Next time you look deep into your glass of wine to marvel at its light and color, try to see the workers who picked its grapes. And they are hard to see, as so many are part of the migrant and often non-documented work force at the dark heart of the California wine industry. We're talking about people whose annual wage never breaks $20K, as if they worked annually, as if the Bureau of Labor Statistics can capture all their salaries.
Enter Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara, noted producer of syrah, sangiovese, and roussanne. For over a decade they've employed a steady crew, or cuadrilla, to help ameliorate the labor issues so rampant in their industry. "Over a decade of research into the California wine industry before buying our land, traveling up and down the state, taught Dad a lot about the nitty-gritty of agriculture," says Peter Stolpman, managing partner, about his father Tom Stolpman. "When he fell in love with the beauty of our property, he decided to be both a steward of the land and a fair employer to the people who work it. This meant we would have to employ year-round, not just seasonally for pruning and harvest. This way, dad thought, our crew would be able to establish roots here, raise families, and provide an education for their children without moving around following different harvests."
It's often the second-generation issues that are most problematic for migrant workers as all the chasing after work makes it impossible for their children to establish themselves in schools or social structures. Ruben Solorzano, Stolpman's vineyard manager and partner in Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, decided he wanted even more from the crew. Peter Stolpman tells the story that Solorzano "became frustrated that although the crew executed every task he asked of them, they were not paying attention to the why behind the work. Ruben assigned the crew one two-acre block, or cuadra, and explained that he would not give any instructions for the cuadra. The crew would have to pay attention to the different methodologies throughout the vineyard, and apply what they wanted to the cuadra. Ruben immediately saw a transformation in the crew; they were now engaged and began to understand the lifecycle of the vine."
Soon the grapes from the cuadra were being used to make a wine for Stolpman's wine club. That changed in 2010 when Peter Stolpman visited Jalisco, Mexico to visit Ruben and many of the cuadrilla with their extended families for Christmas. Stolpman says, he was "blown away by the strong sense of family and the pride the cuadrilla members took in introducing us to their relatives and speaking of their work and involvement in the company. One evening the idea clicked in my mind: We should take the cuadrilla training program a step forward; make enough wine to nationally distribute it and get the program's story out to the public; and then to give the crew true ownership of the wine, meaning they would receive the profits from it."
Today 10% of Stolpman wine goes into the Cuadrilla blend. The current release, hailed by Stolpman as "the ultimate BBQ wine," is officially a non-vintage blend (47% 2010 syrah, 38% 2010 sangiovese, and 15% 2011 syrah) from two different years because the weather in 2011 limited production. "A wine is only as good as the grapes it's made from," Stolpman asserts. "If we put in the labor to guarantee perfect fruit coming off the vineyard, we don't need to help the grapes make great wine. The wine is pure and has integrity. There are potentially great vineyard sites throughout the world, but that potential can only be unlocked if the vines can be carefully cultivated and nurtured. An engaged and passionate workforce is the key."
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