (pictured above). It was made from the wool of native sheep on the island of Castro. Said island would be our destination the next day after a short commuter flight. The rest of the trip would be spent there doing tastings, excursions, and more.

The climate of Castro, being fairly south in the southern hemisphere, is similar to Seattle or Vancouver. It’s lush and green because it rains—a lot. And it’s on the cooler side. I can only imagine the poor sheep that contributed their fleece to the prize poncho and other woolen goods the island is known for.

Back to the contest. The three of us were given five minutes of final Jeopardy time before having to reveal our choices for the two wines in front of god, colleagues, and a deaf universe. Fortunately, I had my notebook with me with notes from the afternoon’s tasting. Unfortunately, my two colleagues did not.

I tasted the two wines and made comments, using my notes as a reference. The first wine was elegant and restrained for Carménère, but still had the herbal/vegetal stamp. I immediately pegged it as the wine from a winemaker I’d met earlier in the day. The other entry was more along the lines of a Carménère frat party. It was huge, inky dark in color, and overtly fruity. The weed garden thing was still there, but it was like a noisy kegger was also in progress. After consulting my notes, I quickly chose one of two wines from the afternoon tasting that I thought was similar in style.

In no time, the five minutes were up. My colleagues were unable to ID either of the wines. I got the first wine right, but not the second—and won the contest. General hoopla ensued. After all, it was the first night of the trip and no one was hungover or sleep-deprived. Yet. Then, with great flourish, the trip organizers took the prize poncho off its pedestal and tried to bestow it on me.

In micro-seconds, several things occurred. First, the poncho was heavy, almost to the point of being like the lead vest they put on you at the dental office when they’re going to take multiple X-rays of your skull, not to mention irradiate your person. Second, the wool was incredibly scratchy. Wearing the prize poncho for even brief periods of time would be an exercise in masochism, not unlike the penitents of old who wore mohair shirts and flagellated themselves before the cross.

As bad as the heavy-scratchy parts were, the third factor was the deal breaker. The wool of my newly-won prize was corked to the extreme. So corked it would have shamed well water. The TCA was like a force field. I literally recoiled as two winery reps tried to put the gaucho-con serape on me. I immediately turned to the group, who were all taking photos on their phones at the moment, and announced that the poncho was hopelessly corked. High hilarity and mayhem ensued.

No surprise I refused to wear the corked poncho. After some quick negotiations, we settled for displaying it on a chair in the front of the room at a considerable distance from the group. But that didn’t stop many of the attendees from coming up to check out how corked it was, like little kids passing around a carton of curdled milk.

After massive quantities of roasted cow and Carménère were consumed, the trip’s organizers made welcome speeches. Then we headed back in the dark to our hotel rooms, me with the mui corked poncho in tow. As I carried the stinky and heavy pile of wool, I was troubled. What would I do with it for the rest of the trip? There was no way on earth I was putting the thing in my suitcase. First, it wouldn’t fit. Second, even if it did, I could never suffer lugging the thing around for the duration knowing it would permanently contaminate all of my belongings not to mention the suitcase.  

A solution presented itself the next morning. After we got to the airport, I sought out one of the trip’s organizers and asked if he could mail the poncho back to me in The States. He said yes and took the offending gaucho garment and my business card, saying he would see to it after the conclusion of the trip. Thankfully, it didn’t happen. Mi compadre never got around to mailing it. I’m glad he didn’t. Had the poncho showed up, it would have lived in a remote spot in the garage or ended up at Goodwill. Otherwise, somewhere in Santiago a forgotten poncho now lies in darkness, collecting dust and becoming more corked every day. But at least it’s not in my garage. And that’s a very good thing.