How to Catch a Rabbit, and What that Says about Who Harvests Your Grapes
There's a lot to be said for living a life with no regrets, as we saw in Chapter One. But it assumes one very basic condition, namely, that you have a choice to make.
Living a wine life with no regrets assumes that you have the luxury of choosing whether to open a bottle of wine, or not. It assumes that you have the luxury of access to wine in the first place. It assumes that, if you're able to buy wine, then presumably the food component of the meal is already taken care of.
We should all be so lucky.
In this chapter we take a deliberate look at another definition of the word hungry.
So far, and generally speaking, I use "hungry" to mean passion, and desire, and an intrinsic motivation to participate either in the creation of wine or its enjoyment.
It is, as the saying goes, a "first world problem."
Because being "hungry" also means, well... being hungry.
When I think of the people who are literally hungry for wine I think instinctively of the crews of workers I've met, in vineyards around the world and mostly before 7 am, whose job simply pays the bills. Wine satisfies their hunger because it puts food on the table.
This was brought home to me one day as I was walking through vineyards in New Zealand. I came across a couple of guys dressed in shorts and t-shirts and baseball caps.
One of the guys was holding a large rabbit. They had just caught the rabbit, it turns out, and they were taking it home to cook for dinner. The rabbit was still alive, stunned but still quivering.
My first question, naturally, was how do you even catch a rabbit?
My second question was, what are these guys doing here in this vineyard?
It turns out that they were seasonal workers from Vanuatu (an island off the northeastern coast of Australia, about 1800 miles from New Zealand) and they were part of a well-executed plan to supply wineries in New Zealand with labor during the grape harvest. They also work other agricultural harvests, and end up spending about four months of the year away from home in order to support themselves and their families.
Here, as I stood face to face with the ni-Vanuata islanders and their quivering rabbit, was the answer to a question I try to ask at every property I visit: who harvests your grapes?
My first indication that this question sheds some unusual light on the topic of hunger in the wine world was several years ago, in Boston, during lunch at a restaurant with a winemaker from eastern Italy, across the Adriatic Sea from Croatia.
Given that geographical position, and at that moment in history, this particular winemaker's region was seeing the flow of immigrants and refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The winery needed workers, and indigenous labor for viticulture has been on decline for years. Although the immigrants were Muslim, and had little or no experience with wine as an alcoholic beverage, they were nonetheless excellent gardeners.
(It reminded me of a buffalo milk farm I also visited in southern Italy, where many workers were Hindu immigrants from India. They may not have known anything about dairy farming, but because of their religion they honor cows. So they're excellent caregivers to the herd.)
Panta rei, as they say in Italian. Everything flows. The flow of people. The flow of labor. The flow of religion, and politics, and conflict. The flow has landed these immigrants on a vineyard in eastern Italy, where they tend the vines and grow the grapes to make wine they'll probably never drink.
I thought of this example from Italy on the day that I ran into the crew from Vanuatu. It isn't as though the island of Vanuatu is overrun with vineyards or vineyard workers, either, and it isn't as though Vanuatu has a long and distinguished history as prime grape growing real estate.
But they do have a labor force that's willing to travel for months at a time, and they're welcome in New Zealand. Which is why I crossed paths with that small group of workers in the vineyard. Catching rabbits wasn't officially part of their job, but they were certainly welcome to do that too.
Because rabbits in vineyards are a nuisance from one point of view, while from another view they are protein, nourishment, and a full meal.
Sometimes you take a walk in a vineyard, and you're surprised by what you see.
And sometimes you are surprised by who you meet.
Who I've met – the people who physically prune the vines, harvest the grapes, and generally maintain the vineyards – are more answers to my persistent question about the labor of wine.
Who harvests your grapes?
It seems like a simple enough question.
But the answers sketch an interesting and complex profile of shifting demographics in locations all over the world, from migrant labor to organized unions, from full-time staff to the temporarily (or marginally) employed.
In Champagne, for example, the grapes may be picked by a crew of some 200 seasonal workers who travel from Portugal to work the harvest. The crew is organized by one very savvy entrepreneur who himself migrated to France as an agricultural laborer.
In Lebanon, the grapes may be harvested by nomads who set up their camps alongside the roads running through the Bekaa Valley.
In the Douro Valley of Portugal, it may be a crew of workers – both women and men, both older and younger – with a penchant for fado. It was pruning season when I visited the Douro Valley, a region where the landscape slopes as much as 65 degrees and, since the use of machinery in the vineyards is nearly impossible, pruning is especially difficult and labor-intensive.
The crew spread themselves through the rows of vines but within close proximity to each other, within earshot. I was driving through the vineyards in a four-wheel drive vehicle – to give you a sense of the terrain – and hopped out so that I could take a picture of these people working in such a dramatic landscape.
I walked nearer and approached the group. One was doing the work of pruning while her cell phone was tucked between her ear and her shoulder. Another, the crew leader, was clearly a dynamic and good-natured woman as she chided the other workers and worked alongside them at their tasks.
And then I heard it – another woman, singing fado.
