Social Sustainability: A Fine Wine Without Workers?
Picture by Matthias Mitterlehner, Unsplash
Because wine has traditionally been grown in developed and labour-protective countries, the question of workers can sometimes be regarded as less important than the environmental or financial aspects of sustainability. But as we observe fine wine estates around the world struggling to find workers, coupled with technology and robotics that might or might not be yet ready to use in fine wine, and a growing number of workforce-linked scandals in many wine countries, we have to think about creating a more sustainable environment for workers, notably in the vineyard.
In this context, what does sustainability even mean? How can we provide a safe and sustainable work environment for a permanent or seasonal workforce?
During the 2019 edition of ARENI’s international think tank, award-winning journalist Jane Anson led a panel discussion on these crucial matters. Joining her on stage were Dr. Laura Catena, managing director, Bodega Catena Zapata; Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder, Change Cadet; Ixchel Delaporte, author of Les Raisins de la Misère; Karissa Kruse, president, Sonoma County Winegrowers Association and Thomas Price, head of tea, Jing Tea.
The following conversation took place on 5 July, 2019. We chose to publish it today because this conversation brought very interesting perspectives, and the topics discussed then are still very much relevant today.
I am going to start by asking everyone to talk a little bit about what they do first, and how it is relevant to our theme today. Let me turn first to Dr Akilah Cadet. Dr. Cadet, you started your company 5 years ago, and Change Cadet is all about how we can be soldiers of change, and how we can all help people to realise their potential. Could you tell us about the reasons behind your companies and your inspirations?
Dr Akilah Cadet
There is a common theme that you may or may not know of, which is people of colour and women don’t feel valued and appreciated in the workplace. And as a result of that, I get a lot of money and people hire me to come in and figure out how can we make things more inclusive? How can we make the workplace a place of not only inclusion—which is having a seat at the table—but a place of belonging, a place of cocreation, shared power, value and responsibility. So that’s what we do.
I am now going to turn to Laura Catena, and of course most of us know your wines and the estate you created with your father. What I would like to know is how the changing climate, and the changes of social climate, have affected your business and your wines?
Dr Laura Catena
I think there’s two questions in one, the social and the environmental climate. I’ll give you a little background on me. I’m initially a physician that then went to work for her hundred-year-old family winery. I went for the passion, but also to help my country that was trying to make it to the world of fine wine. So it’s quite exciting that I’m being invited to this conference, cause maybe that means we’ve made it. I found the Catena Institute of Wine in 1995 to study the impact of high altitude on the Malbec grape, and to preserve viticulture in Mendoza. In terms of sustainability, there was no sustainability code in Argentina and I said, how, how is this possible? Chile had one, the US had one, Europe had one. And so we basically created a sustainability code, which then was certified with the university and became the code for Argentina.
I’m heading now to Karissa and one of the things that I want to tell you about Karissa before we hand over to her, is that in 2017, she was named on the list of badass disruptors who are changing your food system. So I think we’ve all something to learn from her. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Now that I’m embarrassed? Okay. I represent the Sonoma county wine growers. I work on behalf of the 1800 great growers in Sonoma. Back in 2014, we made a commitment as a wine region to be a 100% certified sustainable. We are in our final months and we’re over 95% of the way there. What it means for our growers is a list of 140 best management practices and working towards a triple bottom line. We are looking at how they farm, and how they manage their business to sustain it year after year. And then most importantly, which is really the launchpad for this conversation is how we take care of and work with our employees and how we engage in our local community.
And so, as we made that commitment, it became very clear that the people piece is absolutely what mattered most. The winemaker matters, the farmer matters, but really day in and day out, the vineyard employees are the ones making it happen and are really what’s sustaining that business. So we decided to launch a dedicated nonprofit to support our agriculture workforce and their families in 2016. And it became more and more relevant, especially as our region faced fires in October 2017, leading to a housing crisis.
