March 12, 2014
Amanda Barnes, journalistSaturday, January 25, 2014
A wine education
From: Winchester, UK
Lives in: Mendoza
Education: Comparative Literature at King’s College London, NCE journalism
Reading: The Wine Maker
Last film seen: The Life of Pi
Amanda Barnes came to learn more about Argentina’s wine industry for a three-month stint. Four and a half years on, the British journalist lives in Mendoza and set up an education foundation with some friends to help less advantaged families who work in the vineyards.
Having worked in newspapers from the tender age of 15, journalist Amanda Barnes decided it was time for a year-long break to Argentina, Peru and Colombia. Inspired by Latin American literature studied during her degree — namely one particular incomparable Argentine author — almost five years on, she never moved on to those other countries.
She says: “After working in newspapers in England for three years, I decided to take a sabbatical to focus more on food and travel writing. So I came to Argentina — and that was four and a half years ago. I started in Buenos Aires and had studied world literature at university and so I fell in love with Argentina from afar because of Borges. The plan was to start in BA for three months and focus wine, then I was going to go to Lima and focus on food, then go to Colombia, García Márquez’ home, and write about travel — but I never left Argentina.
“I spent about four months in BA and I really enjoyed the city but I decided to learn more about wine and to be close to that at grassroots level. So I got more involved spending time in wineries and felt it was as a great base from which to visit Brazil and Chile, but I still haven’t made it to Peru or Colombia! I’m a very slow traveller, and still consider that I am travelling. Living in a new country means you get new experiences every day and I’m not tired of it. Rather than settling here, I’ve still got lots to explore and that’s why I still enjoy it. Most of my friends have fallen in love with Argentines but I’ve stayed for the wine, which is the honest truth! And the great weather.”
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY
Given that Amanda was only ever meant to be away from the UK for a year, of course it was a surprise for the folks back home when she didn’t return.
“My family always thought I’d be back after a year but I think I realized after 12 months that i’d still be here for another year and so it goes on. But I don’t see myself moving back any time soon. I never had the intention of staying forever but I’m still discovering so much. I think my family is a bit disappointed I stayed in Argentina as it’s so far way — they’d probably prefer it if I was a bit closer in Europe.
“But I’ve always found living here very easy and I enjoy the social aspect, the time that people put into their friends and family. I enjoy the slower pace of life and the time spent outside the office. Obviously there are frustrations with regard to the financial system here, and it’s absurd but it can also be quite entertaining.”
One of the reasons she decided on Argentina and its winery because it would be less snobby than other, more established, wine regions in the world
She says; “Given the proximity of the vineyards, I thought it would be easier to immerse myself in the scene as there is less of a stubborn European stance. So I thought it would be easier to meet people and break down that resistance. People are willing to teach you, whether you’re a journalist or a regular person and they teach you in a very unpretentious way.”
FOUNDING A CHARITY
Given her close contact with the wine industry has also led her to see it from a different angle, and 18 months ago, Amanda set up Fundación Servir with some friends that helps educate less advantaged families who work in the vineyards.
“Two of my best friends work in the wine industry and we set up a foundation. One of them works in a winery and the other has a tourism company and we set up Fundación Servir to teach English and computer skills to less advantaged families in the Ugarteche region who don’t have access to such things. We do cultural outings every week and workshops, which are supported by events such as fundraisers — the next one is on February 27 — and a lot of people in the wine industry have been generous with their time and donations.
“I’m in charge of organizing monthly workshops and we have a base of volunteers. The last workshop saw an Argentine artist spend the day playing with kids’ creativity, making them paint the sky pink and the trees blue. For the adults, a sommelier taught a wine appreciation class, and they were surprisingly great at blind tasting. Most of them work in the vines and have contact with wine, yet it’s a reality that no one really talks about but at ground level, the people that work in the vines are a neglected community in terms of education opportunities and cultural richness. The idea of the foundation is to help them improve their options and empower them. As we all work with wine, that’s where the link with the vineyards has come in.
“I find working with adults most rewarding as kids are like sponges. The adults and the cultural interaction between the volunteers, who are mainly expats, is really interesting, as they wouldn’t normally have the chance to meet foreigners, or vice-versa, to meet people from more humble communities.
“Last year, for our winter outing, we took a group of a dozen kids to the Andes. It was ski season and the first time any of them had gone more than 50km from home. So it was a big experience, not only with altitude but experiencing snow for the first time. That was by far by most fun day. It was a good one for pushing everyone’s boundaries.”
However, it wasn’t simply a question of rocking with some pens and paper to start teaching a filled classroom. “Of course it was a novelty, some gringas turning up to teach English and lots were concerned they had to pay, or that it was related to the government. But the director, Michelle, had a lot of connections with people working in the winery she works at so we started inviting adults at first. And it must be going well because one pupil walks two and half hours to get to a class. It took time for people to understand it’s free, that there’s no strings attached. It grew fast in the beginning, but now we have a steady number, about 80 children and 30 adults between the classes.
“These days we teach at a local soup kitchen but the aim is to have our own delegated space by the end of this year, as well as launch another group. We’re looking into other areas, perhaps in Valle de Uco, that might need this kind of help.”
Now she lives in the centre of Mendoza but Amanda has moved around more times than she cares to count. “Last year I moved four times and right now I am in the centre — it’s very small and like a village compared to BA and last year I was in the quinta section, a more relaxed hood. I’ve moved about 20 times since I’ve been in Argentina — there’s a buoyant housing market in BA but there’s not much in Mendoza and that can be quite frustrating. But I seem to bring good luck to the owners as they have all sold their properties.”
As for friends, she prefers to keep it mixed up, after tiring quickly of transient foreign friendships. “I have a mix of friends but in the beginning they were mainly expats. After six months and going to a leaving party every night, I made more Argentine friends.”
Amanda has also had the privilege of travelling for work, and holds the expansive south close to her heart. “I like so many places but Patagonia has one of the most stunning landscapes. I enjoy the wide open space, and even though I come from the countryside in England, you’re only ever five minutes away from the nearest town. So to have hours of vast empty landscapes lying ahead of you, especially frozen ones, is amazing. I also loved visiting the more tropical side such as Iguazú,. Salta is also beautiful, with that Andean landscape. I don’t find the cities very charming — what really wows me are the natural landscapes. But Mendoza is pretty amazing too! Seeing the mountains form the city, seeing all the colours and expression they have, is beautiful.”