The Five Whys of the Civil War and What We Can Learn From it in the Wine Industry

Hang on for the ride here folks…

For a full disclaimer, I am Southern. I’m proud to be Southern but the South has a dark stain on its past that no one should be celebrating or proud of. This is a post I have been thinking about for quite a while but it has become far more relevant in the past week with the tragic events in Charleston and the vast political rhetoric that followed it. Originally, the thought started to form in my mind when the Occupy movement started gaining steam all over the country during the Great Recession while we were living in Napa. Then we were only a short car ride away from two cities, Oakland and San Francisco, which had major camps of occupiers so I essentially had a front row seat for that.

Anyway…

For those of you not familiar with the Five Whys technique, it is an excellent way to get to the root cause of a problem. It is a SixSigma technique outlined on their website here.

According to the site the Five Whys, is most useful “when problems involve human factors or interactions.” There are few problems greater than the outbreak of war so be patient with me here as I explore the Five Whys of the Civil War. What does this have to do with the wine industry? To quote Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde, “I promise, I have a point.”

Why #1 – Why Did the Civil War Start?

On April 12, 1861 the first shots were fired which kicked off the Civil War. These shots were fired in Charleston, SC directed at Fort Sumter which was located in the Charleston Harbor. After secession, South Carolina and the newly formed Confederate States had asked the Union armies to abandon the forts in the Harbor and tensions were running high.

Why #2 – Why Did the States Secede?

If you read through the entire Declaration of Secession for South Carolina, the cause of the declaration is the idea that somehow the other states had broken the trust and agreements on which the United States were founded and they were upset that the central government now had the authority to mandate laws that would be beyond what they had originally agreed to. This is the state’s rights argument. Unfortunately for the South, the platform they chose to build the state’s rights argument on was Slavery.

Why #3 – Why did the Southern States Choose to Build a State’s Rights Case with Slavery?

Economics my dear Watson! Doesn’t it usually come down to money? Cornered and faced with the complete destruction of their economy, the Southern States did what most people would probably do in the face of imposed financial ruin. They fought back. USHistory.org puts it this way…

“The sudden end to the slave economy would have had a profound and killing economic impact in the South where reliance on slave labor was the foundation of their economy. The cotton economy would collapse. The tobacco crop would dry in the fields. Rice would cease being profitable.”

The institution was wrong. However it was the way it had always been done and the South didn’t see any other options.

Why #4 – Why Was Slavery so Important to the South’s Economy?

The majority of farming was accomplished with slaves. Once slavery was taken out of the picture there was no way to maintain the vast farms and plantations. Working the land personally was considered “beneath” the gentile way of life that the southern states had established for themselves. There was no one willing to work the land so they had slaves to do it for them. There also was no economic force for the south outside of the production of cash crops; Cotton, Tobacco, Indigo, and Rice mainly. It was nearly a monoculture with a single main industry and smaller sub industries supporting it. This led to a set up that was doomed to fail.

HA! It didn’t even take five whys to get the root causes of the Civil War.

This was the problem. It was an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area.

Here’s my point…

So let’s now fast forward 154 years to present day and take a good look at how the food industry in this country is set up, focusing mainly on the wine industry since that is the industry I’m most familiar with. Let me be very clear. I am not comparing the hideous institution of slavery to the immigrant labor force we have today. Just the dependence on this particular workforce with little viable alternative. I’m sure there are legal and illegal immigrants represented. I don’t want to pick on any particular area but for the purposes of this comparison, let’s take Napa County. Agriculture is the main industry of Napa County and of that Agriculture I think it is safe to say that it is mostly vineyards and wineries. The next industry is hospitality however the hospitality wouldn’t exist if the vineyards and wineries were not there. The vineyards and wineries are currently owned by a mix of different entities; private individuals who either have been in the valley for generations and inherited their land, wealthy new comers wanting a piece of the idyllic lifestyle, or corporations who specialize in the wine and beverage industry. All of this is possible because we are able to find semi-skilled immigrant labor who are willing to work hard, dirty, difficult jobs to make ends meet. Many are transient, living in farm labor camps during the season and following different crops around the state. Most are just barely making ends meet and living transitory lives to continue working as much as possible. Strawberries in the spring, Lettuce in the summer, grapes in the fall, etc…

Napa is an entire economy, built on one industry, relying on one type of worker to support the rest of the population of the area. Do you get why I’ve been thinking about this for a while?

