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Wines & Vines

California’s secret weapon

California’s secret weapon

It’s hardly surprising that California wines have been a success around the world. California has, as Robert Mondavi has often mentioned, the soils and the climate. California, along with Australia, has led the wine world in technical advances in the winery and now in the vineyard–although there is still work to be done there, for sure. California can compete with other wine producing regions at almost every price level, from $5 a bottle to $100-plus.

Of course, the rest of the world isn’t standing still while California charges ahead. Euro-winegrowers were slow getting off the mark, but are quickly adopting Cal-Aus technology and even marketing techniques. Competition is fierce and is going to get even stiffer as we come into a period of a global grape glut.

But California has one advantage over the competition: the vineyard workers. There isn’t another winegrowing region that has workers with the work ethic, the ability to rapidly learn necessary skills and the joy of life that California has with its Mexican and other Latin American field workers. They are an asset that can hardly be measured in dollars.

In this issue, staff writer Jane Firstenfeld has an important piece about housing for migrant workers (see page 26). It’s a feel-good kind of story, but from where we stand, much more needs to be done. According to sources cited by Firstenfeld, Sonoma and Napa counties alone have a combined harvest workforce of 16,000. There are only a few hundred beds for migrant workers on the entire North Coast. Workers sleep in churches, crowded into single rooms, under bridges and wherever they can find room for a blanket.

California can do better. The vineyard workers, both migrant and permanent, documented and undocumented, are the most precious commodity California winegrowers have. Amelia Moran Ceja put it well in our story on page 52, when she said that without the Mexican workers, there would be no California wine industry.

And while I have you gathered together here, may I just add that the “No Cerveza” rule imposed in the housing projects is an insult to the workers and to the industry. The workers are responsible adults, supporting families back in Mexico. They deserve to be treated as such and allowed the refreshment and relaxation that comes from a cold beer or (why not?) a glass or two of wine. It is bitterly ironic that winegrowers should enforce prohibition on their own workers. Two of my sons worked for a few years in the vineyards of Spain and France. It was common there to have a wine allowance of up to two liters a day. They seemed to get the job done.

LARRY WALKER

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