Nearly all of the table grapes grown in the US, and 90 percent of the wine sold here, come from grapes grown in California. Here, farmworkers—mainly immigrants or migrant workers from Latin America—conduct backbreaking labor, hand-harvesting grapes in extreme heat and cold. They work long hours, are exposed to the hot sun and pesticides, and are often not properly hydrated.
Despite Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s historic grape strike and boycott in the early 1960s, Latino workers continue to struggle for decent wages and workplace protections. Many workers in the California grape fields are undocumented and fear speaking out about poor conditions. As a result, they earn far less than the minimum wage, roughly just $5/hour, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. One worker estimated she earned 1 to 5 cents for a bushel of grapes sold in the grocery store for $1.40. “Federal law has never covered farmworkers,” writes photojournalist David Bacon, author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Beacon Press, 2013), in a January article on California grape pickers for Al Jazeera America. “Only a tiny percentage of the nation’s farmworkers have union contracts, and wages and conditions in farm labor are worse than in almost any other occupation.” An ever-increasing amount of grapes are being machine-harvested, but where labor is available cheaply, handpicking is still used, as machines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In South Africa, Human Rights Watch has documented unfit living conditions, pesticide exposure, no access to water or toilets while working, and union blocking on vineyards in its report Ripe with Abuse.
For imported wines, choose Fair trade options. Fair trade ensures that workers labor in safe and healthy conditions and earn a living wage.The Triton Collection imports and distributes fair trade wines, and lists retailers where you can find them in your area.
Look for wine from local and unionized wineries. Local vintners can often tell you exactly who harvests their grapes. If it’s migrant workers, consider talking to some of them about their working conditions, and offer a helping hand if they’re not being treated fairly.Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State is a unionized winery, and Frey Vineyards, organic winemaker in Redwood Valley, CA, employs 20 people full-time, including vineyard workers, all of whom earn a living wage and receive health care, maternity leave, and paid vacation.