Cavernous cellars, dimly lit halls, and solitude are three elemental components in the making of ghost stories, and wineries provide all three of these essentials. Besides having just the perfect atmosphere for a bone-chilling tale, night watchmen work around the clock everyday of the year, and during the harvest, workers can be in the winery into the wee hours of the morning with little to no sleep.
Many employees of older wineries will tell you tales of mysterious singing, antique music, and whistling. Less wineries have actual spirit spottings and even fewer, mention reoccurrences of the same apparition. Bodega Reyter is one of these few. Originally built in 1888, it was reopened in the mid nineties (like many of the wineries in the area) after decades of abandonment.
During the renovation process a secret cellar was uncovered, filled with a mysterious sparkling wine from the beginning of the century for which no recorded recipe could be found. The cellar was dolled up and included in the tourist circuit. According to an ex-employee, problems later emerged when tourists and winery workers alike began to see a shadowy figure pacing back and forth amongst the champagne bottles readjusting their positions. Rumors emerged that it was the soul of the winery’s first owner who had died tragically in the building decades earlier, attached to his mysterious champagne he never had a chance to complete. Unfinished business perhaps.
One winery in Lujan has had repeated sightings of a white cloaked women and her two children. Not just the tall tales of some tipsy tourists in this case, the winemaker himself was said to have run into some children playing in the garden one night while at a dinner with importers. He returned to the crowd to ask which one of the members of the dinner party had brought their lovely offspring, only be met by the befuddled looks of the businessmen who had all come alone.
The cleaning woman of the same winery found, that for a few mornings in a row when she began her cleaning routine at the crack of dawn, a woman’s voice called out her name over and over again. She tried to ignore it but on the third morning, without turning around to even ascertain the location of the voice, she lit a candle she had brought with her (a recommendation from a clairvoyant friend) and told the voice to “Go away, this is not your place anymore.” The spirit ceased to bother the poor woman, hopefully convinced to find a more peaceful resting place. Later she admitted, “I was not afraid of her, it wasn’t a bad spirit.”
Luckily enough for her, because not all of Mendoza’s said to be ghosts come in the form of frolicking children and desperate phantom housewives looking for a helping hand from the modern cleaning woman. Others are rumored to be sponsored by the devil himself.
The Argentine legend of el familiar a devil-sent beast, emerged in folklore from the northern provinces in the 1800’s along with expansion of the sugar industry. The ever-growing demand for sugar spawned an ever-widening divide between the humble laborers who harvested the sugar cane and wealthy plantation owners. As a way to justify this tremendous wealth in the face of their poverty, rumors emerged among workers that plantation owners had sold their souls to the devil. In return for endless wealth, the devil demanded human sacrifices. Plantation owners were said to lure unsuspecting workers into a secluded cellar or field in which el familiar, a fire-breathing beast, described as wolf-like, horse-like or sometimes taking the form of a woman, would consume the worker alive.
The legend of el familiar slowly but surely made its way down to Mendoza, although it morphed to fit into this region’s source of incredible wealth: wineries. Ariel Sevilla, an important historian in the area, confirms that many prominent winemaking families and industrialists in Mendoza are said to have made contracts with the devil in order to maintain their fortunes, although he refuses name names.
“El familiar grows by the consumption of human sacrifices,” he says. “The owner’s wealth grows in accordance to the size of the beast.” Throughout Mendoza’s history many prominent figures have had rumours circulating about the sanctity of their souls, from “winery owners and government figures, to businessmen” Sevilla explains.
Another ghoulish beast is reported to romp the grounds of one of Mendoza’s most historic wineries, Trapiche. “The bodega is about one hundred years old and has underground cellars and spaces that no one has entered for years,” explains one employee. A few months back a small group of workers were in an underground cellar, when they spotted a figure in the back of the room. According to some accounts the figure took the form of a beast and in others the form of a witch. “They fled immediately and refused to enter the cellar ever again!”
Despite these extraordinary stories of el familiar and other devilish forms, it’s possible that the beast has more commonplace origin story. In the late 1800s the owner of Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s largest wine producers, found out that the workers in the winery were stealing his top wines that were kept in a special cellar. Playing on the superstitions of his workers, he started the rumor that the devil inhabited that cellar, effectively putting an end to the theft of wine. Now, one of Concha y Toro’s top wine is named Casillero del Diablo, the Devil’s Cellar, precisely because of this history.
Whether these legends were invented to keep workers in check, the delusions of overworked winery employees, or perhaps even extraterrestrial visions of the world beyond this one is hard to say. But tell me one in a dim and dank centennial cellar at midnight, long after everyone has vacated the premises, and you’re guaranteed to raise a hair or two along my spine.
By Gwynne Hogan
Published in the June/July 2012 edition of Wine Republic