During the Occupy movement when unemployment was at its highest, the vineyards and wineries struggled to find enough workers to accomplish the tasks needed to keep the vineyards in top shape. The labor contractors managing the crews were rumored to be leaving jobs if they heard that someone across the valley was paying slightly higher for the same work. Meanwhile, I was watching newscasts everyday of people camping in downtown Oakland and San Francisco, complaining about how they were out of work and couldn’t find work because the 1% was keeping them down. I couldn’t help but wonder why we didn’t send buses down to the cities to pick up these folks and solve two problems at once. One winery on the central coast actually went so far as to try to hire an “All-American” harvest crew.  John Salisbury posted ads to try to find additional help for the harvest. He had 80 inquiries for jobs. Forty came in to fill out applications. From that group 22 were selected for interviews and only 18 actually showed up. They hired all 18 and that dwindled quickly down to 7 who made it through the whole season plus they were 3 times as expensive as migrant labor and extra slow compared to the immigrant crews. He was back to hiring migrant crews after that.

Then we have the immigration debate to add to this mix. The proverbial governmental mandate that could radically change how we bring in immigrant labor to this country to work doing jobs that the domestic population has nearly zero interest or skill in doing. Depending on how it is handled it could have huge implications to the cost of our food supply chain throughout the country. Right now people are interested in purchasing cheap food and with cheap food comes the cheapest labor that the economy can deliver and at this time that is based on migrant labor.

Here comes my frustration with our current political atmosphere in which politicians are too busy rehashing and debating the rhetoric of a war that happened 150 years ago rather than focusing on a similar economic set up of our food industry today. I would love to tell them the same thing that I would tell a Southern redneck talking about the “War of Northern Aggression.” Get over it! We have bigger fish to fry in the here and now before history repeats itself. Hopefully it can be a more positive outcome this time.

Rounding up the Roundup: Thoughts on France’s Recent Ban

I have been watching this issue unfold very closely over the past few months since the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report came out in March naming glyphosate, the active ingredient in the wildly popular herbicide, possibly carcinogenic to humans.  In the report, which you can read in its entirety here, the chemical is described as having the “highest global production volume of all herbicides” with “the largest use world wide is in agriculture.  Naturally this use includes vineyards although I would be surprised if vineyards make up even a fraction of the total world use of Roundup.  I could always tell when it was Roundup season in Napa.  It has a certain smell to it and I always ended up sneezing throughout the few weeks that everyone was trying to kill the weeds that were competing for the ever more scarce resource of water.  Interestingly enough, just a few days ago, France’s Ecology Minister, Segolene Royal, announced a ban on the sale of Roundup in nurseries.  Granted this is not a complete ban however it is a very strong step in keeping the chemical from being misused or overused in urban settings.

Photo courtesy of  Dopamine Hegemony

Yup.  This means in France, the poor urban gardener either has to hire someone with a license to apply it or they’ll have to get rid of weeds the old fashioned way, by weeding. This brings me back to what this could mean for the industry if there are increasingly stringent restrictions in place for this chemical.  I personally am all for weeding mechanically using discs and French plows where needed however these methods are more expensive, time consuming, and yes, quite possibly less satisfying than just running a 4-wheeler through the vineyard nuking weeds completely.  However, I’m sure the IARC report may make people think twice before deciding that Roundup is as harmless as we have all been thinking it is.

Then you bring in the ecological impact of this super efficient weed eradication method.  Herbicides in general used on large scale farms in the US have been linked to Monarch Butterfly decline due to the loss of milkweed.  I think this should be quite troubling to an industry that prides itself on being sustainable and helpful to the ecological environment.

I’m not entirely sure how the rest of the EU is going to react to the IARC report.  Wild speculation is that Glyphosate could be banned entirely from both use in the EU and prevent products that have been grown using Glyphosate from importation.  Should this actually happen, which, for the record,  I think is a long shot, the mainstream industry would have to radically shift the thought of how to manage weeds in vineyards.

It will be interesting to see how this continues to unfold…

 

 

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.