Category Archives: Musings

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.


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. 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…



I’m Not Defending the Millennial Generation Any More


The above is a picture of the actual Oregon Trail ruts in Wyoming.  Picture from here.

Quite a while ago I wrote a post about “Who are the Millennials? Generally, I was trying to defend the amazing generalization that the media had been painting about people born during a huge 20 year timeframe.

I’ve never agreed with the lumping that many years into one Generation particularly if you look at the rapid change in technology over that time frame.  In my post I tried to hold on to the Millennial status and make an argument that the generation behind us should be the “Wired” generation.  Those that were born from 1986-2000.

Then this week I read this post “The Oregon Trail Generation: Life Before and After Mainstream Tech.” She’s basically saying the same thing I was however what I really like is that he is shedding the Millennial title and adopting a new one.  We are naming ourselves as a Generation and I LOVE it!  Who in my small range of a “micro Generation” doesn’t remember sitting down to computer lab and agonizing over the decisions to take extra food or another wagon axel before setting out to conquer the Green and Black dot matrix American West!

Our age range of the micro Generation is very similar. This excerpt from my post…

“Millennials are people who came of age during the 2000 millennial change so anywhere between 14-22 years of age on January 1st, 2000. We are old enough to remember a time pre Internet but young enough to not remember a time before computers. This may seem trivial but we are the last generation that can say that the Internet did not exist in our lifetime. We did not grow up with the instant access to information via cell phones and mobile technology although we adapted quickly enough when it came along. The generations behind us may never know the weight of 5 volumes of the encyclopedia britannica while trying to write notes on index cards.”

Then her post…

“We used pay-phones; we showed up at each other’s houses without warning; we often spoke to our friends’ parents before we got to speak to them; and we had to wait at least an hour to see any photos we’d taken.  But for the group of kids just a little younger than us, the whole world changed, and that’s not an exaggeration.  In fact, it’s possible that you had a completely different childhood experience than a sibling just 5 years your junior, which is pretty mind-blowing.”

So here we are, the micro generation.  The generation with roots in the glorious American heyday of the pre-9/11 era and the reality of growing into adults during the post-9/11 wars and recessions.

Will marketer’s care about our 6-8 year generation as they court the much larger Gen X or now the Millennial Generation behind us?  Maybe the generation I’ve been trying so hard to defend is not actually my generation at all.  From here on out my allegiance is Oregon Trail Generation!  I definitely relate to all of this generation’s generalizations!