Fruits of Labor
American wine’s biggest problem is facing a reckoning.
July 7, 2021. Who picks the grapes? Like who really picks the grapes? I’ve been drinking wine for at least fifteen years now and I never asked that question until recently.
What attracted me to the natural wine movement was the emphasis on farming. I was interested in soil biology, carbon-sequestering regenerative farming practices, and that kind of etheric effervescence that sometimes comes with native yeast fermentation. I learned to ask questions about farming and filtering and sulfur, but I never thought to ask about a winery’s labor practices. I never thought about vineyard labor much at all — in the same way that I barely think about the people who sew my sweaters.
By the time the wine makes it into our glass, it’s so far removed from the source — by months, years, states, countries — that it’s easy to forget about all the hands that pruned the vines, weeded the rows, picked and smashed the fruit.
But among those in our industry who place so much emphasis on terroir, shouldn’t we be concerned with the livelihood of terroir’s principal stewards? Those who spend the most time with the fruit?
Shouldn’t our definition of “responsible farming” include not just environmentally beneficial practices, but humane practices that consider the workers themselves?
Labor is, to quote The Wine Economist’s Mike Veseth, the wine industry’s achilles heel.
Trace wine back to its origins — wine made from the common grape vine, Vitis vinifera, that is — and you’ll find an industry founded on slave labor. Ancient Greeks and Romans were enslaving people in their vineyards as early as the first century BC. As wine made its way around the world, it became an engine of colonization that brought the exploitative labor model with it. It’s no coincidence that several of the most prominent wine regions, from Bordeaux to South Africa’s Western Cape, were also home to some of the world’s largest slave ports. Bordeaux remained an active slave-trading port until 1837, just 18 years prior to the 1855 Bordeaux Classification. The port city of Nantes in the Loire Valley played a central role in the slave trade as well, abducting close to half a million men, women and children from West Africa to America and the Caribbean islands. The merchants of Nantes rendered massive profits — much of which were invested into agricultural land and property.
The California wine industry was likewise built on the backs of enslaved Native Americans, primarily by Christian missionaries. This included a horrific 1850 law nicknamed the Indian Indenture Act — which allowed white male landowners to have Native Americans arrested on the grounds of being “lazy or drunk.” When those charged could not afford to pay the fine — invariably the case — their agricultural labor was auctioned off to the highest bidder.
It’s undeniable that the wine industry flourished as a result of human exploitation. And this early model arguably informs the way viticulture still functions today.
Like American agriculture overall, much of the wine industry relies on large crews of migrant laborers, especially during harvest when tasks must be performed quickly and efficiently. In parts of California’s Central Valley, an 18,000-square-mile agricultural area responsible for a quarter of America’s food and 60% of its wine grapes, crews are routinely bussed into sprawling vineyards where they work without proper PPE, shade, water or toilets.
In most states, vineyard workers are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a federal law that instituted a minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime pay and established child labor standards.
This exemption is a blatantly racist policy introduced by land owning politicians who were accustomed to free labor during slavery and cheap sharecropping labor of formerly enslaved workers during Reconstruction.
In 2019, California became one of a handful of states to reverse this exemption and workers are slowly gaining these rights. Yet these labor issues persist in nearly every sector, region and scale. While it might be more common at large-scale estates, the natural, small-scale wine world is not exempt. Especially because so many of America’s small producers aren’t farming their own fruit.
The vast majority of small-scale American producers operate under the negociant model — meaning they source grapes from vineyards that they do not own or farm themselves. This differs from the estate model, common throughout Europe, in which wineries, or estates, are responsible for both growing the grapes and making the wine, usually all within a single property. The negociant model is not inherently a bad thing; it means new winemakers can access quality fruit without the capital to buy land.
But for conscientious winemakers it does pose a unique challenge: how to control labor practices in a vineyard that doesn’t belong to you?
“This year I started asking the vineyards I work with what their crews are making and I was amazed by how many people had never even thought about it or generally had no idea,” said winemaker Meredith Bell of Statera Cellars in the Willamette Valley.
Vineyard laborers are often employed by a third-party management company and not by the vineyard itself, meaning even vineyard owners are sometimes removed from how workers are treated and compensated on their land.
Bell and Luke Wylde, her partner at Statera, have started to ask these questions of all of the vineyard managers they work with, on top of requesting that farmers use organic or biodynamic practices. But “fair labor” can be challenging to define.
