Wine Ink column: Who are the most important people in the wine industry? | SummitDaily.com

Wine Ink column: Who are the most important people in the wine industry?

On a recent trip to the Napa Valley, I was struck by how much work was being done in the vineyards in what is still late winter. Everywhere I looked, there were laborers with pruning sheers cutting vines, clearing fields and getting ready for first buds of this year's vintage.

It got me to thinking: Just who are the most important people in the wine industry?

For many, the obvious answer is that the winemakers who craft the vintages are the most valuable players in the game. Some may argue that bankers who fund the purchase of vineyards and provide financial capital are the key cogs in the industry. And it is hard to underestimate the role of marketers and distributors, who get both the message and the wines to consumers. One could even suggest that it is you and I, the consumers, who are the most important people in wine.

But as I watched the work being done in the vineyards, the thought occurred to me that none of the above would have lives in wine if it were not for the considerable efforts of the vineyard workers. And in California, the overwhelming majority of these hired hands are workers of Mexican descent.

A visionary labor leader

Later that same day, I stood in the Vintners Hall of Fame Barrel Room at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in Napa Valley. As I tasted a glass of wine, I glanced up and saw a plaque that had been erected in honor of Cesar Chavez, the American-born farm worker who was, perhaps, the most significant labor leader of our time.

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He was part of the seventh class of the Vintners Hall of Fame. He was recognized in 2013 by the hall of fame for his contributions to the world of wine. He was instrumental in the changes in the California wine industry and also the lives of thousands of migrant workers. To this day, changes that were made in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the nonviolent protests that he led impact how workers and the wine industry interact.

Born in Yuma, Arizona, in the late 1920s, Chavez became aware of inequality as a child when his family lost a patch of land during the Great Depression. His family then followed the seasons in California, working the harvests. By his count, he attended 38 schools before they finally settled in Delano, California, the heart of the table grape industry in America.

Chavez, inspired by the nonviolent tactics espoused by activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, became a community organizer, working with farm workers who were harvesting table grapes and lettuce in California's fertile fields. He first became a national symbol of the movement in 1968, when then-Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy traveled to Delano to break bread with him following his 25-day fast in protest of labor conditions.

In 1975, Chavez led a march of members of his United Farm Workers union from San Francisco to Modesto, California, and the headquarters of America's most profitable wine concern, E & J Gallo Winery. By the time the group completed their 110-mile walk, 15,000 people had joined them. The march led California Gov. Jerry Brown to propose the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which became one of the most significant pieces of legislation of its kind.

As Chavez was a leader of the movement, he became a symbol of those who worked in the fields and vineyards of California, toiling tirelessly for minimal wages in deplorable conditions.

A legacy of improvement

While still not ideal, things have changed dramatically for seasonal laborers in the wine industry. Housing, hourly wages and benefits have improved greatly over the years. In the Napa Valley, vineyard owners are assessed a fee per acre that goes into a fund to provide shelter for migrant workers.

But perhaps even more dramatic have been the changes in perception and the relationship that now exists between vineyard workers and employers. Today, recognition and appreciation exist among the wine community for the accomplishments and contributions of the workers who prune, till, toil and pick.

Chavez is celebrated each year on March 31, his birthday, with official state holidays in California, Texas and Colorado, and there is a continued call to make the day a national holiday. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Chavez posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. And California has honored him with a spot in the state's Hall of Fame.

As Cesar would say: Si, se puede, "Yes, it can be done."

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.