Tag Archives: immigrant jobs

What’s The Difference Between Cheap Wine and Expensive Wine?

I wrote this blog after spending three months working at various vineyards in New Zealand and asking all my bosses about the process of winemaking.

Photo of me in a Vineyard somewhere near Hastings, New Zealand

The biggest difference between good wine and bad wine isn’t age. There’s wine that sells for $100 as soon as it comes off the assembly line, and it’s grown from the same grapes that the same vineyard sells for $9 a bottle. Expensive wines aren’t made from some rare, super grape, and cheap wines aren’t made from inferior grapes.The big difference in quality comes from how those grapes were treated during the growing process.

At the beginning of the growing process, every vine is treated the same. They’re planted in long, straight rows. A wooden post as tall as a grown man sticks out of the ground between every four or five plants. Three or four metal wires run perpendicularly between/along the posts. The reason those posts and wires are there is because grape vines aren’t trees. They’re vines, obviously. So, left on their own, they’ll just fall to the ground and grow in the dirt, but that would ruin the grapes. So workers have to come through the rows of plants and tie them to the bottom wire when the grape plants are tall enough to reach. Then, as the vines get taller and bushier, they’ll naturally grab onto the higher wires if their shoots happen to touch them, but a lot of the shoots just fall back down to the ground. So at some point, human beings have to walk down every row in the vineyard and pick up all the low hanging vines and tuck them up through the wires.

This doesn’t just keep the vines out of the dirt. It also gives the leaves maximum exposure to sunlight, and since grapes tend to grow towards the bottom of vines and not the top, that means when the vines are stretched upwards then most of the grape clusters will grow conveniently along the bottom wire where they can be picked without having to dig through tangled vines. There’s still work to be done before the grapes are picked though, and how that work is done will determine whether the grapes will yield premium or cheap wine.

The leaves on the grape plants need sunlight to nourish the grapes. The grapes themselves also need direct exposure to sunlight to ripen properly, but the leaves cover the grapes.  So the leaves around the grapes need to be removed from the vines, but you need to take off as few leaves as possible or else the whole plant won’t get enough light to nourish its fruit. You also need to remove those leaves without damaging the grapes. There are at least three ways to do this:

Some vineyards use sheep. If you put sheep in a vineyard when the grapes are young and sour the sheep will avoid eating them, but they’ll eat all the leaves around the grapes, and since the rest of the vines and leaves are too high for the sheep to reach they pick off just about the right amount of leaves. Inevitably though, the sheep will end up damaging a few grapes and possibly eating too many leaves.

If 100 rows of vines in a vineyard are reserved for making cheap wine then a farmer can just drive a tall, skinny tractor up and down the rows that suck or blows all the leaves off. It’s a cheap and quick method, but it damages the grapes.

The only tool in the universe capable of performing the precision task of delicately removing just the right amount of leaves is a human being. So they’re sent into the vineyards to spend all day, every day in green, roofless hallways shuffling sideways analyzing the bottoms of these walls looking for leaves that cover up the grapes and pulling them off while being careful not to bruise the grapes or remove too many leaves.

It doesn’t sound difficult to spend 9 hours walking sideways pulling leaves off of vines, and it’s true that there are more difficult jobs in the world, but leaf plucking is a unique form of torture, as every job on a vineyard is in its own way. The leaves grow just low enough that an average sized person has to bend over slightly to grab them. This doesn’t hurt if you do it once, but if you do it for 50 hours a week you’ll be in agony. That’s a fact. Once your back starts hurting from bending forward you can switch to bending your knees so it looks like you’re doing the limbo dance, except instead of going under the wall you go sideways…forever. Eventually, that’s going to hurt too. When that happens you can just fall down on your knees and pick out the leaves at chest height. If you’ve lost the will to get back up you can waddle sideways on your knees and/or crawl down a whole row that way, but you don’t have knee pads. So your knees get beat up on the rocks and twigs. And the ground is covered in a thousand doses of weed killer. So you don’t want what’s down there to get into the cuts, scrapes, and blisters in your hands and knees.

After the leaves are plucked and all the grapes are exposed along the bottom of the rows you can walk along them and see where bunches of grapes are growing at odd angles and smashing into each other. Those need to be separated and pruned. You’ll also find other bunches are growing on tiny, leafless branches that won’t be able to nourish the grapes to ripeness. Those need to be removed so the plant can nourish the grapes that are left. Sometimes there’s just too many grapes. If you remove all these extra grapes then the remaining ones will grow plump and sweet. If you don’t remove these extra grapes you’ll still get some good bunches, but you’ll also get a lot of small, under-ripe sour bunches. If simply drive a tractor down the row and harvest all the small, vinegary grapes along with the ripe, sugary ones together you’ll end up with bottom shelf hobo wine.

