Within the natural wine world, labor practices are an aspect of production that has only just begun to attract the scrutiny given to, say, cover crops or spray programs. Selling natural wine involves a narrative about holistic farming, intimate scale, and transparency of methods. So while the wine industry as a whole has much to answer for when it comes to issues of worker welfare, it’s a question that falls harder on natural producers, who stake their claim on making ethical, kinder-to-the-planet wines that align with the conscious consumer’s values.
Until last summer, when star Italian natural winemaker Valentina Passalacqua was implicated in allegations of migrant worker abuse, the issue of labor practices hadn’t been a part of the natural wine conversation. That scandal (though she vehemently denies any wrongdoing) forced U.S. importers to grapple with how to best address the human side of production, and bring the same transparency to the way pickers and pruners are treated as levels of added sulfites.
Some have already begun using their platforms to raise awareness, and there is growing interest in audits and certification programs. Others argue that the scrutiny is ineffective or misplaced. How will the debate impact natural wine producers and consumers?
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Labor Practices Enter the Narrative
The Passalacqua accusations coincided with a broader move to expose discrimination and exploitation in the wine industry, all amid an exploding social justice movement. Whitney Pope, a sommelier and natural wine events organizer and educator, sees the U.S. entering what she calls “a fourth wave of natural wine awareness” focused on the human element of wine production. This collision of factors is prompting several importers to raise the profile of winery labor practices in varying ways.
Jennifer Green, editor of GlouGlou magazine, was one of the first wine industry members to speak out against Passalacqua’s alleged role in worker mistreatment, investigating and releasing evidence of the winemaker’s role. But Green, who is also the founder of SuperGlou, a boutique importer of natural wines from Germany, France, and Italy, also recognized that this was an issue with implications beyond a single producer. She turned the scrutiny on the labor practices of her own 13 producers beginning in August 2020.
“Why are human details inferior to tech specs? Why aren’t pickers considered part of the vintage report?” – Jennifer Green, SuperGlou
This spring, Green began to roll out labor facts labels, modeled after the familiar nutrition label, for her producers on the SuperGlou website. Each details the size and nationality of the picking crew, total number of hectares owned and bottles produced, length of harvest and workday, housing and meals provided, as well as farming philosophy.
“The point of this graphic is to get people talking,” says Green. “Why are human details inferior to tech specs? Why aren’t pickers considered part of the vintage report? We certainly didn’t know the answers to all these questions until we asked our producers directly.” Her hope is that others will join her, “catalyzing a discussion across the industry.”
Tess Bryant, whose eponymous import company brings in mostly Australian wines, adopted a similar model. Australia’s reputation for guaranteeing a high minimum wage and generous healthcare already offers a baseline of assurance. But she says “a summer filled with issues that made us, as a society, ask questions and broaden the conversation” impelled her to look for ways to effect change through her own business. Her immediate response was to request labor specifics from the 15 wineries she works with and to publish the results on her website.
Now when she looks to add a new producer to her portfolio, she asks for a statement right away, along with production practices and other basic details. “My role is to share information,” says Bryant, “and let the consumer make the final call, in the same way that I share how someone farms or what someone adds to their wines.”
Others are working to build internal structures to ensure fair labor practices within their portfolios, even going so far as to make them legal. Zev Rovine Selections is one of the biggest players in U.S. natural wine imports, representing 160 wineries across 13 countries. Founder Zev Rovine says the injustices and unrest of 2020 prompted him to think harder about the labor practices of the producers he represents.
“Everyone wants to pour a hand-picked, biodynamic wine for $12 a glass, but the reality is that that doesn’t exist without some level of labor exploitation.” – Jane Lopes, Legend Imports
The result is a “working contract” he is developing in consultation with labor specialists, attorneys, and activist Ashtin Berry. It governs sexism, racism, land stewardship, and labor rights—including the provision of living wages, insurance, and housing and meals for seasonal workers. It also articulates the grounds for him to stop working with a producer should these standards not be met.
(Rovine was previously one of two U.S. importers of Passalacqua’s wines; Jenny Lefcourt, whose company Jenny & Francois, was the other, and is another major force in natural wine imports in the U.S., did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
While they may not be auditing labor practices specifically, more importers are being vocal about their values as a company. When husband-and-wife team Jane Lopes and Jonathan Ross launched Legend, an Australian wine import company that is not exclusive to natural wine, last summer, they published a detailed statement of values, which includes supporting diversity and equity at the 16 wineries they represent. The couple also plans to ask the producers they work with to sign a wine industry equity pledge they helped revise and have started compiling specific labor practices for each of their producers to communicate on their website.
