For decades, sustainability initiatives in agriculture have centered on organic growing practices and animal welfare. But as the millennial generation falls deeper into love with wine, consumer demand has expanded to include goods that also prioritize human welfare. In fact, about 90 percent of millennials are willing to pay more for wine that is sustainably produced, according to a survey of wine consumers funded by Wine Intelligence and Full Glass Research; 70 percent of consumers now expect brands to address social issues, and 46 percent consider a brand’s social mission before making a purchase.
As a result, many wineries that have been focused on environmental initiatives are also investing in their workers’ quality of life, with creative, thought-provoking solutions being deployed across the globe. As it turns out, creating better conditions and futures for workers not only creates a happier team — it often produces a better, more cost-effective product.
Building Housing for Workers
Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing both workers and their employees. Farm workers are generally perched at the lower end of the pay scale (on average making less than $15 an hour in the U.S., with similar rates around the globe), meaning they’re often priced out of the mainstream housing market.
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Raimat Wines in Costers del Segre, Spain, was founded with an audaciously progressive paradigm in 1914, and has been carrying on the legacy of full-circle sustainability for more than a century. “When Manuel Raventós bought the 7,500-acre estate in 1914, he built up a town around it,” says winemaker Carles Escolar. “There was just a castle and a hunting house when he arrived. He constructed houses for 200 families of workers, and put in electricity and water.”
Raventós went on to add a church, town hall, and school. These days, many workers opt to commute, but Raimat offers workers under 35 who pledge to live there full-time the opportunity to buy homes from the winery at below-market prices, both as a capital-building perk for workers, and as a way to retain them.
Many wineries, struggling to find workers in their regions, are finding ways to implement Raventós’s vision on their own properties.
King Family Vineyards, which has 45 acres under vine in Crozet, Va., has poured about $200,000 into renovating the homes for its vineyard crew. “We now have one four-bedroom house on-site which can house some of our eight-person full-time team,” says winemaker Mattieu Finot. “And we have another one we’re fixing up for our temporary harvest intern crew. It will be able to sleep six to eight, hostel-style.”
Other producers, like Boundary Breaks in Lodi, N.Y., have turned to the H-2A program, which allows agricultural employers to bring in foreign workers for temporary jobs. Part of the program entails securing housing.
“We are part of a group of four wineries that recruit and house H-2A workers together,” says Bruce Murray, Boundary’s owner. “We work together to rent and furnish apartments with all of the typical amenities, and we also pay for their airfare and vans for transportation and commuting between home and vineyards. We bring in the same core crew of 18 workers from Mexico every year from March through November.”
They divide the workers in two crews, who alternate between wineries. By teaming up, the costs are more manageable, and the benefits for the wineries are priceless. “We’re getting the same people every year, and that way, they build on their skills,” Murray says. “We have real relationships with them now. It’s not cheap, but it’s preferable to not getting good workers.”
Wineries Invest in Educational Programs
Meanwhile, some wineries are investing in their workers’ educations, with the hope that having a team of more skilled and fulfilled workers will ultimately create better wines.
In Mendoza, Argentina, Bodega Trivento cranks out 3.3 million cases of wine per year, thanks to 408 full-time and 93 part-time employees. Given its mammoth size, Trivento is surprisingly well positioned to scale up human sustainability in a way that smaller organizations might struggle with.
“We understand that economic success goes hand-in-hand with taking care of the environment, and the people and community we work in,” says Fernanda Bertinatto, head of organizational development and internal experience at Trivento. “This ‘virtuous cycle’ is essential to our business model.”
In 2008, Trivento established a part-time satellite high school for workers. Ten years later, the brand funded over 200 scholarships via its Winds of Opportunity program, which involves a part-time schedule specifically designed to allow workers to complete their degrees while staying employed.
In the U.S, Parra Wine Co.‘s Sam Parra co-founded the nonprofit AHIVOY (Asociación Hispana de la Industria del Vino en Oregon y Comunidad), because he saw a potential brain and skills drain happening in the Willamette Valley.
“I realized that unless we invested in our workers, [and] helped them further their education and get new opportunities in the field, all of [them]would just go work in cannabis, where they were being offered $35 an hour,” Parra explains.
AHIVOY funds educational programs at Chemeketa Community College and Linfield University. “When the programs are complete, the employers agree to offer a wage increase and new benefits to the workers in exchange for the new skills they can apply to their work,” Parra says.
Redefining Work-Life Balance
In Mendoza, Domaine Bousquet invests not only in the employees who handle grapes, but who work in maintenance, logistics, and quality control. That comes in many forms, from educational and training initiatives, to quality-of-life coups.
“We offer free lunch, transportation or reimbursement for transportation, and the ability to work from home if their job allows it a few days a week. We have a 360-degree view of sustainability,” notes CEO and co-founder Anne Bousquet.
The Chilean wine industry, like Argentina’s, is disproportionately invested in work-life balance and, more broadly, the joy of living your own best life.
“About 85 percent of our wineries in Chile are certified sustainable,” says Wines of Chile’s U.S. director, Julio Alonso. “There are four certifications, one of which is social, and all of which are third-party verified.”
While the programs vary from winery to winery, most include scholarships, educational initiatives, and family leave policies.
Training a New Generation of Workers
Tuscan winery Frescobaldi launched a worker training project with the Gorgona Penal Institute on Gorgona Island in 2011, with the goal of putting prisoners on the road to success. The island is the smallest in the Tuscan archipelago, and has been an open penal colony since 1869 — its mountainous terrain also makes it an ideal place to cultivate wine. The winery’s winemaking and vineyard teams work with prisoners to train them in the business of growing grapes and making wine.
“We wanted to give them a chance to earn a salary and pave a new road for themselves back in the world,” says president Marchesi Frescobaldi. “The [program’s] rehab rate for inmates is 100 percent at this point, and the result is a unique wine, produced in a one-of-a-kind terroir. It is a symbol of hope for a better life.”
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for wineries set on improving the lives of the people they work with. One thing is clear: It is time to broaden the focus of sustainability to include not just the vineyard, but the people who work in it.