A Crisis Looming for U.S. Wine?

wine-stain1-3While I was out in Lodi, California a couple of months ago, I spoke with several growers in the region and they talked about a variety of issues: crop yields, sustainable farming, pest control–issues that have faced growers since the beginning of the wine industry. There was another issue that nearly every grower mentioned that they feared would likely be the dominant issue facing California winegrowers for the foreseeable future:

Labor. Or more precisely, the lack thereof.

On the surface, this does not seem that it would be all that controversial until you factor in that the vast majority of labor in wine country is provided by immigrant/migrant workers, most of whom come from Mexico. Unless you have been living under a rock the last couple of decades, you know that immigration has become a political issue, which means it is rarely approached with even a modicum of common sense. I think I have stated on this blog before that I am firmly on the liberal side of the line when it comes to most issues, but I am going to try my hardest to leave my ideology aside and just focus on the likely effects that the current immigration climate is having on the wine industry.

The Problem

From talking to growers and doing a bit of research of my own, the problem is fairly straightforward: there is an ever-increasing shortage of relatively inexpensive labor in the U.S. wine industry. The industry relies heavily on immigrant/migrant workers throughout the growing season, but particularly during harvest, when demand is high for a relatively flexible (and inexpensive) work force that can be called upon to pick (often at night or very early in the morning) with just a few days advance notice.CIMG1988.JPG

Not exactly the job description that many Americans are coveting. As much as I would like to think that I could do the work (I tried to participate in les vendenges when I was studying in France, but it never materialized), vineyard work is grueling and low-paying, which is why growers in the U.S. look to immigrants (whether legal or illegal) to perform the work.

While much vineyard work is still done by itinerant workers, in the past couple decades, more forward thinking growers have attempted to guarantee a more stable workforce by providing year-round employment for at least a few of those working in their vineyard. While this is certainly a more expensive approach, it tends to pay off in the long run as these employees have a better sense of the vineyard and a firmer grip on the work that needs to be done. This is particularly true in regions where grapes sell at premium prices (i.e., Napa and Sonoma), as one finds more immigrant workers living in the region year-round (albeit in dormitories built to house them).

The pool of potential workers is drying up, however. Legal immigrants who have been doing the work for decades are getting older. Children of current legal immigrants have little to no desire to follow their parents and take up a brutal, back-breaking occupation. Becoming a legal immigrant is, from all the reports I have read, next to impossible. Until relatively recently, American growers have used “undocumented workers” (if you are a liberal) or “illegal immigrants” (if you lean conservative) to do the necessary work. Today, even when such pools of workers can be identified, it has become a very risky endeavor–employers caught using such labor can be fined or imprisoned.

What does that all mean?

The Solution

I do not pretend to be an expert on immigration, nor do I profess to have the proverbial “silver bullet” when it comes to addressing the problem. However, I do not care which side of the ideological side of the immigration fence you abide, if you look at the issue with anything close to an objective lens you will realize that the fruit and vegetable industry in general and the wine industry in particular need more immigrant workers, a lot more.

rantIt is time to face the reality that Americans are just not going to do the work. Period. These are not jobs that anyone reading this article will ever desire (other than in the dreamy “Oh it would be nice to pick grapes and make my own wine someday” fairy tale that is far beyond reality) and if you want to still buy wine (or any other product that comes out of the ground in one way or another) at anywhere close to current relative prices, we need an overhaul of current immigration policies immediately.

This is not a political issue—this is an economic issue, plain and simple. We need to discard the rhetoric and address the problem in an intelligent, equitable fashion or be ready to pay $10 for an apple and $25 for Two-Buck-Chuck.




About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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18 Responses to A Crisis Looming for U.S. Wine?