If your customer expects wine so pure that it doesn’t give them a headache then millions of people all over the world need to pour into their local vineyards and sacrifice the days of their youth (and/or their “golden years”) in purgatory staring at bunches of grapes, studying them, counting them, thinking about how and why to remove them so that all that’s left at harvest time are big, juicy, sugary grapes.

Once the plucking and snipping are done, then all those ripe, juicy grapes will look like a free gourmet buffet to birds. If you’ve already invested months of wages into having your grape vines groomed then you can’t afford to give your crop away to the birds. If you’re making cheap wine you might be able to afford to lose a few grapes, but if you’re making premium wine you need total security. One way you can keep birds away is by buying an airgun that’s hooked up to a tank and makes a loud blast that sounds like a gunshot every minute or so. But that doesn’t keep all the birds away all the time. Since it’s not cost effective to build a glass roof over a thousand acre vineyard, the next best thing you can do is send workers back into the wailing walls and cover the plants with nets.

Until someone invents an efficient way to put nets over plants workers will have to spend the best days of their irreplaceable lives rolling gigantic spools of nets down rows 50+ yards long in the premium section of most vineyards. Each row will have two nets, one on either side. Then two people, one on either side, will take their net and lift it over the plant where they’ll take a little plastic clip (like the ones that hold bread bags closed) and clip the two nets together. They’ll also need to bend over and reach underneath the green wall to grab the net hanging on the other side so they can pin them together underneath so birds can’t fly up through the bottom of the net. A lot of care needs to be taken to make sure the vines are wrapped up so tight that a bird the size of a cell phone can’t get in, and you can be sure they’ll try. So the workers need to end up putting five to nine clips above and below every plant. They’ll have to use more clips to patch up the holes that have inevitably been ripped in net. In nine hours they’ll go through thousands of clips. So they have to carry a big pouch full of them. It takes a lot of thought and attention to detail to clip the nets together properly. It also takes a strong back, but if you’ve been working in a vineyard for very long you’ve already got a pretty strong back.

Even with a strong back, you’re still going to go home with sore muscles every day, especially if you’re getting paid by how fast you work. As a general rule vineyard workers get paid as little as possible and get as few benefits or breaks as the law will allow in whatever country a vineyard happens to be in, and some places are worse than others. Sometimes, instead of getting minimum wage, farmers will have the workers play their own version of the Hunger Games. In this version, the contestants get paid a few cents for every plant they pluck, trim and/or cover with nets. Whoever pushes themselves the farthest past the brink of human endurance and takes the least amount of breaks and cuts the most corners will be rewarded with slightly more than minimum wage. Everybody else will get less than minimum wage, and I guess that’s the point. The only two groups of people who really win these Hunger Games are the vineyard owners (who win a new mansion) and the rich people who drink pretentiously expensive wine (who win a sweet taste in their mouth for a few minutes). You could say the vineyard workers win a job, but it’s the job of a disposable slave. You would have to be completely morally bankrupt to call the work vineyard laborers do for they pay they receive a good opportunity. It’s not an opportunity. It’s a trap. It’s a waste of life.

This raises an interesting question. Who would willingly agree to this trap? Who would take seasonal work that pays as little as possible leaving you jobless halfway through the year with as little money as possible? There are all types, and most of them are more or less homeless. That’s why they can move with the season, and that’s why they’re desperate enough to put up with being treated like an animal.

You could say, “Yeah, but at least they’re getting paid.” The thing about that is, vineyards are making enough money for the owners to buy mansions and sports cars. If there’s that much money left over after operating costs then there’s enough money to pay the workers enough to see the dentist. If vineyards truly aren’t profitable enough to pay its workers more than slave wages then that means premium means wine can only ever exist in a society where income inequality is so bad that the poor are desperate enough to accept being treated and paid like disposable slaves.

Either way, the main ingredient that goes into making premium wine (and which is largely missing in cheap wine) is the tears of the poor. The two main ingredients that go into making cheap wine (and which is largely missing in premium wine) are vinegar and pollution.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

My Goals
My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor

Tales From My Life: The Time I Worked As An Apple Picker

Picture of me standing in an apple orchard in New Zealand. I'm wearing a floppy hat, dirty T-shirt and jeans. In the distance behind the orchard are rolling hills.

