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TREASURED WINE

Jack May

I recently led an expedition of The Explorers Club to Cordillera do los Llanganates, a small isolated range 31 the eastern Andes in Ecuador. Our mission was to find the legendary treasure -- 400 tons of gold missing since 1533 -- of Atahuallpa, the last king of Peru. Our international expedition team, composed of experts in mountaineering, photography, herpetology, ornithology and archeology, including seven men and Lee, my wife and kindred wine aficionado.

While planning the trip, I checked weather forecasts and found only one date practical for assembling our group during favorable weather. Lee and I would spend Christmas with the expedition team, far from civilization.

As expedition leader, I knew that most of our food would have to be dried, which would allow little leeway for gastronomic creativity or flexibility. My job was to insure that items not essential to the mission or not required for the team's safety were eliminated.

The area where we would be searching gold, for possible archaeological sites, and for new species of humming birds and reptiles is still unmapped. This wet region of the Andes, which averages more than a foot of rain each month, is known as paramo, a unique high-altitude wilderess. It is uninhabited, unexplored, uninviting, unsafe and difficult to reach.

Although Lee did not mind spending Christmas cold and wet to search for lost treasure, she insisted that we take along a potable treasure of our own. Unable to imagine a holiday without a celebratory wine, I gave in to Lee's idea on one condition: that she carry the bottle in her own rucksack. Our fellow travelers were not to know about the wine.

But which one would we take from our cellar for the treasure hunt? After careful deliberation, we decided on a magnum of Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1985.

A week before Christmas, we were in Ecuador preparing to board a fully packed Ecuadorean army helicopter to avoid a score of porters and weeks of hazardous climbing. Since the helicopter would be operating at its maximum ceiling and load capacity to carry the team, our equipment and supplies had to be deliberately selected. We totaled our body weight, weighed our gear, selected, reweighed and pruned again. To our magnum of wine, Lee had added a tinned Danish ham, a votive Christmas candle and a few holiday ornaments. Her pack was lumpy and heavy. Even with my efforts to spare it, the precious bag came close to being left behind so that we could comply with the weight limit.

Finally, the heavily burdened helicopter, manned by three airmen, lifted off. After several hours of dicey flying in the misty, inhospitable mountains, we located our intended base camp, 11,880 feet above sea level. But the ground was neither firm nor level enough for the helicopter to land. We had only one option: to hover as low as possible and jump out one by one.

Lee was by the door, so she had to jump first. She looked at me, looked at her bulging backpack and shook her head. She tossed out the pack first and leaped after it into the mist. Her landing was fine. As I jumped, her pack was still bouncing and rolling down a sheer slope.

After days of exploration, the holiday dawned. When we awoke to the still-glistening stars overhead, each frosted tent was decorated with bright ribbons and tinsel. In the astonishing quiet of the frozen Andes, the votive candle, tied to a tent pole, blazed.

The adventurers were delighted. The ham was opened to applause, and then the ultimate surprise revealed and uncorked. Thankfully, the perfumed nose of Juscin Meyers Cabernet Sauvignon was unaffected by its rough journey. And the soft, seductive wine seemed even richer and more distinctive so many miles above sea level.

All over the world that morning, people were celebrating the day and drinking fine wine. Yet we were enjoying nectar in the unique and remote paramo. If heaven is indeed in the sky, our team was almost as close as anyone. We toasted our special occasion. Lee looked at me and smiled, in vino felicitas!


Jack May, a member of The Explorers Club, lives in Florida.

WINE SPECTATOR JUNE 15, 2001