Aspen Times Weekly: Honoring the Workers |

Aspen Times Weekly: Honoring the Workers

Vineyard workers bringing in the 2015 wine grape harvest in the Napa Valley.
Napa Valley Vitners | Special to the Daily |


Kendall-Jackson “AVANT” California Chardonnay 2014, $17

It’s starting to feel a bit like spring out there, so maybe it’s time to turn to an easy quaffing white wine from California. This crisp and refreshing chardonnay is made from blending juice that has been fermented in stainless steel tanks with juice fermented in neutral oak barrels. The result is a clean and fresh chard that is as good on its own as it is with a piece of fresh salmon.

On a recent trip to the Napa Valley, I was struck by how much work was being done in the vineyards in what is still late-winter. Everywhere I looked there were laborers with pruning sheers cutting vines, clearing fields and getting ready for the first buds of the vintage of 2016.

It got me to thinking: Just who are the most important people in the wine industry?

For many, the obvious answer is that the winemakers who craft the vintages are the most valuable players in the game. Some may argue that bankers who fund the purchase of vineyards and provide financial capital are the key cogs in the industry. And it is hard to underestimate the role of marketers and distributors, who get both the message and the wines to consumers. One could even suggest that it is you and I, the consumers, who are the most important people in wine.

But as I watched the work being done in the vineyards, the thought occurred that none of the above would have lives in wine if it were not for the considerable efforts of the vineyard workers. And in California, the overwhelming majority of these hired hands are workers of Mexican descent.

Later that same day, I stood in the Vintners Hall of Fame Barrel Room at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone in Napa Valley. As I tasted a glass of wine, I glanced up and saw a plaque that had been erected in honor of Cesar Chavez, the American-born farm worker who was perhaps the most significant labor leaders of our time.

Chavez was part of the seventh class of the Vintners Hall of Fame (VHF). He was recognized in 2013 by the VHF in acknowledgment of his contributions to the world of wine. Chavez was instrumental in changing not just the California wine industry, but also the lives of thousands of migrant workers. To this day, changes that were made in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the non-violent protests that Chavez led impact how workers and the wine industry interact.

Born in Yuma, Arizona, in the late 1920s, Chavez became aware of inequality as a child when his family lost a patch of land during the Depression. His family then followed the seasons in California, working the harvests. By Chavez’s count he attended 38 schools before they finally settled in Delano, California, the heart of the table grape industry in America.

Chavez, inspired by the non-violent tactics espoused by activists like Mahatma Gandhi, became a community organizer, working with farm workers who were harvesting table grapes and lettuce in California’s fertile fields. He first became a national symbol of the movement in 1968, when then-Democratic Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy traveled to Delano to break bread with Chavez following Chavez’s 25-day fast in protest of labor conditions.

In 1975, Chavez led a march of members of his United Farm Workers union from San Francisco to Modesto, California, and the headquarters of America’s most profitable wine concern, E & J Gallo Winery. By the time the group completed their 110-mile walk, 15,000 people had joined them. The march led then (and now) California Gov. Jerry Brown to propose, and the California Legislature to pass, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA), one of the most significant pieces of legislation of its kind.

As Chavez was a leader of the movement, he became a symbol of those who worked in the fields and vineyards in California, toiling tirelessly for minimal wages in deplorable conditions.

While still not ideal, things have changed dramatically for seasonal laborers in the wine industry. Housing, hourly wages and benefits have improved greatly over the years. In the Napa Valley, vineyard owners are assessed a fee per acre that goes into a fund to provide shelter for migrant workers.

But perhaps even more dramatic have been the changes in perception and the relationship that now exists between vineyard workers and those who employ them. Today, there is not just recognition but appreciation among the wine community for the accomplishments and contributions of the workers who prune, till, toil and pick.

Chavez is celebrated each year on March 31, his birthday, with official state holidays in California, Texas and Colorado, and there is a continued call to make the day a national holiday. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Chavez posthumously (he died in 1993) with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. And California has honored him with a spot in the state’s Hall of Fame.

As Cesar would say, Sí, se puede, “Yes, it can be done.”

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at

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