Forget the drought. Grapevines can deal with water shortages. Some California winegrowers have an even bigger problem these days: marijuana.
No, it’s not that people are choosing to get high instead of drink wine. Wineries in northern California aren’t competing with marijuana for customers, they’re competing for workers, particularly in Mendocino, the epicentre of the domestic marijuana industry.
‘When we need help in the vineyard around harvest time, we put out signs that we’re looking for pickers’, says Martha Barra of Redwood Valley Vineyards. ‘People will usually stop by and apply for the job, but this year none did. I was down at the grocery store around harvest time, and saw four young people holding up a sign saying that they were looking for work. I told them to jump in the back of my pickup and I’d give them work. “What’s the job?” they said, and when I told them picking grapes, they said that wasn’t the kind of job they were looking for. It made me furious. These kids can get paid $20 an hour to sit inside on a white bucket and trim buds.’ (That’s the vital operation of isolating the potent bits of the dried marijuana plant.)
The average hourly wage for basic vineyard work in Mendocino County, where Barra farms over 300 acres, is somewhere between US $10 and $12. Barra pays $12.50 and provides housing or an additional monthly housing allowance for her workers.
‘Last year was the first year where we just couldn’t find enough people and it cost us work’, says Norman Kobler, owner of Ardzrooni Vineyard Management company. ‘Every year now maybe 15 of my employees will disappear around harvest time to do the marijuana harvest instead. They can get $25 or more an hour. I can’t compete with that.’
Photo courtesy of George Rose.
This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.