Monday, July 7, 2008

Migrant workers and the wine industry

As I walk to work daily, it continually strikes me of how the immigration issue plays an important part on the wine industry. As consumers, it's easy to not think about the migrant workers as we drink our favorite wine. I used to be that way until I started the search to find my dream winery. I gave little thought to the farming aspect of the wine industry and focused on the winemakers working their magic. Now, please don't get me wrong-the winemakers play a hugely important part and they SHOULD shine. However, they will be the first to credit the terroir,vineyard and vineyard management crews. As my winemaker, Kerry Damskey, has stated numerous times, the winemakers are shepherds of the grapes. It takes a lot of knowledge, strategy, care and hard work to create the outstanding grapes Kerry likes to shepherd. With that being said, here are a few thoughts and observations about migrant works and their importance to this industry-without going into the politics of immigration. That's for another time.

DCW has the philosophy of hand crafted wines and that all starts in our own vineyard and everyone we source fruit from. Our vineyard management crew works year round for our ranch and 5 others. It really takes a person with special drive to do this work-it's far from easy. Our crew has been known to show up in our vineyard at 5am and off they go working up and down the rows with smiles on their faces. They hand prune, tie up the vines, thin the fruit and even hand pick during harvest. Heck, during the summer, most of us don't like going outside in the 106 degree temperature and these guys are working hard outside in these temps to produce good fruit for the wine industry. I won't go into the complete details of the back breaking and hard work they do as it would make for a long blog post but let me state this one thought. They do work, and are happy and grateful to have jobs, that almost everyone of us would NEVER do.

My appreciation for their work ethic really started last summer while we were planting acres of new vines. We spent several weeks prepping the soil, plotting the rows and laying irrigation, stakes and wires-all done by hand. OK, honestly that was fun to watch part of the time and then I went back to my office. When the crew started to plant the vines, I was truly amazed. These guys were almost like machines in how consistent they were. They had a process and they followed to the letter. Our Sauvignon Blanc block was planted in 6 hours. 6 HOURS! I watched every minute of it too. The next day they planted acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on the ranch with the same enthusiasm and work ethic.

Now I bet these guys went home and told their families that the crazy new owner stood and watched them plant. Would be a logical thing to do as they were very unfamiliar with me at the time and may not have understood that I was trying to understand and learn what was happening. However, over this past year they are use to seeing me in the morning. Dutchess and I are up when the roosters start to crow and walk the vineyards. It gives us a chance to check out the vines and see what's going on in the vineyard. During our walks, we have gotten familiar with the crew. Yep-I still don't speak a lick of Spanish and it's not beneath be to gesture while I speak so they understand my questions. They have been happy to explain and show me what's happening in the vineyard. We work around the language issue and they continue to educate me. I have learned more about what's happening in the vineyard thru the crew than I have from any book.They deserve respect for the job they do and they have earned mine.

My first thought was these are men my brothers would love to have work for Mathy Construction road crews. They have the same mentality my brothers look for in our road crew. Finding people to work the road crew gets harder every year for them as many of the millennium generation can not possibly grasp the hard physical work concept. I actually think I told my brother that if he can't find road crew workers-come hire the guys from a vineyard crew.

Bottom line is we only deal with legal immigrantes-that's our winery choice when we sub-contract out the vineyard work to a management company. We may pay a little more than other vineyards but it's the law to deal with legal immigrantes and we'll follow it. I would NOT trade our management company and their immigrate workers for anything. But I do understand that the immigration policies/laws will ultimately effect our industry. We are planting so we can mechanically harvest our fruit if the time comes. Until then, we're going to continue to care for and harvest our vines by hand. The immigrantes are an under appreciated but valuable part of our industry and the production of high quality wines. I continue to be astounded by how hard they work and how difficult their job is physically. Do I worry about our industry and what will happen if we are driven to mechanically harvest? Sure I do as I wonder what will happen to the quality of our fruit. I don't care what anyone says, even the greatest winemaker can't make great wine from so-so grapes. Until the time comes for us to mechanically harvest, I'm going to continue to praise our legal immigrantes and give them the deserved credit and appreciation for the job they play in my vineyard and the wine industry.


Ed Northcutt said...

Hi Debra,

What a great testament to the hard working immigrants who make the farming industry in California possible. I truly believe that you don't understand the immigration issue until you get to know the people who have come here looking for a better life. They truly deserve our respect, because they work a physically demanding job that most Americans would never consider. If we want locally grown produce, wine etc. then we need a workforce that can come to America legally and make a living. We need them, and they need us. I'm sure they are happy to work for an owner like you that appreciates their hard work.

Hope to see you soon,
Breann Northcutt

Debra Mathy said...

Thanks Breann. If/when these immigration issues ever sort themselves out, several farming industries could be in a world of hurt.