The pickers are hunched over the grapevines, their knives and shears working furiously to cut as many bunches as possible. Their breathing is punctuated by the thwump thwump of a police helicopter hovering overhead, ready to land at a moment’s notice to ask for papers.
A scene from California’s Central Valley? No, it’s Rioja, where picking over 155,000 acres of grapes in seven to nine weeks requires a massive migration of workers from all over the world.
Years ago, picking the grapes was a family affair during the week of October 12, Spain’s national day. Today, however, in spite of the fact that 82% of Rioja vineyards are smaller than two acres with about 6,000 kilograms of grapes and can easily be picked in a few days, the wineries require that the grapes be picked at exactly the right time, when the sugar in the juice and the ripeness of the tannins are at an optimum level.
Teams of pickers only pick the ripest grapes, often returning several times to a vineyard as the grapes ripen.
The harvest of white grapes begins in Rioja Baja at the beginning of September and ends the first week in November, when the last red grapes from the highest vineyards in Rioja Alta and Alavesa are picked.
The pickers are a sundry group, from Spanish students trying to make a little extra money for expenses at school, to families of gypsies, West Africans, North Africans, Eastern Europeans and South Americans. What practically all of them have in common is a work permit, as the Spanish police are relentless in their pursuit of illegal labor. Wineries simply can’t afford to get caught employing them, although in a country with over 10% unemployment in good times and over 20% today, some people will take the chance. A journalist friend of mine spent a weekend checking out the harvest and when he approached one group of pickers with his camera, they turned away and covered their faces. You can still see scenes where a pickup truck or van will approach a group of young men loitering on a corner and, after a short conversation, several will jump inside. Two weeks ago I was on my way to a golf tournament and when passing through a village at 8 AM was surprised to see groups of young men everywhere.
Today, most of the wineries avoid the hassle of hiring individual pickers, preferring to work with agencies that provide the manpower, guarantee that the workers are legal and handle payment of wages. Spanish labor laws not only require that the workers have a permit, but that wineries provide shelter. A winery owner told me the other day that pickers with their own housing are required to sign a release.
Because of the size of the vineyards and the geography here, most of the picking is done by hand. However, in the bigger vineyards near the rivers and in Rioja Baja, machine picking is becoming popular in trellised vineyards. These only began to appear in the late 80s and early 90s. Before then, all of our vineyards were bush pruned.
With grape prices at their lowest level in years, the obvious question is whether it’s possible to make money picking grapes. It apparently is, judging by a family of Colombians that travel to Rioja every fall, rent a house and pick grapes throughout the region. I’m told that an industrious picker can make over 60 euros a day. It’s backbreaking work, but with shelter and often, meals provided by the wineries, worth the effort.
In the meantime, in spite of the influx of cheap labor from outside Europe, some Spaniards still follow a long tradition of picking grapes in France, where regions leased entire trains to move them back and forth. In the 1950s and early 60s, before Spain’s process of industrialization began, often the only way that families in rural Spain could make any money was to go to France to pick grapes.