I arrive at an apple orchard at 6:30am Monday through Saturday. My body hurts even though (or possibly because) I get 10-12 hours of sleep a night. I have to. I can’t stay awake because I’m always so exhausted from work the previous day. I used to start work at 7:00am, but my work crew and I agreed it would be best to get to work thirty minutes earlier so we could work thirty minutes less under the hot sun. So it’s cool and there’s dew on the ground when I get out of the van I pay $5 a week to ride to work in.

I put my backpack full of water bottles and snacks next to a row of apple trees. Then I slather SPF 30 suntan lotion on my face, arms, and legs. I put sports tape around my thumbs and pointer fingers to cover the dirty scars around my cuticles where branches have gouged them. I put on a big, floppy hiking hat, and I start picking excess apples off of my row of trees and throwing them on the ground.

Apple trees are strange trees. Some of the branches hang like octopus arms, and some grow at crooked Tetris angles up, down, left, right. Sometimes when I’m weaving my way through them I pretend like I’m a Shaolin martial arts master, and I make chopping and blocking motions with my arms to move them aside. I don’t get too into it though because I need to conserve my energy. Sometimes I pretend I’m a treasure hunter digging through an impenetrable wall of branches looking for treasure…but I’ve never found any treasure. So far all I’ve found is apples… and pain.

Apples grow on the branches in clusters sort of like grapes. Clusters sizes range from 2 to 20. Each tree has hundreds of clusters. My goal is to pick the apples out of those clusters until each cluster contains one or two apples and those clusters are spaced far enough apart to give the remaining apples room to grow. For reasons nobody has explained to me, different apple trees require different sizes of clusters.  Also, the tops of the trees need to be picked thinner than the bottoms of the trees; that’s to prevent the heavy apples from breaking the budding branches.

The whole reason apple trees are thinned is because the remaining apples on the tree will get bigger and juicier. Small apples taste bad, and consumers want big, pretty apples anyway. So the trees have to get thinned, and this job can’t be automated. It has to be done by human hands. Unfortunately for the farmers, nobody wants to do this job, because it’s really quite terrible. This is how terrible it is. Child protective service would take away your children if you made your children do a week’s worth of apple thinning for breaking one of your rules. It’s bad enough to be child abuse, but it’s worse than that because it breaks full-grown men and women.

Apple thinning doesn’t require any heavy lifting (though apple picking does), but neither does cross-country jogging. Apple thinning is a physical, intellectual and emotional endurance contest. Before you even touch an apple tree you have to study it like an artist reassessing a work of art. You identify the flaws in the art, decide on a plan of action and execute your plan. Then you repeat that process all day for nine hours. Playing your favorite video game for nine hours a day every day would be torturous. Picking apples is like playing a boxing game on a Nintendo Wee all day, every day… in the hot sun.

When you walk up to the tree and start snapping off all the excess apples with your thumb and forefinger you have to navigate your way around the branches (like a Shaolin Monk). This requires bending over, reaching overhead and getting on your knees. You always have to carry a big, shiny aluminum (or a cast iron) ladder with you, because after you’ve picked all the apples from one side of the tree that you can reach standing on the ground you climb up the ladder and get the apples on top of the tree. When you’re on top of your ladder you can see out all over the orchard district. It’s surreal up there. All you see are rows of green trees all the way to the horizon. Hobbit hills and windmills are the only other thing between you and the big blue, blazing sky.  Each orchard is surrounded by a thick line of coniferous trees cut to look like giant hedges. They keep the wind from blowing through the orchard and making the apples smack together and bruise. So there’s never more than a light breeze on the ground, but sometimes you’ll find a cool breeze when you climb to the top of your ladder. Feeling that breeze and looking out over a sea of parallel green waves you feel like you’re outside of the world. It’s a unique experience that I’m glad I’ve had.

 

But the serenity is spoiled by the fact that you have to thin a straight row of 200 trees in 9 hours in the hot sun while your body is undernourished because you’re barely paid more than minimum wage and can only afford to buy processed food. Even with a healthy diet, repeating the same yoga stretches for 9 hours per day every day will overstrain and hurt your muscles. You certainly wouldn’t want to do 9 hours of ladder yoga in the blazing hot sun. If you attempted that iron-yoga challenge your body would need more than ten minutes of rest in the morning, a thirty-minute break for lunch and another ten-minute break in the afternoon, but that’s all the breaks apple thinners and pickers get. Most apple thinners even cut that short because they’re so desperate to pick more apples and make even slightly more than minimum wage.

