While 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.
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.
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?
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.
It 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.