Citizen Wine Pickers: Few Succeed

Salisbury's "social experiment" brings in the berries, slowly

by Jane Firstenfeld
salisbury vineyards documented picking crew
Citizen pickers Mary and Justin seemed to enjoy harvesting Pinot Noir grapes in Salisbury's Avila Valley vineyards.
San Luis Obispo, Calif.—When Salisbury Vineyards issued a “Call to Arms” inviting unemployed Central Coast locals to harvest its 2011 vintage, owner John Salisbury hoped to enlist a new source of vineyard labor and provide reasonably paid temporary jobs to those in need. Despite his best intentions and persistence, his social experiment did not pan out exactly as planned.

Fortunately, after what he termed “a lousy growing year” and a crop amounting to about 80% of normal, Salisbury wrapped up most of the harvest in his coastal Avila Valley and inland Paso Robles vineyards last weekend. Wines & Vines first reported Salisbury’s experiment in September, when he had just started recruiting his “citizen picking crew.” At the time, he was surprised by the interest sparked by his column in The Avila Valley News and optimistic that with training and supervision by his vineyard experts, the inexperienced newbies would be able to bring in crop.

This morning, he sent a summary of the season. “We had over 80 inquiries for the jobs. We had 40 come in and fill out a five-page application. We picked 22 to come in for an interview,” he said. Four did not show up.

“We took the 18 remaining and started picking on a Wednesday. That day cost us over $500 per ton, which is three times the normal (cost).” To Salisbury’s relief, “The next day, it picked up a little. I was becoming worried, because we were getting behind; the Pinot Noir was quickly getting ripe.”

On the third day, he brought in a veteran, documented crew. “They lapped the citizen crew,” he reported. “The fourth day was a Saturday, and four of the citizen crew didn’t call or show up. At the end of the day, we let another six go, because they just weren’t up to the job and hadn’t showed any improvement or desire to do so. It was obvious this was their first time in the field, or else the first job ever for the younger pickers,” some of whom had been “volunteered” by their parents.

With the original 40 applicants whittled down to eight, including one who could commit to only two weeks, Salisbury was left with his “Magnificent Seven:” a retired Lt. Col. Air Force chaplain, an unemployed waitress, a graphics designer, a young man enrolled at San Luis Obispo’s nonprofit Transitions-Mental Health Association and three youths at various stages of their college education.

The colonel as captain
Glenn Rogers, the retired Air Force officer, became the natural leader of this crew, according to Salisbury. Rogers told Wines & Vines that he had heard about the program on the local news, was not working anywhere else, and needed funds to help finance upcoming cancer surgery for his wife. Although he’d performed physical labor before, at 65, “I’m trying to be active, and this certainly helped,” he said.

“Being the old guy, you kind of become the captain,” he acknowledged. If it weren’t for this opportunity, “These young guys could be sitting at home collecting welfare or unemployment. I took it as an opportunity to encourage them to work hard and not get discouraged.” The preacher applied a Biblical reference: “If a man will not work, neither should he eat.”

Rogers recalled how his crew had progressed. “The first day was training time; they showed us how to clip and push the basket along. They put me on the bin the first day. It took a week before we mastered the skills. We started the first day with 16, but people started dropping by the wayside, so we all tried to move around” to different functions.

“Most of the kids were doing the clipping. I did mostly leafing (sorting out materials-other-than grape). I tried to spell them so they didn’t get bored. The quality-control begins with the cutting,” Rogers learned. “John (Salisbury) is strict: If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t let it in the bin.”

Rogers, a teetotaler, will never taste the ultimate fruit of his vineyard labor, but he did consume his share of ripe winegrapes. “They give you good energy,” he remarked. “I would do it again. It’s a challenge every morning when you get up, and you’re filthy when you get home.” Salisbury’s vineyard management displayed deep concern for the workers, making sure they had adequate shade, water and rest and, Rogers noted, “Working as hard as we were. It has been a great opportunity.”

Salisbury reported that the Magnificent Seven earned an average of $12 per hour. “At this point, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody,” but he doesn’t expect them to return next year: “They will all certainly get better jobs in the meantime.”

What happens next?
He does not consider the citizen picking crews a sustainable model. “We are fairly near urban populations. But what about those in remote, rural areas, where most of the ag jobs are? How do they get the unemployed from hours away to the fields? How are they going to be able to do this with a dropout rate of over 90% in our case?"

Salisbury, a sixth-generation California farmer, cited the acute shortage of farm workers nationwide, from Washington’s apple orchards to organic crops in Texas and field crops in Georgia. Farmers, he noted, are “stuck to the land” and cannot outsource labor. “When these crops are not picked, then all the people who process, ship, sell, provide goods and services to all parts of the agribusiness chain also don’t work. The domino effect is tremendous.” His conclusion: “We need a guest worker program now."

Salisbury’s crop report
John Salisbury predicts lower alcohol wines with higher acidity—“more of a French style.” His eastside Paso Robles Pinot Grigio block was completely wiped out by a spring freeze April 8, although a newer, Westside block was unscathed. The gloomy summer and late rain exposed his Chardonnay to powdery mildew, reducing tonnage by “at least 40%."

Zinfandel was also problematic. “Even though we dropped one-third of our large, second-year-grafted Paso Zin (onto Cab), we should have dropped at least one-half: We are having trouble getting it ripe."

Pinot Noir “was the bright spot” delivering close-to-normal tonnage and good quality before a third rain in early October. Salisbury’s second crop of Albariño is also proving itself “a tough and prolific grower and an incredible white wine to boot,” he said. “We will pick our cool-weather Syrah on time,” although part was affected by late spring rain."


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