On the Workers in the Vineyard: Some Thoughts on Power and Labor

[As it appears in ISSUE 06 of The Wine Zine]

Natural wine is often defined by what it is not: minimal intervention, minimal or no sulfites, no pesticides, no fining, no filtering and so on. What is natural then becomes a question of what is natural according to whom. For people who care to define natural wine, this problem of subjectivity raises a whole bunch of questions about the positionality of the defining subject. Natural wine becomes defined by the instability of its identity, where each respective attempt to pin it down threatens to say more about the person doing the pinning than about some objective meaning of natural wine.

The question of what we talk about when we talk about natural wine, plus who is talking about natural wine, is prescient. In August of 2020, my Instagram was flush with it as Italian natural winemaker Valentina Passalacqua’s business practices were called to account following the house arrest of her father, Settimio Passalacqua. For context, Mr. Passalacqua was accused of caporalato, a process in which intermediaries acting as labor contractors arrange for migrants to do agricultural work while confining them in slum conditions and paying them substandard wages. Following his arrest, Ms. Passalacqua’s wines were dropped by two of New York’s more notable natural wine importers, Zev Rovine Selections and Jenny & François Selections.

Whether Valentina Passalacqua is/was guilty, or even whether she should be held accountable for her father’s exploitative business practices, is not what this essay is about. What I want to focus on here are the questions the allegations raised about the production and consumption of natural wine. I want to think about the ways that talking about natural wine–definitions of it, fantasies about it, access to it–is a way of talking about power.

Natural wine functions at the intersection of an industry that has been and continues to be mired in exploitation (agriculture) and an aspiration (to make a product that is in some way true, that pays respect to the planet and natural world). Wine as an agricultural product is not alone in this, but its productive value as a mode of intoxication makes it unique, particularly when we consider it as a function of power.

Let’s backtrack for a moment to mid-twentieth century Long Island. In the 50s and 60s, Long Island was home to over one-hundred migrant labor camps. These camps housed migrant laborers who were lured to New York from the southern United States with the promise of good pay and decent housing. The reality of the camps was far from this promise. Migrant laborers were subjected to inhumane and dangerous living conditions, as well as emotionally and financially abusive cycles of debt. Most of the camps lacked plumbing and heating, and many laborers died unnecessarily in fires because the camps were not fire-proofed.

Through the migrants were mainly working on duck and potato farms–the first vineyard on Long Island would not come until 1973–wine is a critical part of the story of these exploited migrant laborers, whose arrival on Long Island parallels the caporalato process from the allegations against Mr. Passelacqua. Wine was used by the leaders of the migrant labor camps in order to control the laborers. According to Mark A. Torres, author of Long Island Migrant Labor Camps: Dust for Blood, the boredom, isolation, and “chronic exploitation” experienced on the camps, coupled with the consistent denial of privacy and comfort, caused many migrant workers to turn to alcohol (and, generally, alcoholism). Torres writes that, “Wine was the most favored drink at labor camps.”

Les Payne, a reporter for Newsday who conducted an undercover investigation of the camps in 1970, described wine as “the lifeblood of the migrant worker.” The religious imagery of wine as lifeblood for the plighted migrant laborer cannot be ignored. In this metaphor, it is wine that keeps the migrant labor(er) alive. By intoxicating the worker and dulling the pain of reality, it also sustains this reality.

Payne later explained how the crew leader of the camp “used wine as a vehicle to control the emotions of the workers.” He writes:

        “We turned to wine out of despair, loneliness, pain, and depression brought on by boredom and the alienated lifestyle...By controlling the flow of wine, the crew chief controlled our very lives. He dished it out at morning, noon, and night, on credit and at exaggerated prices. When the men got restless and asked for pay, the crew chief gave             them wine.” (95-96)

Wine is intoxicating. It is a depressant. It numbs senses and sensibilities, thereby muddling potentials for organizing and liberatory insurgency. A crew leader of a camp in Cutchogue went so far as to explicitly state, “A man who can’t read and is drunk on wine every night doesn’t even know how to complain.” These words clearly illuminate the way wine is used to rob the migrant workers of their ability to even articulate their exploitation, let alone organize against it. Through having their access to wine mediated by camp leaders, the workers' autonomy was taken from them. In the story of the migrant laborers, their natural desire for intoxication to deal with a deeply painful existence was repurposed as a means of controlling and abusing them.

The migrant laborers were certainly not drinking anything that resembled natural wine–Torres writes that they were usually drinking “Twister, a cheap and highly addictive California grape wine with an artificial mint flavor that had 20 percent alcohol.” Given this, what does the story of Long Island’s exploited potato farmers have to do with natural wine and the conversation around Ms. Passalacqua?

When we talk about natural wine, we must talk about power. We must talk about the human cost and the ways that the human cost aligns with and/or are distinct from access to natural wine. The parallels of the migrant laborers on Long Island in the 50s and 60s and those on Mr. Passalacqua’s farm in 2020, and the different modes that wine functions as an expression of power, demand we ask the painful question of who is implicated in the ongoing exploitation of some of the most important laborers to exist. To talk about natural wine without talking about the power dynamics and the deep intricacies of access to it is dishonest.

These are questions that transcend natural wine, and I won’t pretend to have answers. I don’t even think having answers is the point. Natural wine’s unique proximity to these complex questions of access, virtue, and intoxication make it a powerful medium through which to consider them. I think what’s most important is that we continue to ask these questions, to try to answer them in ways that embrace dynamism, imperfection, and incoherence, always moving towards a system of production/consumption of natural wine that truly embodies the ideals and virtues we often assign to it: honesty, accessibility, and pleasure.