“Everyone wants to pour a hand-picked, biodynamic wine for $12 a glass,” says Lopes, “but the reality is that that doesn’t exist without some level of labor exploitation.” Providing consumers with more information about what goes into the glass helps explain why. “Labor standards are almost always a conversation we have with buyers and our distributors,” she says. “When we do educational presentations, we always start with a ‘why drink Australia’ section and discuss labor practices.” Her hope is that the equity pledge will evolve into something producers could put on their labels or websites and in that way gain broader consumer recognition.
Misplaced Efforts and the Challenge of Certification
Some industry members worry about the efficacy of internal auditing—and whether these efforts may unintentionally cause harm. “We should take a few of the big violations that have been uncovered and ask: Would a self-reporting labor questionnaire have prevented this?” asks Alleah Friedrichs, the co-founder and president of Bliss Wine Imports, which represents 12 natural wine producers from countries around the world and operates a natural wine club. Because producers and wholesalers are in partnership with one another, there’s a conflict of interest, even with the best intentions.
The issue of moral authority raises itself for Friedrichs, too. “Is this going to be another example of Americans going around the world, putting their values on other people, and causing a mess when they don’t even understand the cultural implications?” she wonders.
Intercultural and even generational perceptions also present challenges: One producer’s tradition may be an importer’s transgression. Alice Feiring, an author, journalist, and natural wine specialist, wonders, for instance, how importers would regulate the many natural wine producers who rely on family, friends, and volunteers to prune vines or bring in a harvest.
Feiring also believes labor contracts and labeling represent an inappropriate form of “virtue signaling” and “policing.” In her view, scrutiny should be directed at less widely reported transgressions by conventional producers, whose scale, power, and potential to do harm dwarf those of most natural winemakers. “Yes, this issue was highlighted in the natural wine world because we care about it,” she says. “Now let’s take it outside of our world to where it really is an issue.’”
How to Move Forward
As long as individual importers are left to determine whether and how to assess and report on labor practices at the wineries they represent, the movement is likely to remain disjointed. There is no agreement on which specifics to focus on or how to address them. Some importers suggest third parties should get involved.
Ashley Taranto and her husband, Federico Parlagreco, import a handful of Italian and Austrian natural wines through their company, Rock Paper Scissors. Taranto suggests a grassroots movement among producers or an extension of existing natural wine associations could play a role as third-party auditors or by including labor practices in their certification criteria.
Models for this do exist. B Corp certification requires an assessment of how a company’s operations impact workers, community, customers, and the environment. While B Corps are catching on with breweries and tea and coffee producers around the world, relatively few wineries have pursued the option. Fair ‘n’ Green is a European-based certification option specifically for wineries, which includes criteria such as wages paid to harvesters. Dozens of wineries, including standard bearers like Clemens Busch and Heymann-Loewenstein in Germany, are already members. Austria offers its own Sustainable Austria certification which assesses social safeguards, job training, and fair wages, among other factors.
In the absence of other resources, importers involved in this conversation agree both trust and vigilance are critical. They say that this past year, when in-person visits were impossible and scrutiny was at an all-time high, long-term relationships and close, on-the-ground networks took on even greater importance.
As consumers increasingly look for wines that align with their values, the topic of worker treatment will gain visibility. Pope is convinced that as BIPOC individuals like her move into more important roles in the wine industry, they will bring a heightened awareness of labor practices and “push to have transparency in winemaking applied in equal measure to the human capital that’s involved. The people working in the vineyards are part of the ecosystems we are scrutinizing.” She applauds importers who have done their due diligence, “not as a way to have plausible deniability,” she notes, “but as a standard: How many hectares? How many hands?”
Rovine is on board. “By putting our expectations and production standards on paper, we’re putting everybody on notice and creating discussion,” he says. Aware that some producers may bristle, he is applying the contract to his own company first, to ensure that his employees are being treated and acting fairly before he asks others to follow suit.
He believes the risks of pushback are outweighed by the potential to effect positive change. “As a wine importer,” he says, “you have incredible power, spending a huge amount of money. Taking the extra time to make sure you’re spending it in ways that create equity is very important.”
The natural wine movement has pushed the conversation about farming much closer to the top of the list of considerations for a growing number of wine consumers. Now it has the chance to do the same thing for the welfare of winery workers.
Valerie Kathawala is a New York-based journalist specializing in the wines of Austria, Germany, South Tyrol, and Switzerland. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of TRINK Magazine. She holds a WSET 3 certification.