Fair trade and the complicated ethics of buying wine from elsewhere

My October article for Palate Press asks: “how fair is fair-trade wine?” Data exist to help answer that question, though the data are always partial, imperfect, and from a particular point of view. Other data could point to different conclusions. The data I looked at point to some of the structures of fair-trade wine and say that they’re not doing the things that ethically-minded consumers would hope or expect them to be doing.

It’s easy to think that the wine industry isn’t like growing sugarcane or coffee or rubber. I mean, most people at most wineries are pretty well off. Some are millionaires who live in mansions and sit in the front row during Paris fashion week. If you know any winemakers or vineyard managers, they’re probably comfortably middle-class people, better if you’re in a ritzy neighborhood. But the parallels are numerous once you start looking for them. Wine isn’t known for abusing child labor, but Mexican vineyard laborers working in California routinely faint from heat exhaustion, common vineyard chemicals threaten worker health (even in heavily regulated countries like France), and “employees” are often contract workers with inconsistent incomes and poor working conditions. Many operations take excellent care of their vineyard crews*, employ a year-round team, provide job security and treat their folk with dignity, but that sort of thing isn’t universal. Fair trade’s point is that enough vineyard workers in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile (where the program is active) are bad enough off to warrant an intervention in the name of social welfare. The point of the study I describe is that fair trade has a good point, but hasn’t created an intervention that does much good.

The obvious question at the end of that whole discussion is: if I’m a wine consumer who cares about what my money does in the world, if I buy free-range chicken and organic kale and go to the farmer’s market, what should I look for when I buy wine? One easy, obvious answer is to buy local. When you’ve been to the winery and know the people who work there, it’s easier to know what you’re supporting. But that solution begs the question: if all of the free-range chicken- and organic kale-eating people buy their chardonnay from their sustainability-minded regional wineries – and maybe if the people eating pasta and canned tomato sauce from the grocery store start doing the same thing – what happens to the Argentinian wine industry? Do all of those workers end up worse off because they end up out of a job?

Probably not, because “drink local” isn’t that popular. But let’s say it became the new normal. What then?

Maybe those workers would lose their jobs, and maybe that would be a good thing. What’s unsustainable about the Argentinian wine trade right now? Is it just the way the workers are treated, or is it the whole system and how it plays into larger, global problems? Argentina is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the New World. The people have a long, long tradition of drinking their local rough-and-ready red with their asado; until recent decades, most Argentinian wine was drunk on Argentinian soil. But then, in conjunction with a whole pile of domestic economic and political troubles, some wine producers realized that they could be making scads more money by changing their wine styles to match the international palate and selling to the export market. Well-heeled consumers in the US and Europe were happy to oblige by picking up on the Next New Thing. And now, the minority of producers who still make older, less internationally sophisticated wines for domestic consumption tend to be much worse-off than the corporations shipping to the Northern Hemisphere.

Vast piles of scholarly research are done around things like the tension between local food and global food, and the political economics of slow food or fair trade or various other “alternative” ways of doing food production. Ironically, most of it is behind publisher’s paywalls, which is part of why I’m not linking to it here (the other part is that it’s all pretty overwhelming, and it’s difficult to know where to start, and I’m far from finished wading through it myself).

Far too many factors are involved for me – for anyone, probably – to say that not buying Argentinian wine in your New York wine shop is the best way to protect traditional Argentinian wine styles and traditional Argentinian wine producers, or that buying fair trade Argentinian wine is ultimately good or bad for “the system.” Here’s what I know. The system – the one that homogenizes wine styles for the lowest common denominator of the global market, and that distances workers from interest in and ownership over their products, and that disrespects their human dignity by not paying them fair wages and in other ways, and that uses up lots of natural resources to satisfy the desires of the world’s richest for something new and different – that system, is broken. Doing something to force a change, instead of trying to continue to ride on this old, sick system, sounds like a good idea.

*I’ll admit that it always makes me really happy to see a smiling picture and biography of the Mexican vineyard crew foreman on an American winery’s “our people” page alongside the winemakers and owners. Those men (they are universally men) are just as (or more) skilled, dedicated, and crucial to a winery’s operation as the winemaker (not to mention the winery dog, who probably gets a personal profile more often than the foreman). White elitist nonsense is one of only two justifications I can see for not highlighting those men as a key part of the team. The other, legal citizenship issues, is a kettle of trouble for another day.

2 thoughts on “Fair trade and the complicated ethics of buying wine from elsewhere

    • Thanks, Amanda. I’ll be interested to know whether any of them have any more thoughtful or informed comments. There are so very many sides to these sorts of issues that I always know I’m missing things, and I’m always interested to hear other perspectives and keep learning.

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