January 7, 2010
Argentina is famous for the 're-discovery' of wines made from Malbec, its best-known export. It's thousands of acres of grapes aren't just a livelihood, but a cause for celebration: La Vendimia, or the Harvest, is marked in Mendoza with parades and celebrations that last for weeks. Occurring from mid-March to April, the festivities close with the crowning of the year's harvest queen; La Reina de la Vendimia. (The ladies are chosen from all over the province, judged by both official judges and popular vote.) Nightly stage shows include folkloric music and dance, colorfully costumed dancers and singers from all over the country gather in Mendoza to celebrate. (You can see this year's queen here.)
Harvest season has laborers picking grapes from morning till night. The grapes are loaded into the backs of huge open-topped cargo trucks like the one below. The tannic scent of grapes wafts through the air–the bodegas (wineries) are in full production. Most wineries buy their grapes from the independent farmers who grow them. The farmers contract people to pick the grapes and also contracts the trucks–often the same people year after year. Huge truckloads of grapes with uncovered mounds of grapes heaped in the back line up in front of the bodegas, snaking down the road. Bees, attracted by the sweet scent of the grape juice under the hot sun, swarm around the trucks. And school children on their way home jump up and grab a handful of grapes from the truck to munch on. The trucks are ancient–some dating as far back as the 1930s–amazingly well preserved, considering their age.
One Friday night, I counted 30 trucks parked all up and down the road in front of La Bowense–the bodega in front of my in-laws' house. La Bowense makes table wine, sold in large Dama Juana-style jugs. Trucks pull in at intervals all day long, along with their drivers, who stay guarding their truckload of grapes until it has gone through processing at the bodega.
The trucks and their drivers camp out, sleeping in shifts or staying awake all night. They build little parillas on the dirt road and barbecue their suppers in the street. Someone brings out a portable radio, and through the lace-curtained window at my in-laws' house, we hear the sounds on the street outside. We lay awake listening to their conversation, peppered with bursts of laughter. Admitedley not a very restful night, since the only respite from the noise of the truck drivers is the sound of a diesel truck puttering by, or a moped buzzing past.
La Vendemia one of my favorite times to visit Bowen. The town is full of life, there's an excitement in the air. And when you think about it, all that remarkable effort is for a little glass of grape juice. Let's raise a glass to all the growers, pickers, drivers, and winery workers who make it all possible. Salut!