Wine labor woes 1-12-2022

Farming has never been easy the past 8,000 years. Workers are the current challenge in the wine world.

Vineyard work requires specialized skills. Not everyone is willing or has the expertise to do it. For years a cadre of competent crews followed the seasons to provide producers the person power needed to tend and harvest vineyards. Covid and xenophobia conspired in recent years to mess that up.

Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand’s national organization for the wine and grape industry: “Each year, the wine industry draws on a substantial seasonal workforce to supplement our permanent workforce, and these skilled seasonal workers play a vital role in enabling the industry to meet the critical seasonal work peaks.”

The same is true in the U.S. Irrational fears about foreigners and panic about pandemics put vineyard workers in short supply the past two years. It doesn’t matter if your vineyard enjoyed a perfect season if you do not have the personnel with the skill and brawn to harvest the bounty. With grapes, your window of opportunity is measured in hours, not weeks.

Grape growers responded in two ways. First, mechanization. If you can’t find a person to do the job, invent a machine to do it. Harvesting machines improve each year, but they will never be as good as a fourth-generation vineyard worker. You have to make up for shortcomings on the sorting table—and then you are back to the labor shortage conundrum.

The second solution is to increase the number of permanent employees and provide them with wages and benefits they deserve. This is a trend throughout the wine world. Chile and New Zealand happen to be leaders in the effort. Will it increase the price of wine? Perhaps, but exploiting workers does not work well when there are no workers to exploit.

Quality wine is an artisanal enterprise. The people who prune vines in winter, refine leaf canopy in summer, and deftly discern which bunch to harvest in the cool morning mist right now and which ones to let hang for another 24 hours are as worthy of as much respect and compensation as the preening computer programmer who eventually will enjoy the expertly tended fruit of the vine and the work of the worker’s skilled hands.

Last round: I want to go on a diet, but there is too much on my plate right now. And in my wine glass, too, for that matter.