The people piece is absolutely what mattered most. The winemaker matters, the farmer matters, but really day in and day out, the vineyard employees are the ones making it happen and are really what’s sustaining that business.Karissa Kruse, President, Sonoma County Winegrowers Association
Now I am going to turn to Ixchel, a French journalist who wrote a great book called Les Raisins de la Misère (Grapes of Misery) based on the important research work she has done here in Bordeaux, looking at how a lot of the big châteaux treat their workers and what impact socially that has had in the region. How did you come to write this book, and has there been any changes that you’ve seen since the book came out?
Ixchel Delaporte 
I have been accused a lot of Bordeaux bashing, but I didn’t come to Bordeaux because I wanted to bash Bordeaux, I came to Bordeaux because I detected a lot of poverty in this region. And not only is there a lot of poverty here, but the localities where poverty is the highest coincide with where the big names are located. To some extent, the higher quality the wines are, the more poverty there was. So I came here to understand these statistics really, and see if we could determine a cause for it.
I came to Bordeaux because I detected a lot of poverty in this region. And not only is there a lot of poverty here, but the localities where poverty is the highest coincide with where the big names are located.Ixchel Delaporte, Journalist and Author
To finish the panel introduction, I’m really thrilled that we also have somebody who is outside of the world of wine and who works in tea, across China, India, China, Sri Lanka and Japan. Tom, in tea just like in wine, when we are talking premium quality, there are always a lot of skills involved, and everywhere around the world young people have left the villages and moved to the cities. At Latour in China, the average age is 48 because the young people have gone. There are only two people in their whole team who are under 30. Tom, is that also true for tea?
Absolutely. It’s a key part of the social sustainability problem for tea, which is availability of the workforce and the skilled workforce. There are two elements that require an awful lot of labor, one is picking the leaves and the other is the expertise processing the leaves in the factory. Tea cultivation span through several countries, both developing and developed, like Japan. So there are several comparisons to draw out between how it’s done and how far down the automation route those countries are. In India for example, a tea garden will have 5,000 workers, all living on the garden, which is actually part of the burden of the cost, because they have to live there year-round, but they can’t produce tea all year round. It’s hilly, and we can’t mechanize much, and it’s mostly picking by hand. Whereas in South Japan [it’s] an organic tea garden and it’s completely flat, where you can have total mechanization.
We also work in China, where the tea leaves are the finest you can find. They are picking buds only. And they are picked with your fingertips, extremely slowly. Workers in China picking just the buds will have a productivity of 3kg per worker and per day, workers in India working by hand will pick around 30kg/day, and then the machines in Japan pick 300kg every ten minutes. So the difference in labor across those countries is incredible, and influences the cost a lot.
Interestingly, you mentioned that the Japanese tea is organic. So when the consumer is buying and sees the word organic, you immediately think that everything in that chain is doing good by everybody and the environment, but it might not be the right assumption.
Organic certification in tea has almost no bearing on the social standards. We have other certificates that are prevalent, like ethical partnership (Ethical Tea Partnership), the one we are a member of. If the garden is not approved from that body, then I can’t buy tea from them. They don’t do Japan, but the labour local standards are sufficient there. The main sustainability issue in Japan is availability of the skilled labor as young people prefer jobs in the city, with better conditions compared to the job that their parents are doing in the fields.
Is there the same problem in Sonoma and Argentina? Is the next generation not considering agricultural jobs?
Yes, very much. In fact, the average age of our farmer workforce is 60 to 61 in Sonoma county. And similarly we have the next generation being more attracted, in a good way, to college and higher education. They’re dreaming bigger than agriculture, but it does cause a big problem for all agricultural properties in California in the future, and our federal government has not made our immigration policy very friendly.
A lot of our growers are starting to look towards using the guest worker visa program giving you the right to legally bring folks in for 10 months into the US, the big caveat is that it requires that you provide housing for those workers for these 10 months. And we’ve been in a housing crisis for years in California. We lost 5,000 more homes in our county in 2017 with the fires. It’s a long term issue that we’re struggling with.
Dr Laura Catena
When I ask viticulturalists and wine producers around the world about what the main problems of the future might be, both access to water and workforce are huge.
In Argentina we have a similar issue, whith a lot of the younger people who would rather go to the city to bartend or work at a restaurant because that seems more attractive.