Nobody stands behind you and watches you all day. So you can take as many breaks from your ladder yoga as you want, but you have to weigh the value of listening to your body and taking a break against the fact that you have no money, and you get paid by how many trees you thin. So if you push yourself beyond your breaking point and sustain that level of exertion for three to six weeks then you can make enough money to live off of for two months until apple picking starts. If you can’t maintain that pace you’ll be fired anyway.

You don’t want to get fired because you need to eat, and you don’t want to be homeless. Plus, if you impress your boss then in two months’ time you can come back and do the same job over again, except instead of ripping off tiny apples and tossing them carelessly on the ground you pick the full-grown apples and place them delicately in a huge bucket hanging across your chest. Once your bucket is back-breakingly full you climb down your ladder, walk to a plastic bin somewhere down your row, kneel down and pull two strings on either side of your chest bucket, which opens the bottom of the bucket letting the apples tumble out into the plastic bin (just like cherry picking). Then you stand back up and go fill your bucket again for 9 hours in the hot sun. You can make better money apple picking than you can apple thinning. So you definitely don’t want to miss that.

Apple thinning and apple picking would only be mildly excruciating if it weren’t for the ladder. Modern, aluminum ladders are light (as far as 8-foot tall ladders go), but I shudder at the thought of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents doing these jobs with iron and wooden ladders. If you’re having a hard time imagining what that would be like, put an A-frame ladder in your backyard next Saturday, and make a goal out of picking up that ladder 200 times at regular intervals over 9 hours and moving it to another part of your backyard and climbing to the top and doing yoga… in the hot sun. Your back will hate you for it…forever, possibly. If you carry stress balls with you the entire 9 hours and squeeze them constantly then by the end of the day your hands will swell and keep you awake at night throbbing in pain, and you’ll have a good idea of what the people who pick the apples in your kitchen go through to survive.

If you do anything outside all day, inevitably you’ll get sunburned. You could cover up when apple thinning, but the more you cover up the hotter and heavier you’ll be. For men, it’s best to wear light shoes and shorts. I’ve seen female apple thinners wearing nothing but bikinis. One of the perks of the job. Another perk of apple thinning is that you can smoke while you work. That perk is undermined by the fact that, if your orchard has a bathroom at all, it’s too far away to go to. You could lose five or eight dollars worth of working time just by walking all the way to the bathroom and back once. So wash the apples you buy from the store. There’s a good chance they were fondled by calloused, burnt, scratched, suntan lotion-slathered, pee-splattered hands.  Most of the apples sold at big grocery stores were also sprayed multiple times with pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals you’ve never heard of through the course of their lives.

When you thin or pick apples the dust from the dried poisons rubs off onto your palms until they’re black. It gets into your scratches, it falls in your eyes. You breathe it in. It rubs off of your fingers onto your sandwich at lunch and onto your hand-rolled cigarettes. The farmer assures you it’s harmless poison, but you know you’re going to die of cancer now someday. So you don’t feel as bad about smoking anymore. One of the perks of the job.

Picture of a man's dirt-covered hand, holding a half-eaten sandwich

You have to find good things to think of when apple thinning. You have to think of something for 9 hours. Something has to keep your body moving forward repeating an action that every muscle in your body and every ounce of common sense is telling you to stop. Of course, what keeps you moving is that you’ve got no place else to go, and if you can’t endure this Chinese torture method then you die of starvation.

So you pick and pick and pick and pick and pick. You try not to think about how mind-numbingly boring it is to just pick pick pick pick all day long. But it’s hard not to think about it when it’s all you do, and there’s never any change in the routine. Every tree looks more or less the same, and after you’ve done enough trees you’ve seen all the variations of cluster sizes and locations. Eventually, it all blurs into one long, timeless moment. The seconds pass like glaciers. Anytime you look to your left or your right all you see are identical rows of apples. There’s no goal you can work towards. There are no checkpoints you can reach where you get to do something different. There’s just no end in sight. It’s pushing a boulder up a hill all day just to push it back up after you finish. But instead of climbing a hill, you climb a ladder, and instead of a big boulder, it’s little apples. The same little apples everywhere. When you close your eyes you see apples. When you dream, you dream about a wall of apples falling on top of you. Sometimes you want to just run the orchard maniacally shouting, “APPLES!… APPLES! APPLES!” Sometimes you want to ball up into a fetal position against a tree trunk and mumble, “applesapplesapples.”

