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Are You know Who Harvests Your Grapes? You’d Be Surprised

Are You know Who Harvests Your Grapes? You’d Be Surprised

That’s one of the questions I ask at every winery I visit, no matter where it’s located.

It seems like a simple enough question. But the answers I’ve heard in response open a window of insight onto the shifting demographics of labor relations in specific locations all over the world: from migrant labor to organized unions, from full-time staff to the temporarily (or marginally) employed.

Who, would you say, picks the grapes that will go into the bottle of wine you open in a year or two?

The answer may surprise you.

If you like wine from New Zealand, the grapes may have been picked earlier this year by temporary workers visiting from the nearby island of Vanuatu.

If you’ve tried wine from Lebanon, the grapes may be harvested by nomads who set up their camps alongside the roads running through the Bekaa Valley.

If you like Champagne, the grapes may be picked right now by a crew of some 200 seasonal workers – organized by one very savvy blue-collar entrepreneur – who travel from Portugal to work the harvest.

If you like wine from certain parts of Italy, the grapes may be harvested by refugees from neighboring countries. Their religion prohibits them from drinking the wine, but that doesn’t mean they can’t tend the vines or pick the grapes.

And it goes on, from Greece to Napa and from Australia to Austria.

A surprisingly common thread running through the answers to my question is that the grapes are picked by people who are not from that place.

Harvest workers at Avignonesi estate in Tuscany hang up their jackets once the chill of the morning . [+] air wears off. Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

It’s partly a matter, especially in major wine producing countries in western Europe, of whether the next generation of farmers is even interested in staying on the land, maintaining a family’s property, and doing the work of their parents and grandparents before them.

And it’s partly a matter of a demographic pendulum shift, sometimes away from agricultural labor and the agrarian lifestyle, and sometimes back toward it, back and forth over time and geography.

At the Avignonese estate in Tuscany, with some 200 hectares of land spread between Montepulciano and Cortona, the face of harvest workers reflects the most recent shifts. Its team, like most others in Italy, has evolved internationally and now includes workers from places like Australia, the Dominican Republic, France, Albania, Greece, Romania, New Zealand, Spain, and Ukraine.

What differentiates these workers at Avignonesi is that they are not seasonal or temporary hires. Avignonese maintains the same number of employees year-round as they do at harvest, which is unusual.

Even more unusual is the relationship between Avignonesi and the unionized workers, especially given the standard operating procedure of regimented work schedules that normally limit activity during nights and weekends.

That type of schedule wouldn’t work for Avignonesi or Virginie Saverys, who assumed full ownership of the property in 2009. One of Saverys’ priorities was to convert the estate to full biodynamic production, a goal she has achieved: today Avignonesi is the largest winery in Italy to apply biodynamic practices over their entire property. But for biodynamic farming to succeed, the work must be extremely responsive to sudden natural changes in weather. It’s a labor-intensive method of farming with a narrow margin for maneuvering.

The work, in other words, doesn’t conform to trade unions’ schedules.

Which meant Saverys and her team have had to engage the union’s representatives and negotiate actively and frequently with them, another uncommon practice in this region when relations with unions are often more antagonistic. But the different approach is working.

A few years ago when Avignonesi’s vineyard manager decided to harvest on a Saturday, “people thought we were crazy,” Saverys said. “This year we harvested all night, on Saturday and Sunday. It’s changed. We ask a lot of our workers, but we give a lot too.”

What Avignonesi gives is year-round employment, steady and reliable paychecks, and a compassionate approach to labor relations that has meant, in one case, organizing teams according to where the workers live so that employees can save on both petrol and time spent commuting.

What the workers give in return is a willingness to adapt quickly to the biodynamic way of farming, especially in a challenging vintage like 2014. That means being ready with an agile response to a range of conditions, like sudden rains or a broken machine.

It means, too, that there’s a lot more to the simple question — Who harvests your grapes? — than you’d otherwise think. And it means that the answer, in Tuscany and elsewhere, will continue to evolve with changing conditions, demographics, and demands.

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