Work at the winery has slowed and we had our first two-day weekend since Labor Day. The extra free hours gave me some time to reflect on the whirlwind of my harvest experience. I have spent almost three months coming home physically exhausted and absolutely drained at the end of the day, and I am left with a feeling of accomplishment and pride in what my coworkers and I have accomplished. But, does anyone who is going to buy the wine care?
Making wine is difficult (always demanding, sometimes grueling, occasionally dangerous) work—but I wonder how often the person popping the cork considers that. Many Serious Eaters are concerned with the provenance of their food and the well-being of those who grow or prepare it. We go to farmers' markets, buying seasonal produce and supporting small local farms. We seek out artisanal bread and chocolate and salumi. But this attitude often doesn't extend to wine.
Wine is an agricultural value-added product, not all that different pickles or pie. We have the choice between a big brand version—frequently at a lower price but perhaps of compromised quality—and a smaller producer, maybe one with more sustainable goods and practices, maybe with more of the profits going directly to the product and the workers who make it. Many factors go into purchase decisions like these, but I have found anecdotally that many people who would prefer the sustainable and traceable pickles and pastries do not give wine origins a second thought.
But why not?
A cheap bottle from a big company can get you drunk (just like a prepackaged cupcake can get you fat), and that purchase should be as conscious a decision as supporting the local bakery over the multinational food corporation. (We've mentioned some of the things that affect the price of wine before: here and here.) I consider where my wine comes from in part because I want my dollars to go toward the actual liquid, not fancy advertising or product placement on Top Chef. But there are other reasons, too.
I've decided to consider the people behind each bottle. The winery where I worked was by no means small (they produce around 100,000 cases a year across two facilities), but it focuses on sustainable agriculture and keeps the vast majority of its staff year-round so that workers are not forced into the difficult position of being unemployed off-season. The winery pays its staff appropriately, and has overtime pay rather than stocking up on more employees at a lower price who have to be shed at the end of harvest.
Large or small production, an actual person has to prune the vines and watch the progress of the grapes, and an actual person has to monitor the fermentation of every barrel. Before choosing between two bottles of wine, I wish more people would stop to learn about where the wine comes from—the company and its practices, how the grapes are grown and how they take care of their staff.
When you get home from work and pour yourself a glass, remember that wine isn't just about taste, or alcohol, or going well with food. It's about people, too.
About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a winemonger and writer living in
Brooklyn Napa. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and has contributed to Foodista, Palate Press and WineChap. Follow her on Twitter @chapsholic.