It helps if you listen to music. I shudder to think of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents apple thinning with no music or aluminum ladders. Even if you listen to music you end up listening to the same songs over and over again until you hate them. I’ll never be able to listen to Pink Floyd again. The apple orchard took that from me. Now I find it helps to listen to techno music, because it’s fast, and there aren’t idiotic words pounding in your skull all day. I also like listening to foreign music, because I can’t understand the words, and that helps me zone out. A Slovenian I work with gave me some music, and I’ve been listening to Oda Gudeki by MI2 lately. It makes me smile, and I’m going to be sad when I’ve listened to it so many times I hate it.

Sometimes I sing the chorus of “The Lemon Tree” song except I change the lyrics to “apple trees” instead of “lemon tree.” My taste in music would drive some people insane if they had to listen to it all day, as their’s would me. You have to figure out what works for you and hope you have that kind of music available. One thing is for sure, if you listen to slow, sad music it will slow you down and sap your will to go on.

Sometimes you can’t stand the music anymore and you just have to turn it off and try to enjoy the absolute silence of the apple field. Sometimes your music player breaks or runs out of batteries or doesn’t exist and you have to endure nine hours of almost total silence every day without the benefit of music to help you forget that you exist. Then you’re alone with your thoughts. It’s like being in solitary confinement, except you’re forced to do excruciating yoga outside as you wrestle with your thoughts. It can be quite revelatory, and if you’ve got any fight in you, fighting apple trees will wear it out of you. Apple thinning would be a good way to get the fight out of juvenile delinquents. Well, that or it’ll teach them that hard work only pays barely enough to survive and selling drugs is a lot easier and more lucrative. And if you get caught selling drugs and go to jail, at least you won’t have to work in an apple orchard. So… life could be worse.

It was inevitable that some apple thinner out there has and will use drugs at work to speed them up or help them forget where they are, and inevitably somebody is going to fall off their ladder, especially when it’s cold, windy and/or rainy. Of course, the farmer who owns the orchards will do as little as possible to attend to their workers’ medical needs. After all, if farmers cared about their workers’ health then they wouldn’t work them past the limits of human endurance to begin with.

Even if you have a strong mind and good music, everybody breaks a little eventually. You can’t keep up 9 hours of constant mind-numbing yoga torture forever. Every once a while you have to just sit down (even if it’s not break time yet) and curse your life, the apples, the farmer, God and yourself for getting you into this fuck-awful situation.

Gif of Stewie from the TV series, "The Family Guy," wearing a straitjacket in a padded room. He is shaking and blinking with unfocused eyes

Sometimes you work for an ignorant country farmer who has been doing backbreaking work all his life and owns a giant country home surrounded by orchards full of disposable slaves making him richer. The only thing standing between the farmer and more money is the physical and mental limitations and pay expectations of his workers. So some farmers pay their workers less money per tree than is fair. Some farmers degrade and harass underperforming workers, then fire them after they’re burnt out so he can bring in a fresh crop of (hopefully more desperate) workers who are willing to put up with lower pay and worse treatment. Sometimes you end up working for farmers who smile to your face and bring you water and even buy you a little beer and thank you for sacrificing your body, mind, and the irreplaceable moments of your life to make him richer while you’re spending the prime of your life in a death race scraping by with one foot in the gutter. Sometimes you get lucky like that.

A wiser man than myself once said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Another man once said, “Life doesn’t suck because you’re unlucky. Life sucks because you’re a dumbass.” (paraphrased) There’s a lot of truth to both of those statements. I work with an ex-con who can’t get a “real” job because of his criminal record. Some people would say he’s sleeping in the bed he made. I can recognize without being told that I, myself, am working in an apple field because I screwed up. I took some joy in the first two weeks of pain by telling myself I deserved to be there, that I was paying penance for screwing up. So don’t feel any sympathy for me or my ex-con friend. But feel sympathy for the billions of other people in the world who’s are spending their lives in orchards, fields, kitchens, warehouses, factories, and offices even though they never screwed up. They’ve been doing what they were supposed to: working. Working at degrading, inhumane jobs and doing a great job of it. They just don’t get to keep enough of the profits from their work to achieve stability in their lives because their bosses (the job creators) wants a bigger house and longer vacations.

More than sympathy for the oppressed, we should all feel ashamed every time we walk into the fruits and vegetable section of our local grocery stores, because everything you see there has blood on it, literally and figuratively.  Apparently, that’s not important enough to motivate us to demand better pay, shorter work hours and more profit-sharing for workers. It should also motivate us to reassess our standard business practices to identify and rectify the flaws that cause all business owners to feel pressured to pay their workers as little as possible to make ends meet. The call to action isn’t to throw rotten apples at orchard owners. The call to action is to replace our economy with a more sustainable, more humane model.

 

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also like these:

My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor

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