Wine, Labor, and Workers
by dhonig, Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 08:01:25 AM EDT
What can wine tell us about the world? Plenty, it turns out. It is one of civilization's oldest products. At one time it was a necessity, when food was served rotten and water was where you washed and evacuated. Now it is enjoying a resurgence. It is an agricultural product, and a unique one. You see, vineyards have kept records of temperature, yield, and ripeness-dates for centuries, giving us incredibly precise records that tell us reams about the global environment. It is also a luxury item, particularly at the top end. As such, its sale and purchase can tell us volumes about the global economy.
Today we look at wine, labor, and work conditions.
The wine business is one of the more environmentally progressive businesses in the world. Sure, there are enormous wine-manufacturing companies operating by the ton, rather than the case, but every year more vineyards move to organic and even biodynamic growing. This is not just true of ex-hippie California boutiques, but of some of France's great Bordeauxs and Burgundies, and elsewhere around the world.
One of the constants in any agricultural enterprise is the need to bring in the product. Combines have turned that into an industrial/mechanical operation for corn, wheat, soy, and similar crops. But wine, at least good wine, is always picked by hand. In the summer. When it is hot.
Fortunately, grapes and grape pickers both like cooler temperatures. So what do they do? They pick grapes at night. Here is one description, from Far Niente Winery:
Whether it is late-night picking or early morning picking, we start anywhere from 2am to 4am...before Starbucks has a functioning barista. There is something a tad eerie about vineyards at night with the bright flood lights that make a single shockingly bright area around the tractors, while the rest of the field is pitch black. Lots of shadows. We haven't had Dracula, werewolves, zombies, or other things that go "bump" in the night...except for the sound of clusters falling into lug boxes we pick.
Have you ever picked grapes? Actually, have you picked any farm produce where you were paid by how much you pick? It is hard work. There is a sense of accomplishment and pride but most of all, it is tough. It is cool and often foggy when we pick at night. We try to be done before 10am when it warms up. Not only does it keep us cooler, it keeps the fruit cool. Better for the fruit and better for us.
It is harder to see in the dark. If you aren't sure, go outside about midnight and try to wash your car under a street lamp. (Better yet, wash mine.) Look at it the next day and it will be mostly clean...except for the spots you missed. Same thing applies to grapes so we send people through before hand to remove any clusters we don't like and especially to get rid of leaves in the fruiting area. We didn't used to do this and have found it is another detail that improves grapes and their resulting wines...whether or not they get picked in the middle of the night.
So, the next time you are awake in the middle of the night during harvest, I hope that you think of all the people in our vineyards who may be bringing in the grapes that hold the potential and excitement of a great Napa Valley vintage. Then roll over and DON'T HOG THE COVERS!
Unfortunately, not all grapes are picked at night. HERE is a tragic story of a pregnant teenager dying from the heat, and from her drive to keep working.
Until her death on May 16, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was another undocumented farmworker at the bottom rung of California's farm production chain.
On Wednesday, nestled in a white satin coffin, the 17-year-old girl became to farm labor advocates more a symbol of what they say are secretive and abusive conditions in some of the state's orchards and vineyards.
When Vasquez Jimenez collapsed, she had been on the job three days, pruning vines for $8 an hour in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming.
During eight hours of work beginning at 6 a.m. in heat that topped 95 degrees, Bautista said that workers were given only one water break, at 10:30 a.m. And the water was a 10-minute walk away - too far, he said, to keep up with the crew and avoid being scolded.
Later, Bautista said, the foreman told a driver to take the pair to a store to buy rubbing alcohol and apply it to see if it would revive Vasquez Jimenez. When that failed, the driver took the couple to a clinic in Lodi, Bautista said, where her body temperature had reached more than 108 degrees.
"The foreman told me to say that she wasn't working for a contractor, that she got sick while exercising," Bautista said in Spanish. "He said she was underage, and it would cause a lot of problems."
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez delivered a eulogy in Spanish at the Lodi church Wednesday.
"What value does a farmworker's life have? Is it less than the life of any other human?" he said.
Tragically, this girls death was not unique. In fact, California (and while I hate to laud any Republican, Arnold) has been in the forefront of agricultural worker protection, requiring shade, breaks, and water, all laws apparently violated in this case. But deaths from picking are nothing new. In North Carolina a 44-year old man died picking tobacco:
On August 1, 2006, a 44-year-old Hispanic migrant farm worker (the victim) died after succumbing to heat stroke while working in a tobacco field on a farm in North Carolina. The victim arrived on the farm from Mexico on July 21, 2006. On July 24 he was assigned to work in the tobacco fields, where he worked for the next week. On August 1, 2006, he started work at 7 a.m., had a short break between 9 and 10 a.m. that included soda and crackers, and ate lunch between noon and 1 p.m. The weather was hot and humid with a heat index (a measure of the combined effects of high temperatures and high humidity on the body) between 100 and 110. He had been working in a tobacco field when around 3 p.m. he complained to the crew leader that he was not feeling well. The victim drank some water and was driven back to the workers' housing and left alone to rest. At approximately 3:45 p.m. the victim was found unconscious on the steps of the house. Emergency medical service (EMS) personnel were immediately called and responded within five minutes. The victim was transported to the hospital where his core body temperature was recorded at 108º F and he was pronounced dead.