“Even when I get answers from vineyard owners, how do I decide if I’m okay with that answer?” said Bell. “How do I define a living wage? I still don’t know how to answer that.” Bell and Wylde use an algorithm developed by MIT to ensure the wage reflects the cost of living in the area. But there are other considerations, too, like health benefits and family size. Plus, it’s opening up questions about the rest of the supply chain.
“Do I call my glass supplier too?” she asked. “Shouldn’t I care how my glass supplier is treating their employees?
But higher labor standards means higher costs. And while winemakers like Bell and Wylde are willing to pay the price, any increase in production costs is a significant risk for small producers who already operate on extremely tight margins. “If my wine costs more because I’m paying my people more, it’s harder to sell. Plain and simple,” said Bell.
The efficiencies of large-scale industrialized wine production and exploitative labor have made us used to spending very little on a bottle of wine. As a fan of two-buck chuck in college, I’m speaking for myself. But the economic realities of America’s three-tier distribution system and the exorbitant cost of land and rent and other goods makes it challenging for winemakers to break even at less than $20 a bottle.
When I spoke to Martha Stoumen, a Sonoma-based winemaker who sources fruit from California’s Mendocino County, she said she barely makes a profit on her $25-$30 “Post-Flirtation” bottlings.
“It’s the same problem we have in our food system,” Stoumen explained. “We’ve unsustainably suppressed consumer pricing to the point that we are so accustomed to an unsustainable price point.”
"It’s really hard for people to swallow how much a bottle of wine costs," said Stoumen, "when it’s not involved in environmental or human exploitation.”
So how do we operate in an equitable way while keeping prices approachable for a broader audience of American wine drinkers?
It’s complicated. One answer might be collective or cooperative models that pool financial resources and share winery and production spaces between multiple brands — a model that’s becoming popular among a new wave of young winemakers. A shared space lowers the startup and operating costs faced by individual brands, mimicking the kind of efficiencies enjoyed by large-scale conglomerates, but at a much smaller scale. Shrinking these operating costs gives a winemaker more money for fruit from farmers they trust.
For Stoumen, it’s all about maintaining close knit relationships with her suppliers. She knows her farmers and their families on a personal level, has dinner with them, exchanges family photos. She’s toyed with the idea of sending surveys to her growers to question and confirm their labor standards. But she’s wary of some of the bureaucratic formalities of labor contracts and certifications that seem to take individual humans out of the equation.
“For me, sending a survey out feels so much more transactional than the relationship I have with [my growers],” she said. “I think labor laws are important regardless, but I do wonder if they would be less necessary if the people who worked in our farms were rooted in that community. I think the further you are removed from things the more systems are susceptible to exploitation.”
Gabriela Fontanesi, a farmworker activist and an intern at Matthiasson Wines in Napa Valley, sees this disconnect as one of the primary problems in the industry. Agricultural workers are undervalued across the board, she says — and there’s almost no lateral movement or upward mobility for people who start in the vineyard.
"Vineyard work is extremely physically challenging, whether it’s the sore feet, the sore back, or the sunburn,” said Fontanesi. “It’s extremely demanding. And yet these positions are economically valued at way less than any other position within the winery.”
Even in some of the more progressive wine spaces, a tasting room position might pay $10 more per hour than vineyard work, she noted.
Fontanesi, 23, grew up in Los Angeles and recently graduated from University of California, Davis with a degree in viticulture and enology. She speaks eloquently and passionately about the inequities across the wine industry and agriculture as a whole. As an intern at Matthiasson, she works in both the vineyard and tasting room, which is rare in the wine industry, but less so at Matthiasson.
Fontanesi believes that one of the biggest steps forward is to close the opportunity gap between vineyard workers and customer-facing employees.
“Being a college grad, I won’t be a field worker for more than a year or two. But most of the agricultural or vineyard workers I’ve met begin and end their career in the exact same position,” she said. There are educational and language barriers that prevent workers from moving into higher-paying positions. But the problem is deeper than that. “Even if they learned English, their accent would be the barrier, and then if their accent wasn’t the problem it would be some other appearance-based issue. It’s obvious that the doors are continuously closed [for them].”
She told me she’s interested in inviting her co-workers to lead Spanish-language tastings for Latinx members of the community. There’s plenty of demand. And who would be better at leading a tasting or tour than those who spend the most time with the fruit?