We decided to implement an approach that is mostly trial and error so we can keep at getting better. For one thing, we make it very easy for people to move within our winery, so you can be a great picker and then you can be one of our wine directors. For example, one of the PhD candidates that should be finishing this year at the Catena Institute, started working in the vineyard and then he thought he was pretty good. He hadn’t finished high school, so he studied a lot while he was working and learn to speak English. Now he is a world expert in sensory science.
We make it very attractive for people to have mobility, but we also want it to be sexy if somebody wants to actually stay in the vineyard. Some of our guys manage the tractors really, really love managing the tractors, but how do you make it sexy? Well, by talking to them and have them propose improvements. We’ve used a lot of the Toyota philosophy that every person should be asked to be creative and propose things and want to change things. The other thing we do is we provide lunch. In Argentina, if a winery doesn’t provide a really good lunch to all their workers, and it’s the same lunch for everybody, nobody works for you. It’s one of the cultural practices that makes working in a winery in Argentina actually very attractive to people.
And we’ve been trying to measure these initiatives. For example, we’re trying to measure how many people are leaving for the city. How can we attract them? We realized that after high school, we are losing a lot of kids to universities. As Karissa said, it is wonderful. But we’ve also done a lot of visits to the vineyard with high school kids, to show them how attracting it could be to live in the countryside. And we’ve had two kids who decided then to go to professional school where they will learn the vineyard work. What we want to show is that they might not have a better life going to the city.
We’ve done a lot of visits to the vineyard with high school kids, to show them how attracting it could be to live in the countryside. […] What we want to show is that they might not have a better life going to the city.Dr. Laura Catena, managing director, Bodega Catena Zapata
One of the key questions I wanted to ask everybody on the panel was how to be truly, inclusive and truly sustainable, you have to give somebody who is working at a lower level the opportunity to grow and climb up. Ixchel, how do you see the Bordeaux châteaux doing?
I loved hearing about the last two speakers, because I feel that in Bordeaux, it’s totally the other way around: the economic model is based on poor condition of work.
Most employers now are not the chateaux themselves but contractors, who do not care much about the people working for them, their conditions or their wages. As a result, neither the estates nor the contractors are able to find workers because those positions are not attractive at all. Workers are responsible to pay for their boots, their protective gear against pesticides, their accommodation, their food…so when you take all of this out of a small wage already, then you have nothing left at the end of the month. The châteaux abandoning the direct management of their staff has created a lot of precarity.
The châteaux abandoning the direct management of their staff has created a lot of precarity.Ixchel Delaporte, Journalist and Author
It’s so interesting to have you on this panel because these are questions that should be discussed and talked about. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to what you are saying, I know that there are plenty of instances when what you are describing is not the case. But I really think it’s important that we have these issues coming to light.
Yes of course there are positive individual initiatives. But what I talk about is the global system that encourages what I described previously. What is really paradoxical is that both the châteaux and the contractors are complaining because they can’t find any workers, and then you’ve got workers that don’t want to work anymore because they felt their condition of work are worse and worse. But at the same time, the vineyard workers that I met truly love their job, and are doing it in tougher and tougher conditions because as climate change, when it’s cold it’s really cold and when it’s hot, it’s very hot.
They love their job, and for most they do not complain about the low wages, they complain because they’ve lost the recognition they had before, the feeling of being part of something and part of a team, the feeling that your work actually mattered.
It’s interesting that you said it’s the recognition. As I said, we are doing a lot in terms of housing and helping workers come and stay and live and be a part of our community. But the best program we’ve done, the one that lit people up and made them so excited, is our countywide employee recognition program.
It’s super simple and really inexpensive. Every month, our grape growers nominate one of their employees as best-in-class in different categories: from pruning to communications, innovation, or safety, etc… Each month we select four and we give them a gift card of $500. At the end of the year, we invite them all in with their families and our local Congressman, and we choose the employee of the year. We have 300 vineyard employees in a big room celebrating what they do. It was the most incredible celebration day and so inexpensive to implement. I think we have to look for these transformational ways, and often a “thank you” goes a long way.
