Can winemakers be as transparent with their harvest workers as they are with their wines?
Photos & Words by Eoghan Neburagho
After experiencing one of the craziest years this earth has ever doused upon us, we are now finally on the wind down of 2020…thank f*c@!
A significant sigh of relief is most suitable right now as we ride it out, and I don’t know about you, but I’m only delighted to see the back of this year.
Many industries and nations took severe damage in 2020 due to COVID-19, millions of people lost their jobs, America took a rewind back to the 1930’s regarding racial and social injustices, and Chadwick Boseman aka ‘The Black Panther’ passed away after silently fighting a long, painful battle with terminal cancer.
In short…2020 has been shit!
Unfortunately the wine industry did not make it through 2020 unscathed either — this summer just gone, media reports came out of Italy regarding natural winemaker from Puglia, Valentina Passalaqua and more importantly her father — Settimio Passalacqua who was placed under house arrest by Italy’s national police, the carabinieri. Settimo who works as a marble and agriculture magnate was accused of systematic and illegal exploitation of migrant workers in his produce operation.
Valentina’s winery and vineyard are not directly linked to her fathers operations and she has not been found guilty of the same wrongdoings as her father by the courts, but since the court case has happened, the majority of Valentina’s supporters and importers including her major importers in the U.S — Jenny & Francois Selections and Zev Rovine Selections have turned on her as an account of guilty by association.
“There’s land that her father owns that her vines are planted on, and even if the labour she used was paid fairly, if she’s using that land she’s profiting from the exploitation of labour”
Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & Francois Selections
To date, many questions surrounding Settimo’s case have been left unanswered publicly, such as;
- Has Valentina benefited in any way, shape or form from her fathers exploitation of migrant workers?
- Was Valentina working separately from her father?
And as honourable members of the natural wine community, it’s time for us to start re-examining our responsibilities and business practices, starting with the labour force who work in the vineyard.
Labour Practices In Question
As an industry we let this one slip away, we idolise the wrong components of the natural wine movement and failed to focus on what really matters — vineyard worker’s basic human rights. And it’s an incredibly important topic that I am proud to be a part of, but there’s no doubt in my mind we as a community should have had this conversation a lot sooner.
We can only hold our hands up in guilt.
More questions from natural wine circles across all platforms, from producers to the fanatics need to be asked regarding labour practices in the vineyard, for example;
“Is this fruit farmed respectfully and ethically?”
“Does this winemaker pay her/his labour force properly and are the labour force, migrant or not, provided with facilities that align with basic human rights?”
On a recent podcast by MYSA discussing this exact topic, a number of natural wine advocates including Eric Moorer of Domestique wine back up my point precisely –
“Nobody was really asking about labour practices, nobody was really going and checking on their producers and seeing what was happening, seeing who was working these long hours and they weren’t seeing the conditions they were done in.”
Transparency about labour practice in the vineyard should be easily accessible in today’s internet-based, connected world for winemakers in both new world and old world regions. For winemakers to ignore this, it almost seems contradictory to how they practice making wine every single day, especially if they’re producing biodynamic or natural wines.
Having a migrant or local labour force to help out during harvest season, pruning season or for just general work around the winery is not an issue, especially if they are keen to get involved with the wine making process for educational purposes, but one thing must be clear,
They should be paid respectfully and properly.
Because migrant agricultural workers play an unrecognised major part in the production of wine across the world, and they depend on their employers to provide them with basic benefits and proper working conditions.
It is our job as avid natural wine drinkers and supporters to pay closer attention to where and how our wine is getting to us. We have to use Valentina Passalacqua’s case as a prime example of how these wrongdoings of negligence in the vineyard can occur right in front of our faces if and when we get too comfortable with the status quo.
It’s Time To Recognise Vineyard Workers
A recent solution suggested by Rachel Signer, author of Pipette Magazine and producer of Persphone wines, is for winemakers and importers to be more transparent about who exactly is doing the work in their vineyard and to give more props or a face to those people through social media or even better, on their websites.
“What I think there should be more of is transparency about labour being just as accessible as transparency about farming and sulphur…I do think there’s so many ways for producers and importers to become transparent about who’s doing the work.”
This is a great option (which I am in major favour of) for importers of wines and winemakers/producers to take because of its simplicity and cost effectiveness;
Over three billion people out of seven billion on the planet have smartphones according to statista.com, so the excuse of not being able to post pictures of your workers is invalid.
All it takes is a quick picture upload onto Instagram, or a video onto their website of each vineyard worker, with a brief fifty word bio explaining who they are and what they do on the vineyard i.e grape picking, general labour around the cellar etc.
For a producer to make an honest attempt at showcasing the team that helps make their final product is extremely gratifying for all parties involved. It’s nice to know who was involved with the agricultural work behind a bottle of wine simply by scrolling past an inspiring/creative post on Instagram or Twitter of a happy faced vineyard worker, in the midst of harvest season, standing proudly amongst some biodynamic, wild-looking vines!
For an industry that champions itself on honesty from the ground up, being transparent about the labour force who work with the agriculture is a must and shouldn’t even be up for debate, we need to do better on that front.
How To Help, From a Drinker’s Perspective
There are many ways the average Joe Soap like you and I can help so that this kind of situation never happens again, as mentioned above, I am in major favour of Rachel Signer’s suggestion on requiring producers and importers to be much more active and transparent about their labour force through their websites and social media presence.
Another option would be for some sort of natural wine board or committee to come together, similar to the one Jacques Carroget, a Loire Valley winemaker successfully set up when trying to create a certification for natural wine in France. What that board could then do is come up with some industry-level, must-be-acknowledged guidelines and standards on how to properly treat migrant agricultural workers on the vineyard and how to pay them correctly.
As I reflect both on the Valentina Passalacqua case and this article one thing has become clear, something needs to be done about our blind spots in the world of natural wine, and a major blind spot is labour practice and how they’re treated in the vineyard.
When you look at the problem in hindsight and really delve into the timing of it on a global scale, we were at breaking point. Valentina’s case came to surface just on the back of the horror at George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the start of the Summer. So it’s safe to say tensions were high, and people were feeling confrontational, to say the least.
Maybe the public reacted just a tad bit overboard when it came to Valentina’s situation based on the timing of it, I mean would it have even gone noticed back in 2018?? I’m not too sure on that one, but I do know one thing, we as a community in the world of natural wine have got to be a lot more vigilant when it comes to how transparent our winemakers are regarding their labour force. We have to ask more questions, not settle for an unsure answer, and demand justice wherever we can.