Perversely, child labor laws actually encourage outdoor labor:
Federal laws permit a child aged 13 to work in 100-degree heat in a strawberry field, but do not permit that child to work in an air-conditioned office. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) the legal age to perform most farm work is only 12 if a parent accompanies the working child. Children who are 14 or older can work unlimited hours in the fields before or after school hours. The same law requires a minimum age of 14 years for non-agricultural work and limits such work to 3 hours per day while school is in session.
Furthermore, federal laws allow children to perform hazardous work in agriculture at age 16, while the minimum age for hazardous work in all other industries is 18.
These people are invisible. They are the cheap labor behind cheap produce. They are the "illegal aliens" the Lou Dobbs of the world find so threatening. They are the illiterate African Americans raised in the south and deprived of anything more than a third grade education, forced by Jim Crow into the same slavery as their grandparents, under a different label. I met a person like that once. I will close this diary with his story.
Whenever I see the words "migrant labor" I think of one of my first clients. I'm going back to the mid 80s, and he was in his 60s, so he was born in 1925 or so. He was an illiterate black man raised in the South. So how did he end up with his freedom entrusted to a grossly unqualified and inexperienced public defender? Good question.
A few years earlier he had been arrested for possession of marijuana, well, one joint. The sentence was not onerous by normal standards, credit for time served (overnight in jail) and court costs of $50. He paid $25 because that was all he had, and needed to pay the other $25 to get the case closed.
Skip forward three years. He was in Okeechobee picking blueberries. Did I mention he was a migrant fruit-picker with barely a third grade education? Black children in the south in the 1930s weren't given more opportunity than that, and the legacy last their entire lifetime, as well as that of their children. Well, the place he was staying changed its rental policy, from end of the week to end of the day. Unfortunately, the farm kept its end of the week policy. Therefore, he couldn't pay the rent. He came home from a day of stooping in the Florida sun, picking bushel after bushel of blueberries, to find everything he owned out on the curb. Having no idea what to do next, or how to save what he called "my Sunday suit," he called the police for help. They ran his name and found a bench warrant for "Violation of Probation," an old warrant for not paying that $25 and not knowing enough to ask for a waiver, three years earlier.
That is when it got truly kafkaesque. He went to the local jail waiting to be transferred to Alachua County, where he caught the possession charge. He was in jail in Okeechobee for two days, then transferred all day via unairconditioned bus, handcuffed. Then he was brought to court, but the judge who issued the bench warrant was on vacation, so he was sent back to jail to await her return. Three days later we found him in the jail, scheduled to be there at least another week for a damned $25 fine.
We put his case in front of another judge, only with a lot of begging and yelling. The new judge said he would let him go, if the client payed $25. Hell, the poor guy had lost everything he owned because he could pay less than that for a day's lodging.
I paid the $25. And while he was in Gainesville he went to the VA Hosital to get his inflamed gums treated, then we got him a bus ticket and some cash to return to Okechobee.
That was twenty years ago. I don't think a month goes by I don't think of that old fellow. I am sure he has left us by now. If I believed in an afterlife I would hope he was somewhere that finally gave him as good a chance for happiness as anybody else.
In his life, he was born with two outs, two strikes, 10 runs down, and a strong wind blowing in. Do I have an inspirational story of how he overcame it? Nope. He just lived, survived, kept breathing from one day to the next. He was just a man, not a hero, not an object lesson, just a man born into an evil society that treated him as less than human. Emancipation Proclamation or not, the man was raised to be slave, cheap helpless labor subject to the whims of the working class. What I will always remember, though is that the injustices inflicted upon him so many years ago did not end then, but followed him his whole life, and his children to whom he could not read, and their children, who came from him, ad infinitum unless somebody extraordinary broke the string. THAT is the legacy of slavery and racism.
Before I met him I had the fantasy that everybody had an equal opportunity, that you could make of your life what you put into it. That was the fantasy of a privileged upbringing.
That man taught me more than I have the words to describe. And today, because of this diary, I think of him again.
And wish him well. And remember anew that opportunity is not equal, it is a gift given by an accident of birth in an unjust society.
Recent wine tasting notes, from Two Days Per Bottle:
J. Hofstatter Lagrein 2003
Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Alto Adige, Product of Italy. 13% alcohol, $19.98.
The color was dark, almost black, with bright purple edges. Te cork was almost black, with wine almost half an inch up the edges.
Right out the bottle this wine had a huge nose of blueberry, burnt caramel and vanilla. The palate started with bright red fruits and cranberries, followed by a touch of mint and some orange peel. Mild velvety tannins only showed up at the finish, which dropped quickly but not entirely, lingering with berries and cream.
This is a very good wine and at a very good price. I am curious to see if it opens more overnight and becomes something extraordinary.
Second night. Now it is a softer, more balanced, mature-tasting wine. Four or five hours open, plus a night under the Vacuu-Vin, have the same effect as several hours of decanting, giving just enough instant-aging to give you an idea how it might change with more cellar time.
The nose with not as explosive, but surrendered more layers, including dark cherry, plum, cloves, black pepper and, at the end, a touch of mint. The palate changed rom last night's slightly acidic red fruits to softer black ones, including blackberry and black cherries, plus cloves and lavendar. About an hour after re-opening it started with cocoa and black fruit, followed by the tarter cherries, cloves, and florals. Tannins were far less obvious on the much softer finish.
This was a good wine, an interesting wine, offering plenty of tastes and layers. Based upon its changes overnight, I also think it could benefit from another year or two, not much more, in the cellar.