The best program we’ve done, the one that lit people up and made them so excited, is our countywide employee recognition program […] We have 300 vineyard employees in a big room celebrating what they do. It was the most incredible celebration day and so inexpensive to implement. Often a “thank you” goes a long way.Karissa Kruse, President, Sonoma County Winegrowers Association
Can I put this into a bigger context for Akilah? What are the benefits that companies can get by taking social sustainability seriously? And what are the pitfalls to avoid?
Dr Akilah Cadet
I just want to say a couple things first. When we think about the workers, would you say that they are white, or black or brown? Do you think they have the same social economic status as the people in this room today? We are having a conversation about what workers need to thrive without workers in the room.
If workers see only harvesting or pruning, then mobility up isn’t there, and people aren’t going to see these jobs as attractive, notably when they compare it to the tech industry in the Bay Area, or to moving to the city in Argentina. But if you do like in Laura’s example, provide people an opportunity to learn and to grow and have upward mobility opportunities, then recruiting is less of a problem.
If workers see only harvesting or pruning, then mobility up isn’t there, and people aren’t going to see these jobs as attractive, notably when they compare it to the tech industry in the Bay Area, or to moving to the city in Argentina. But if you […] provide people an opportunity to learn and to grow and have upward mobility opportunities, then recruiting is less of a problem.Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder, Change Cadet
Laura’s example is great. Doing a PhD is amazing. Learning English is amazing. UC Davis is amazing. These are amazing opportunities. And that’s something that can dramatically shift someone’s life. But if everyone’s only thinking about “how do we get more workers to be in the field”, than you are not thinking about it right, because you are limiting the potential of all those individuals and that’s a problem. So I challenge you to really think differently about that one.
I’d like to shift the conversation to another aspect of the question. If we look at the major issues for vineyards and wineries in the next 10 years, how can we get people to see the bigger picture when it comes to sustainability of the entire process and the entire industry?
Dr Laura Catena
I think sustainability is a global mindset in general, where humans are part of their ecosystems. We have a vision at the Catena Institute, which is science to preserve nature and culture. And when I say the word science, it’s a very sustainable word because you must do the math, because otherwise you’ll lose money and you have to be able to support your business.
If you want to preserve wine, the way we all love it, you have to preserve the culture of the countryside, and the people who live in the countryside. Robots can be very useful if it helps managing pain and injuries for example, when machinery actually help people, but we need to preserve the human touch.
In the Bordelais, there are two essential things: the environmental question, because the pesticides issue is first and foremost an issue for vineyard workers. It is of course an important and relevant topic for consumers, but we shouldn’t forget that the vineyard workers are the first exposed to the problem. In Bordeaux, despite of some health scandals linked to pesticides, workers are facing a lot of resistance in the estate they work in. The ones I interviewed struggled to get their voices heard. We’ve seen some progress, with some cancers being now officially linked to the use of pesticides and the government recognizing them as occupational health hazard, but the whole process is very slow, and some of these workers see their health deteriorating very quickly.
The second thing is the question of work conditions. You asked me earlier what changed since the book was published, the main thing that changed is that workers from all around the region have expressed their relief of finally being heard, of having someone carrying their voices and their search for more dignity. Workers are in pain; they suffer physically and mentally because of how their working conditions are deteriorating.
I really think that the Bordeaux region would have so much to gain in the next 20years just by considering the question of how the quality wines are produced and by whom, and really investing in their workers, not hiding themselves behind contractors and pretend that they didn’t know. And who knows, maybe the wines will be even better.
It all goes back to social status and who is actually working in the vineyards.
I totally agree. When we launched our foundation, the very first thing we did was bring in the workforce and asked them how we could help. We didn’t assume we knew the answer. That’s we’re housing and immigration policy and healthcare and childcare came up, because off hours all started to play in a workforce development.
To your point of sustainability and climate, I think there’s such an important intersection here. In Sonoma County or in Northern California, 10 years ago, you wouldn’t hear our farmers say climate. It was mother nature, right? Mother nature is unpredictable. And I think mother nature is always unpredictable. Every vintage looks different every season. And so what’s been important for us with our sustainability efforts has been this requirement of continuous improvement. That’s where technology plays a role, it’s where pesticide management plays a role, it’s getting those inputs and enabling collaboration. The wine community and farmers do such a great job of sharing. It’s one of the least, most competitive, industries and businesses around the world, right? We share our product all the time and love to do that. We need to continue to encourage the sharing of good practices.
