In the 1840s, the economy of Mendoza was centered on the exportation of mature cattle to Chile. For a variety of reasons, the industry reached a crisis at the end of the 1870s, and with the advance of capitalism, the local economy began to see viticulture as its focus. Large-scale grape and wine production grew to satisfy a growing national demand.

The demand came as a result of the massive immigration to Argentina of people from Mediterranean cultures, where wine formed part of the local diet. The local market was seen as having a nearly unlimited growth potential.

All the hopes were then in the hands of the promising wine industry, and all efforts were concentrated in creating and maintaining it. The old style of artisanal winemaking, with its roots in the colonial system, was to be transcended.

Political incentives favouring investment in viticulture began in the 1870s, and expanded in 1881. These policies had two specific requirements: a connection between the remote province and the market (which became available in 1885 with the construction of the Mendoza-Buenos Aires railway), and an abundant labour market. 

During the late 1880s, immigrants began arriving in Mendoza by the multitudes. The local wine industry offered an appealing future for new residents. Until 1883, there were only 2,788 hectares of vines planted, with traditional colonial methods (approximately 1,000 plants/hectare el head trained & staked system). Grape vines were closely tied to other crops like alfalfa and grains.

Between 1881 and 1902, with financial incentives which exempted land taxes for five years off new cultivation, approximately 3,200 vineyards were planted using modern techniques, covering more than 20,000 hectares. By 1911, that total had grown to more than 50,000 and by 1914 more than 70,000 hectares were planted, divided amongst 6,160 plots.

Without exception, the vineyards planted during the 1880s and 1910s were developed with the aim of a large-scale production. Planting techniques, transferences, trimming and irrigation were all modernized. The enhanced performance increased the amount of grapes offered to market, the majority of which were used in winemaking.

The viticulture labour market grew to meet the increasing demands of the industry, including expanded vineyards, the construction of wineries, as well as side industries (cooperages, distilleries etc) and transportation services.

Contratistas is a very important word. It refers to stakeholders who were instrumental in the development of modern, capitalistic viticulture in Mendoza. These are the people who planted the extensive vineyards, many of whom have stayed with the same vineyard for generations, up until today. They are charged with the care of the vineyard and maintenance of conditions to ensure optimal production.

It is important to note that there are two types of contratistas in Mendoza’s wine industry: the plantation contractor and the vineyard contractor.

Those who fell under the first category, and worked for hourly wages, were considered employers under the Provincial Law of Estancias of 1880. This ensured more freedom to European immigrants, satisfying their expectations and long-term life plans, since in the late 19th century, independent work appealed more than salaried work to many immigrants.

Even though many went on to achieve significantly improved social-economic status, most immigrants arrived in Mendoza with very little resources. Without a doubt, the majority began their involvement in the Mendozan economy earning piecework. This allowed many to save their wages and quickly become owners, and in many cases, entrepreneurs.

There are many cases where contracts show that those who planted the vines had no other capital than the force of their own arms.

If we add regular plantation earnings to certain payment arrangements, many workers quickly became vineyard owners. This showed that contractwork could be highly profitable, which paved the way for rapid economic and social advancement for many.

Towards the end of the third decade of the 20th century, a unique figure survived - the vineyard contractor. The plantation contractor eventually disappeared due to the fact that further plantation slowed. In 1929, a business document stressed that extensive planting of 9 to 10 years was a generally profitable business. “Many of today’s leading industrialists in the province were previously contractors who had become wealthy,” but added that “this form (of contractor) is deprecated…”

Vineyard contractors, however, remained present. They became essential by taking charge of thousands of vineyards. This continued until a great crisis in late 1970s, when the old model of winemaking met with modern technologies and business management practices. Since that time, the number of these emblematic contratistas has been declining.

Perhaps the difference between the plantation contractor and the vineyard contractor, who offered only his physical strength in exchange for steady income and a proportion of the harvests, was their different attitudes towards risk. From the beginning, vineyard maintenance contracts included several conditions, namely clauses which set a fixed rate per year and per hectare treated, and a variable percentage of the value of the crop, which could be paid in kind or in cash upon completion of the sale.

In 2008, the National Wine Institute reported the existence of 16,978 vineyards (but provided no information on the number of contractors). These vineyards are growing and recuperating from the dramatic consequences of both the crisis of the late 1970s and great crop destructions of the 1980s.

Since the 1990s, with new forms of land management, the traditional vineyard contractor’s role is becoming increasingly isolated in the older vineyards only.

Unfortunately, this emblematic figure, who has played a key role in the development of Mendoza’s wine industry, is doomed to disappear. If this happens, a fundamental part of the cultural history, as well as the economic and social development of Mendoza is will disappear as well.

Rodolfo Richard-Jorba
CONICET y U.N. de Cuyo