It's business as usual in Mendoza, the capital of Argentina's Mendoza Province and center of the country's thriving wine trade, a small, mellow city of a little more than 120,000 people. Narrow canals line the streets, providing irrigation for the phalanxes of copiously verdant trees that shade its wide avenues from the sometimes brutal sun. In spite of visible damage from the periodic earthquakes that have shaken this part of Argentina, the place has a familiar, European look, the legacy of the many Italian immigrants who settled here in the late 19th century. You can stop for a quick espresso, or a leisurely vino tinto, at one of the shady cafes and almost feel that you are just a few kilometers from the Mediterranean. The clock here runs languidly on what the locals call el tiempo mendocino - Mendozan time.
But the sleepy look of Mendoza is deceptive. Behind the scenes, Mendoza is fast becoming an international wine hotspot. Famed wine consultants, such as Frenchman Michel Rolland or Kendall-Jackson wine guru Randy Ullom, jet in from Bordeaux or Sonoma to advise, swirling - and reluctantly spitting - mouthful after mouthful of sensuous Argentine Malbec. Noted label designers such as Chuck House arrive to create the graphic images that will help sell future Argentine wines to an eager world market. Luminaries such as Baron Eric de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, can be spotted dancing a curiously French version of the tango after dinner at Mendoza's hottest culinary destination, chef Francis Mallmann's fabulous Restaurante 1884.