When Gabriela speaks of the inequities in vineyards, she’s speaking to the industry at large, not to her particular employer, as Matthiasson is easily one of the most progressive wineries in the states. Steve and Jill Matthiasson hire only full-time employees, offer health insurance, and provide programs like ESL classes, computer literacy, and business leadership to interested workers.
While the Matthiassons are the first to admit that there is room for improvement, they’ve taken leaps far beyond the industry standard. When I spoke to Steve, he told me that tackling some of these labor issues is one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of his job. He talks excitedly about building a high-quality work environment, investing in his employees and their families in order to “offer the good part of the American dream.”
“Making wine is fun. But it’s kind of not that hard, to be perfectly honest. You just kind of ferment the grapes and turn it into wine,” he said. “At this point in time, I’m thinking more about our business in terms of how our wine allows us to create a place that’s fun to be and feeds these families. That’s the fun part.”
"The question becomes: what are you doing to honor their humanity? Do they have a path to a better life here? Do they have an opportunity to rise up in the business?”
Just this year, Matthiasson started working with a D.C.-based nonprofit certification and worker training program company called the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI). While the organization historically focuses on certifying large food companies, Matthiasson is contributing to a pilot project that would enable it to certify smaller operations as well.
Plus, he’s individually making changes that make the physical labor easier on the body. Like raising vines to make pruning and picking easier on the back. Or purchasing a tractor attachment to limit hand cultivation beneath the vines. “[One of our female employees] is 48 and has been working the vines for 30 years,” he said. “I’m not going to be like, ‘here, grab a shovel’ for a ten hour day.”
Matthiasson sees the “human element” as intricately intertwined with all of the other nuances of natural winemaking and sustainable or regenerative farming.
“So many people have asked if we inoculate with yeast or use SO2, but no one’s ever asked me if we provide health insurance for our workers. It’s way overdue that people are asking these questions.”
The degree of scrutiny that sulfur received may ultimately have done a disservice to the natural wine movement’s potential to disrupt the bigger issues plaguing the industry. But what that focus on sulfur did do, I’d argue, is begin to lift the veil on an industry that’s relied for so long on a total lack of transparency — not just in terms of additives but in farming, business and labor practices.
We are entering the era of the human element — a place it’s taken far too long to get to.
The new wave of wine seems to be waking up to the realities of the wine industry at large — the economic, environmental and equitable labor issues at play — added sulfur or not.
According to Fontanesi, these intersections are exactly what makes wine such a perfect medium to tackle some of the issues in not just agriculture but the world as a whole: labor inequity, climate change, social and racial justice.
“Wine is genuinely at the intersection of humanity and environment,” she said. “We are in one of the most privileged positions in so many regards. That’s not something to be ashamed of, but rather to be celebrated. We can adapt in a way that most other industries cannot. When you talk about social justice as a whole, it feels impossible to take on, but when you do it in wine you feel like you can change this or that and get positive results.”
But how do we tackle it from a consumer perspective? There’s still not much information on the label, so I’d suggest engaging winemakers on social media to find out how more about their practices. Follow organizations like the Farmworker Project or California Harvesters to better understand the challenges faced by migrant laborers. Buy directly from winemakers or through online platforms to put more money in their pockets. Or visit a local wine shop that works closely with their wineries.
Some U.S. wine companies — like natural wine importer and distributor Zev Rovine — have developed working contracts to vet winemakers around issues of sexism, racism and responsible labor practices. And Pamela Busch’s Wine Industry Equity and Justice Pledge asks professionals across the industry to commit to equitable labor and inclusion.
These are industry wide issues that will take time to solve. Issues that are far greater than a single individual. But asking questions and purchasing from good people will certainly help move us in a more equitable direction.
“This is what I get up and think about and keep my eyes open to,” Fontanesi said at the end of our several-hour-long conversation. “To never follow the plan — only the intention. That’s what I want to do when it comes to natural wine, organics, sustainable farming. Follow the intention.”
When we follow the intention of the natural wine movement, where do we go? Perhaps this will lead us to address other important human issues. For example, as we learn more about the importance of biodiversity in the vineyard, can we recognize the need for diversity in the industry at large? If biodiversity makes for a more sustainable environment, can diversity make for a more sustainable wine industry?
Katy Severson is a writer and chef who covers natural wine, sustainable agriculture. regenerative foodways and climate change.
“There’s really no simple way to describe her mix of intensity and ease, brio and grace,” writes W+P Co-Founder Sam Decker, who recently interviewed natural wine wunderkind Martha Stoumen.