Why you should care
Pingüinos are the hottest penguins.
When she traveled to Argentina last spring, Kansas lawyer Tracey Bamberger knew that her Argentine colleague would want a particular souvenir: “Just one penguin. It could even be a small one.” But she didn’t want just any old penguin. She was after a wine penguin.
Argentines know their wine, and they also know how to serve wine. But it may come as a surprise that some Argentines choose to pour their Malbecs from upright, white, ceramic or porcelain penguins with rounded tummies. The pingüino, a reference to the penguins found in the country’s Patagonia region, is a pitcher style that came into fashion among Argentina’s working class during the 1920s and ’30s. Natalia Páez notes in her book, Myths and Legends of Argentinian Wine, that before bottling laws, open-top pingüinos were the decanter of choice. During their heyday, they were found on just about every humble home’s table, full of the local specialty. But by the time the second World War had come to an end, so had the trend, and pingüinos became a cultural relic — something you’d see in the cupboard at grandma’s house. Tacky even. But they seem to be mounting a comeback.
Nestled in the old-money Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta is a homey, old-no-money café called El Sanjuanino, where the empanadas are hot and the pingüinos are full. Constantly packed with well-heeled Argentines enjoying a dip back in time, it’s a cheeky, almost hipsterish throwback to the good old days. “[Wine] tastes better coming out of the penguin’s mouth,” a waiter jokes, but that may be the truth. With its open beak, the pingüino pitcher, which holds up to a liter of wine, just may serve as an ideal decanter for Argentines’ vino.
Of course, many continue to turn up their noses. What’s the point of a fancy bottle with a fancy label if it all ends up in some penguin’s belly on the table? That’s why the pingüino was the serving pitcher of choice for jug wines, as pouring from a handsome aquatic bird is much more charming.
Today, the market for pingüinos is decidedly upscale. Vintage importer Russell Johnson, owner of Russell Johnson Imports, specializes in importing Argentinian antiques to the U.S. And the pingüino is a prime request. “I get a ton of emails from people who saw them in Argentina and now regret not getting one and want me to help them,” he says.
Finding a pingüino can be tricky. Johnson used to bring them to Miami by the pallet, but he’s found that the little guys are “not cost-effective, and their beaks often chip.” Today he hires a local family in Buenos Aires to scour the city’s antique markets for his clients. If you want a penguin of your own, he suggests picking one up at the San Telmo antiques market while you’re there — for around $5. Johnson confirms that the next hot tip in Argentine tourism just may be: Skip the Malbec and pack a penguin.