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A hidden high-altitude treasure

Bolivia’s Tarija region produces great wines — it's just hard to find them outside the country.

Wine production figures are hard to come by here, but Kohlberg and Campos de Solana, two of the biggest outfits, produce several million liters per year between them. Export levels are unsteady, however. Figures released by the Bolivian Foreign Trade Institute show that exports have fluctuated dramatically in recent years.

During the first half of this decade, Bolivian wine exports averaged about $120,000 per year, with wines going to Denmark, the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany and Canada. In 2007, wine exports were valued at just $32,500, and went mostly to Finland. The figure dropped to almost zero during 2008 — a time of significant social unrest in Bolivia — but have increased during the first five months of this year to almost $50,000. This year, most wine exports are going to Bulgaria.

Locals say the issue is politics and bureaucracy. Foreign distributors say it has more to do with Bolivians’ attitudes about commerce. These views likely reflect two sides of the same coin: it’s very hard to sign contracts and plan ahead when upheaval is the rule of the day. Recently the U.S. government dropped Bolivia from its list of preferred trading partners due to the country’s poor record on fighting illegal cocaine trafficking. Exporters throughout the country have been badly hurt. “We don’t know whether to invest or not,” said Luis Granier Ballivian, the patriarch of one of two families that operate the Campos de Solana winery outside Tarija. It and Kohlberg supply the bulk of the national market, and their wines are commonly available in local restaurants and shops, as well as those in La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Campos de Solana began exporting to Germany in 2001. The firm has 200 hectares (494 acres) in cultivation and buys grapes from smaller growers. “We hope to arrive at 300 [hectares], if the political situation allows,” Granier said.

Steve Noblitt, co-owner of True Vine Imports Inc. of Ashville, North Carolina, said he’s been working for several years to import Kohlberg and Campos de Solana wines to the U.S. market but has run into bureaucratic and other obstacles. Tarija wines are still listed on True Vines’ website as “coming soon.”

Today natural gas remains by far the Tarija region’s main export. Despite the hardships caused by politics and the economy — and occasional damaging freezes and hail storms — Tarija growers look to a future when grape will be king.

“When there is no longer gas, the grape will still be here,” said Humberto Vacaflor, who has a small vineyard called “La Escondida” near the banks of the Rio Camacho, one of three rivers that run through the valley. He and a caretaker also operate a small “falca,” or homemade still, brewing singani from sweet white muscatel grapes.