And in Sonoma you’ve done a great job of not siloing them off into different areas, because for you, the idea of green sustainability has a myriad of different of potential actions.
Yes, the most important thing is that everyone is heading in the right direction.
Tom, are all the subjects that have come up here the same questions that are being asked in your industry?
Yes, absolutely. The aspect of ownership is actually one of the potential next steps that will happen, notably in India. They are on their way to allow the gardens workers, the smallholder, to sell directly. So they can’t make investment in their own equipment, but they can own the output of their labour, and have more ownership decisions over what they do with profits.
As per the transmission to younger generation, I think there’s a sense of that in Thailand for example, where young people are very incentivized to work in tea gardens. It’s hard work, but there’s an element of cultural background that goes into it. Tea is seen as a cultural product and not a commodity and is seen as a product that has more value than just its fiduciary one.
That is something which I’ve observed being successful in Bordeaux too. Traditionally, the people who work in the vineyards would only do vineyard related work, and same thing for people working in the cellar. What I’ve found is that everything works better when people are given ownership of the entire product, right to the point of tasting.
Some of the good producers here will have the people who work in the cellar swapping with people in the vineyards. I know several estates, every time a new vintage comes, the workers who worked that vineyard all year round will come and taste and interact during the en-primeur week. That’s such an important and easy way of valorising people who work for you, and it has a huge impact.
When it comes to sustainability, you have to question each participant on what they can actually do. A company like ours, who’s reasonably small, which doesn’t employ tea workers directly, of course we can put pressure on the producers to implement sustainability. But in a sense, our leverage is limited. One thing we have to do is work with the industry associations, the ETP.
Another thing we can do is within our supply chain, we have the most expertise in communicating to consumers. If you are thinking about sustainability without the consumers being on board and demanding it, you won’t have a sustainable change in the value chain, which is what you need. We need more values to go back to the origin, where the tea is actually produced.
If you are thinking about sustainability without the consumers being on board and demanding it, you won’t have a sustainable change in the value chain, which is what you need.Tom Price, Head of Tea, Jing Tea
So we’ve started communicating thoroughly about the fact that certain teas are coming from specific places, which is not actually very well known amongst tea consumers. If you know that the tea you like is coming from a certain place and you know that this place is suffering and that production might stop there for whatever reason, you become more invested in that place, and more willing to pay more for that place. And what we wanted to see was this extra value going back to the entire production team.
We ran a competition to find the best Darjeeling tea maker, and we wanted to make sure that within the winning garden, everybody was rewarded. So rather than presenting a trophy to the owner of the company or the brand, we will be going there in November and set up an event that recognizes everyone, from pickers to garden managers. Moving forward it is one of the way that we will communicate to the consumer about what we do to sustain our industry.
I’d like to finish by asking the panel about certifications that particular emphasizes social sustainability. Do any of you have examples?
Dr Laura Catena
There are a lot of buyers like in the Nordic countries who have pretty strict, notably about how people are treated. If you get the BRC, they monitor a high level of details, like how many people for one shower, do they have a place to hang their clothes in the bathroom etc…
In Argentina, money is hard to come by and I’m kind of grateful when my quality control person says that we have to build a bathroon in order to get certified, because, you know what? I want to build the bathroom, but now buyers are making this a priority for me. I’m grateful that countries and companies demand certain things because it really makes you do them. That’s why I think certification is important.
 Ixchel Delaporte expressed herself in French. Her replies have been translated into English by ARENI. Les Raisins de la Misére, Ixchel Delaporte, Editions du Rouergue, Octobre 2018
 Ethical Tea Partnership: www.ethicalteapartnership.org/
 British Retail Consortium Global Standards: www.brcgs.com/
This conversation is part of ARENI’s publication 12 Conversations: Different Ways of Looking at Sustainability, published in September 2022, available to all.