  1. Fiona says:

    Oooohh… you do NOT want me to weigh in on this and share the situation in South Africa. Suffice it to say that there is a similar problem, but not posed by immigration. Unemployment is high generally, and in the rural areas, as much as 60 – 80%. I kid you not. I like to think of myself as liberal, but when the unions strike for wages that are unsustainable to the farmers, then we have a problem. Farmworkers downed-tools not long after we arrived in the village and it did significant damage to the industry (wine and labour intensive agriculture, generally). The consequence is that we now have mechanical harvesters and pruners and the number of seasonal workers being employed has definitely dropped. How has that been helpful?

    And, when people rant on about the knowledge economy and denigrate farmers (and other artisans and artisanal workers), I ask the following questions:

    Who is going to grow your food?
    Who is going to fix your toilet when it’s blocked?

    And that’s just for starters…..


    • I think we would likely get along famously! I, too, consider myself a liberal, but I tend to agree with you on the status of labor unions today. When they started, there was an incredible need to stop the exploitation of workers as companies were strictly concerned with getting all they could from them. Now? It seems like many unions are simply concerned with getting all they can at the expense of the company itself and the consumer. I guess the ideas of compromise and negotiation are relics of the past.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fiona says:

        I think so too! And we need to work on that (“your”) trip to SA – the Ride2Nowhere, the Cape Cycle Tour or something else…. Sadly given that our currency continues to head south, our ideas of travel are just that. I plan to be in touch about something I’m working on – after we come back from my first break in two years… but that’s another story…. We’ll be in touch – offline. Hopefully to hatch a plan… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you’re right on in that this is going to become a much debated topic in the next couple years. While I don’t know the specific status of many of the migrant workers that wineries in California use, I know regions like Napa have done an incredible amount of work to take care of these workers–and sometimes even their families–to the point that several of them have risen through the ranks as it were. I know of at least a couple who are now winemakers or head vineyards managers. But yeah, overall, there isn’t a demographic that is willing to do this kind of labor-intensive work anymore. We in America are always complaining about high prices of everything, but comparatively, we’re pretty cheap. And while there’s still a lot of issues, the services that regions like Napa has provided, aren’t free and are a part of the reason prices for Napa wines have gone up.


    • I agree completely! Napa and Sonoma have been great at trying to provide a livable year round wage (they can, of course, because of the price the growers get for the fruit). But those workers are getting older now and there does not seem to be any avenue on finding replacements. It will be interesting to see that if prices for fresh fruit and vegetables continues to rise, will politicians relax their stance on immigration? Or like many other industries, will we shift the agriculture business overseas as well?


  3. In looking at the immigration issue in grad school one thing is clear our country, esp Texas, would go bankrupt without undocumented workers AND politicians know this to be true. They talk out of both sides of their mouths because they all know the labor provided is viral to many states economies as well as the Fed. I can, but won’t, go on & on about this complicated issue. Thanks for bringing it to the wine conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dwdirwin says:

    I talked to Derek about this since he’s mentioned this being an issue that gets progressively worse every year. Lots of different factors and vicious circles- government in limbo over what to do about immigration reform, fewer workers coming over- it is harder to and with the Mexican economy doing better there is less incentive to risk coming over illegally. So with a smaller pool to draw from, wineries and growers are looking toward mechanization to fill the gap, but with less work to be done, there is less incentive for the migrant force to come work the vineyards. A lot of factors all pointing to the fact that things are just going to keep getting worse.


    • That was one element that I did not touch on in the article–mechanization. As labor becomes more scarce and more expensive, the inevitable turn will be toward creating machines to do the job. Is that a good thing? Smarter people than I should tackle that question.


  5. NK says:

    I was thinking: they could get FREE labor if they offered it as a “luxury educational wine vacation”. And then I thought: I’d totally sign up for that.


  6. Unless you have been living under a rock the last couple of decades, you know that immigration has become a political issue, which means it is rarely approached with even a modicum of common sense. I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France.


    • Yeah, common sense is certainly lacking. It will take a lot of people putting the rhetoric aside, which does not seem possible with all the xenophobia and fear mongering running rampant. What company did you do tours for?


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