Charlie O’Malley gets some Harvest History.
The days before harvest are always worrisome, especially in a region where a five-minute hailstorm of icy golf balls can destroy a year’s work. Mendoza loses between 10 and 15 % of its fruit production because of these biblical storms that rip through the vineyards leaving pulped grapes amidst packed ice on the ground. Bodegueros sigh with relief when the crop is finally in. Traditionally farm labourers celebrated with music, dance and not a few demijohns of wine. A young girl was selected amongst the harvesters and crowned with a bunch of grapes. She became the Harvest Queen, a symbol of beauty, optimism and thanksgiving.
From these somewhat informal, spontaneous beginnings La Vendimia was born and the party just got bigger as it spawned into a beauty pageant with carnival style pretensions.. April 1913 was an important date in its evolution. A business congress in Mendoza ended with a procession of coaches, each representing a vineyard, trundling through the city streets. A parade was born.
It wasn’t until 1936 however when the first Harvest Queen was officially elected and recognized by the provincial government. Because of its working class roots, many middleclass families were reluctant to enter their daughters. This soon changed as the prizes grew richer and the title more prestigious. 1936 was also the first year an entrance fee was charged, justified by the fact that it was also the most spectacular. Decorated gondolas floated on the park lake and fireworks entertained the enthusiastic multitude.
The festivals growing popularity created problems. The increasing numbers of spectators made it difficult for the organizers to find a suitable venue. Somewhere was needed to showcase the performers and the crowning. It was a problem that would plague them for thirty years. 1939 saw the Church put its oar in with first Blessing of the Grapes. A statue of the Virgin Carrodilla now presides over this ceremony, riding up front in the procession.
Also in the same year a proper stage set was used in the Central Act and the organizers decided it was best to keep people in suspense and announce the Queen at the end rather than the beginning. In 1940, they used a giant floating set on the park lake surrounded by glittering gondolas. Sounds lovely but all that water, electricity and alcohol must have made it a health and safety nightmare. As luck would have it a violent storm disrupted it entirely and the ceremony was forced indoors. The Queen was chosen in the old Plaza hotel (now the Hyatt) and the carnival postponed until Monday.
Finally, in 1963, a Greek style amphitheatre was opened in the park. At last the main show had a home and it celebrated with a colourful display of lights, sound and fireworks. The festival was growing. What had begun as a traditional rural party had now become a glitzy and sophisticated spectacle, done with flair and professionalism. The Harvest Queen, originally a kind of homage to women’s work and sacrifice in the fields, has evolved into an ambassador for Mendoza, representing the virtues of the people and the beauty of the area. The festival became a showcase for the city and the region and briefly catches the attention of the chattering classes in Buenos Aires.
The festival has evolved into a two-month affair with multiple events that includes wine tasting on the city center streets, jazz in the park and even a gay alternative
La Via Blanca and The Carousel
Here we go; Mendoza’s very own kind of carnival, celebrating wine, women and Argentine history. There are two parades but both are very similar in content. The big difference really is that one; La Via Blanca takes place at night and the other; The Carousel kicks off the following morning. Both are essentially street parties that attract up to 100,000 spectators.
They come to watch and cheer a colourful line of musicians and performers, horse drawn coaches and sumptuous floats. Each district queen is there, blowing kisses and regally waving to the crowds. Posses of Gauchos gallop along in all their glory. Beware of flying tetrapaks a the queens throw gifts to the crowds. One year an unfortunate lady was concussed by a flying lemon. People fall into acequias as they grasp for a flying grape.
Did you know?
Evita came in 1947 and gracefully refused the offer to be Queen. The festival is a measure of The governors’ popularity. When he enters the amphitheater he will be either clapped or jeered. Sometimes he might send some minions beforehand to test the water and prevent any possible embarrassment. In January 1970 Mendoza suffered a terrible flood. People died and cars and homes were wrecked. Yet the show must go on and the Vendimia went ahead with great success.
The judging panel was once a small elitist club of ambassadors and dignitaries. Now it’s an unwieldy mass of over 1000 representatives. In the unlikely event of a draw, the Queen wins by lottery. It happened in 1947.
The Central Act
This is the finale, held in Teatro Griego Frank Romero Day (Parque San Martin). 25,000 paying guests show up to watch a grand spectacular of lights and sound. Hundreds of dancers, musicians, actors and performers display their talents on a massive stage. Then to cap it all (quite literally), a Harvest Queen is finally elected and she is crowned amongst much fanfare, hoopla and fireworks. Hit me with those laser beams.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the whole show is repeated again the following night, and the following night. So you have no excuse if you miss it.
Vendimia is a monstrous affair, and we are not referring to the huge papier maché floats that are trundled out each year. As early as January events start kicking in with regional queens decked out in gowns and tiaras appearing in the newspapers and on TV and on the back of Iveco pick-up trucks. Soon these lucky girls will have their giant portraits postered around the city announcing which district they represent. Lujan de Cuyo is always the hot favorite.
Events are numerous and varied and don´t always involve lots of rouge and mascara. Cinema in the park, street theater and children’s music workshops are just some of the many happenings listed on the busy schedule publicised on http://www.vivivendimia.com.ar. Here we have listed the main events and biggest crowd pullers.
What you need to produce such a show? 3,000 square metres of scenery
25,000 festival lights
3,500 sheets of veneer
2,500 square metres of wood
500 kilos of fireworks
and 1,000 people running around shouting at each other.
Tickets & Practicalities
Each seating area is called after a variety of wine with obviously Malbec in pride of place up front. Tickets are not released until several weeks before the event and can be hard to get, especially for visitors who are just here a few days over the weekend of the festival. It is best to contact local travel agents such as Aymara and CATA who organise transfers and guided groups.
Be aware the venue is in an isolated area of the park with poor access and infrastructure. Restrooms are limited and no refreshments are provided so go prepared, especially with a bum pillow for those cold concrete seats. The repeats are much better than the main night as they avoid the tediousness of the Queen selection. Be prepared for huge crowds and tight seating.