GIOL Argentina`s Vinosaur
What do you do with the biggest and emptiest winery in the world? Mendoza is currently mulling over the remains of the wine giant GIOL. Editor Charlie O´Malley goes to see whats brewing.
In 1885 two Italian stowaways crossed the choppy Atlantic in search of fame and fortune. They arrived penniless in Buenos Aires and soon realised the grimy Tangolopolis was not for them. Near the port they noticed a billboard outside a Mendoza government office offering free train tickets to Mendoza and a piece of land to anyone who knew anything about growing grapes and making wine.
They went in and signed up. It was to be a fateful decision. Within 15 years Don Bautista Geronimo Gargantini and and his more economically named friend Juan Giol would be undisputed wine kings of Argentina and owners of the biggest winery in the world. GIOL, as the bodega came to be known, would in its heyday employ 3,500 people and produce 43 million litres of wine a year. A huge pipe known as a vinoduct would carry the wine 15 blocks to Maipu train station where it was loaded into tanks and railed to thirsty Buenos Aires.
Gargantini and Giol happened to be in the right place at the right time. Argentina was booming and on its way to becoming one of the richest countries in the world. They started out by buying wine and taking it up the mountains to sell to Chileans working on the Trans Andean railway. They acquired enough money to rent a bodega. At the time demand was greater than supply and the business prospered. They bought a winery and 48 hectares in Maipu, then another winery and more hectares. Soon they had a wine empire of 22 bodegas. They were awash with vino-pesos. It was no wonder they initially called their enterprise La Colina de Oro – The Hill of Gold.
The two men further strenghtened their profitable alliance by marrying two sisters, the Bondino girls. They built two lavish, palatial style mansions side by side, right next to their winery. Between them they went on to have 18 children.
Then in 1911, for reasons as unclear as the wine they produced, Gargantini decided to cash his chips, sell his share to his partner and move back to Italy. Giol reigned as wine king for several more years but perhaps missing his billionaire buddy moved back to Europe for good in 1921.
GIOL the wine giant continued as a corporation. The two mansions became a hotel and governers house respectively. The wine complex had its own electric tram system (indeed the Russian trams acquired to run on the city system were bought with GIOL wine). In 1954 the bodega became a goverment-owned collossus providing 30% of Mendoza´s gross product. It was so powerful it could control the price of wine and grapes. With time it became a gigantic monster of inefficiency and corruption. The management were political appointments who often knew little or nothing about making wine. In the early 70s the two mansions were stripped of their lavish furnishings and turned into sterile offices. The priceless contents disappeared. The bodega became crippled with huge debts and was losing 1 million dollars a month. Often, when low on cash, the winery would flood the market with underpriced produce. Such dumping played havoc with the local economy.
Privatisation was the nail in the coffin and the once great bodega closed its doors in 1989. The vineyards have since given way to urban sprawl but the 14-hectare winery still stands derelict and forlorn. Walking around its huge cylindrical silos (did they really hold wine?) you feel like you`re in an abandoned oil refinery, not a winery. In 1993 the municipilidad of Maipu took it over. The massive concrete tanks now serve as archive storage warehouses. Other buildings serve as schools and social welfare offices yet in general the area has an abandoned feel to it.
More in tune with the past, there is now a cooperative of 19 grape producers called Lumai, producing 250,000 litres of wine and employing 5 people. The mansions have been declared national monuments and a restaurant called Cava Vieja operates from the original wine cellars. You can even do a tour of what is still the largest capacity winery in South America. There are more ambitious plans. Pepe Tommelini, a marketing consultant working on a feasability study for the municipilidad has a vision of the future that matches this great winery in size. He wants to build a Disneyland of wine, with hotels, casinos and theme park rides.
“This is my dream,” says Pepe, “to turn this place of heritage and astounding history into a place called Vinolandia, where people can experience the wine history of Argentina”.
Improbable, you might say and perhaps a pipe dream. Just like the pipe dream of two stowaways in 1885.