What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Wine

Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific.  While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.

And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California’s] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)

And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.

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