Wine Ink: Let’s drink to the hardworking people (column)
It may have become a WineInk cliché, but over the past decade, this column has made reference to the Rolling Stones’ song reflected in the title. That is because each year at this time, that would be each harvest season, I think about those who toil to get the grapes off of the vines. Those who rise before dawn and head into the vineyards to pick the fruit at the precise moment when it will make the best wine for our enjoyment.
It’s hard work, picking grapes. Last year I went to Ehlers Vineyard in Napa Valley to get a first-hand look at what it takes to bring in a ton of cabernet grapes. The morning began in the chill of a 4 a.m. drive to the vineyard up Highway 29, which is the main artery through the valley. This is pretty standard as the best time to pick grapes is before dawn and the heat of the day. But still, it means a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call and working in the dark.
The team at Ehlers is like many in the Napa Valley. There were eight Latino workers altogether. Some work full time for the winery and some move from one place to another, working whenever they can find a job. They are contracted to pick and make themselves available at the behest of the winemaker when the time is right.
I watched as the team moved with alacrity up and down the rows of the vines, cutting the clusters from the canes with sharply curved knives in rapid-fire motion so that they dropped cleanly into the plastic bins at their feet. The men, paired in groups of two, worked on alternate rows as a tractor moved down the middle between them. There was lots of good-natured chatter and occasional song as they moved with incredible speed down the vines.
Once each bin was filled with 35 to 50 pounds of grape clusters, the men lifted them high on their shoulders and dumped them into the trailer that followed the tractor. As the first group made their deposit, the second group of two scurried ahead and began to cut more clusters. It was clear that there was order and strategy to the process.
As I tried to keep up, I kept stumbling on the residue of vines that had fallen in my path. I did not cut myself with my cleaver but it was only because I moved so slowly to make sure that I would not do so. By the time I cut the clusters from the first vines the team had already moved to the next row, laughing and speaking (I am sure about me) in Spanish. With a row completed, I raced to the tractor only to drop about a third of my bin on the ground. More laughter ensued. By the end of about three rows, my hands and back were so sore that I was both hobbled and humbled.
The point is, this is what it takes to hand pick grapes for premium wines: a lot of precise, elegant and hard work. It is as much a skill as that possessed by any farm worker and one that is greatly admired by those winemakers who employ the teams of men who make the harvest happen.
And it is not just in the Napa Valley where this happens. At this exact moment there are workers toiling in France, Italy, Germany, China and anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere where fine wine is made. These workers are frequently people of color — immigrants who come for the work and to make some money. Over time some find full-time employment in the wine industry, but those are the lucky ones. For most, it is ‘Line up and do as you are told.’
So it is that each year I try to write a column that pays homage to these oft-forgotten workers who are literally the backbone of the wine industry. They don’t make the wine, but without them there would be no wine made.
So once again, let’s think about the lyrics to the Stones song “Salt of the Earth:
“Let’s drink to the hardworking people
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back-breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the Earth.”
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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