Fado is the Portuguese musical tradition that conveys the resignation and longing of the working class. The tradition goes way back – at least to the 1820s though probably much earlier – but it still resonates today. The fado I heard and recorded in the vineyards that day was sung by a woman named Maria Julia, who echoed the original recording by the legendary fado singer Amália Rodrigues.
On that particular day in 2013 in national politics, the country's Finance Minister had just resigned, public support for Portugal's austerity measures was in decline, and government debt had fallen sharply on the trading floor.
I don't know if Maria Julia and the rest of this crew knew or cared about those things. They knew they had this job to do, while the overall unemployment rate in Portugal hovered around 15%. For people younger than 25 years old, it was even worse at about 35%.
Given that environment, in vineyards where the labor is especially difficult and intense, fado seemed appropriate and Maria Julia's voice all the more poignant.
The migration of labor is like a pendulum shift, sometimes away from the agrarian lifestyle, and sometimes back toward it, back and forth over time and geography.
The migration of labor is also a basic question of too-high demand and too-low supply to meet it.
Which opens the door for matching the supply of workers with the demand of farms and estates. In some cases, like in New Zealand with the crew from Vanuatu, it's a government-sponsored program. In other cases, like the Portuguese man I mentioned in Champagne, it's a question of entrepreneurs taking the initiative.
In some cases, like Tasmania, it's a little of both.
Tasmania and New Zealand share many similarities. They are both grape-growing, wine-producing islands in the Pacific Ocean and, it turns out, they both also welcome immigrant labor from other parts of Asia to work their harvest – from Vanuatu for New Zealand, and from Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea for Tasmania.
In Tasmania, at this moment in time, crews of visiting vineyard workers are primarily comprised of young women. Some of them are students taking time off to travel for a few years, others are more experienced agricultural workers who grow and harvest not only grapes but other crops like cherries and apricots as well.
The crews are the brainchild of a reluctant entrepreneur named Nigel Mobbs, an Australian vegetable grower who created a company called HortForce. Mobbs and his wife were responding to the needs of their own business that were also the needs of other businesses nearby, including wineries. As an employment subcontractor, Mobbs recruits and trains the workers, organizers their travel and schedules, and he implements contracts, currently at AU$28.50 per hour to start.
The need – in New Zealand, Italy, France, Portugal, and elsewhere – is for crews of workers like this. Unlike those other countries, however, the women harvesters in Tasmania have organized their work in a noticeably different way. It's known as the "crab walk." Rather than travel from vine to vine, vertically up and down the rows, as is common around the world, the workers in Tasmania have recognized it is more efficient for them to travel sideways as they work, actually ducking from one row horizontally to the next, across the vineyard.
It looks like the difference between eating an ear of corn around its cob rather than from one end across to the other, typewriter style.
I've never known any other harvest workers to operate this way. I've also never known any other harvest crew being comprised almost entirely of young Asian women. Just like meeting the Vanuatu islanders with their rabbit, meeting these women in Tasmanian vineyards embodies the answer to the question of who harvests your grapes, and how they do it, as new people with new sets of eyes and skills approach the vines, knives in hand.
Jennifer Doyle, Vineyard Manager for Jansz Parish Vineyard, described an experienced supervisor named Miwa, who arrives at the vineyard with her crew already familiar with the layout and Jansz' preferred techniques for the task at hand.
"The formidable Miwa is a petite Japanese woman whose partner is Australian, so she is here for the long-term," Doyle said. "Miwa leads her crew of Thai, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, and South Korean with courteous but clear and direct instruction. English is the common language."
Crew members come from varied backgrounds. Some are permanent residents of Tasmania, some are studying, and some are on working holidays. They work in pairs, opposite one another, on either side of the vine.
The HortForce grape pickers are supported by Jansz' own small group of "regular casuals," Bhutanese refugees with an agricultural background in their home country. They assist with tractor driving, Doyle said. They collect fully laden picking buckets and empty them into half-ton bins, and distribute empty buckets back to the picking team.
Doyle described Lok Thapa, an integral member of this team, as a "viticultural trainee with a voracious thirst for knowledge." His immense enthusiasm is both refreshing and rewarding, Doyle said, and he also assists in interpretation, "particularly for some of the more senior members of his community who have taken a little longer to adjust to conversing in the English language."
Neither Miwa nor Lok Thapa may be who you expect to find in the vineyards of Tasmania, and they may not be who you assumed picked the grapes that made the wine you're drinking. But it's their hunger – and the hunger driving the demand for the fruit that they pick – that traces the profile of what it took to bring a bottle of wine to your table.
Tasting Note: NV Jansz Premium Cuvée Sparkling Wine
Most of the vines that the workers in Tasmania harvest are either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, in order to support the extremely strong demand there for sparkling wine grapes. Most of the grapes the Vanuatu islanders in New Zealand harvest are either Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, in order to support the demand for juice from those two grapes that Kiwi winemakers have built their market around.
Jansz' Premium Cuvée is a standard bearer of Australia's sparkling wine industry, especially given the quality reputation of Tasmania's cool climate fruit. Secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, and the wine is aged on its lees for two years or more. The Pinot Noir component of the wine offers a hint of strawberry on the nose, and palate notes also include citrus, honeysuckle, and roasted nuts. Long, creamy finish with a touch of nougat sweetness.