Sunday, June 30, 2013

His name is Sancho and he dances on the sand (behind the scenes in a vineyard)

Next time you see a Mexican man at the grocery store hug him, then ask if he works in vineyards, if he doesn't apologize and go about your business, if he does buy him a beer and say "pinche Sancho".

The wine industry in Ontario and to a certain extant BC runs on Mexican migrant workers. These are men who spend 6-8 months out of the year in Canada and the rest of the time in Mexico. In Canada they live in big group houses, in Mexico in their respective Pueblos' they stay at home with their families, and they do have families, they all have families, often quite young families with recent new borns and more on the way. They are not the middle class Canadian kid who decides to spend a year working and traveling abroad, they are family men who often curse or bless Sancho depending on their mood.

Recently the Mexicans and I have been tucking vines, this is an exceedingly tedious task that seemingly never ends. We spend 12 hours a day, all day, taking the newly grown shoots and tucking them under wires so the tractors can easily move through the rows and spray pesticides without damaging the vines. The vines just keep growing and growing so we keep on tucking and tucking. Doing one block at a time we then have to go back to the start once we have finally finished:  Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling and then back to Merlot because it refuses to stop growing! It's outrageously boring and incredibly simple which allows for ample time to have impromptu Spanish and English lessons and cultural exchange.

If you look closely you can see the right side, which has been tucked, has considerably less errant shoots than the left side which has yet to be tucked. This row would have taken about an hour.

The conversations between me and the Mexicans started out with the most basic of descriptive sentences "te gusta cerveza?" "senorita caliente?" Contextually our conversations often made no sense and exclusively revolved around tequila, beer, attractive women, being tired and being hungry. As time has progressed my understanding of Spanish has improved and we have been able to express more complex thoughts with one another. The most perplexing and intriguing notion they have shared with me so far is the existence of Sancho and the strange attitude they take towards him. When I first heard of Sancho I tried to commiserate "Pinche Sancho" (curse Sancho!) but the response was not one I expected: "no, no Sancho est bueno." Esteban then went on to explain to me that Sancho looks after his family and takes care of his wife while he is away. If anything dirty poped into your head when you read the phrase "takes care of his wife" then you have a very accurate imagination. Sancho helps with chores and opening pickle jars while the men are off working the fields in Canada. Sancho also takes care of Esteban's and every other Mexican migrant worker' wife while the husbands are away. Sancho is a very busy man.

The relationship the men have with Sancho is a strange one. The Mexicans are both happy for and curse the role Sancho fills. No husband is pleased about his wife sleeping with another man, but they deal with it and a lot of the men have Sanchas here in Canada which helps soften the blow. No one seems to know who their wife's Sancho is and everyone seems pretty content to keep it that way; ignorance is bliss.

Sancho's primary role is pleasing other mens' wive's, chores and never being seen. As skilled as the families have become at keeping quiet about the arrangement with Sancho secrets have a way of bubbling up to the surface. Manuel once accidentally discovered his Sancho. Sancho disappears when the men return, not necessarily physically but the role of Sancho and all that goes with it must vanish, at least in the human social world. Unfortunately dogs rarely abide by accepted social behaviour, they poop on sidewalks for gods sake! Upon Manuels return back home his dog was acting unfriendly towards him. A few days passed and Mauels friend Pedro dropped by for a visit. The dog was suspiciously friendly towards Pedro. Now Pedro is dead!

That last part probably isn't true but I'm sure there was an awkward silence when everyone in the room realized what was going on.

Sancho is a bizarre facet of Mexican culture that seems to have arisen from work-away husbands trying to raise their family out of poverty. Some of the guys I work with have spent 8 months out of every year for the past 12 years working in Canada. The great distance and time that separates these men from their families has led to a secret care taker, one that tends to the needs of the family while father is gone. It is clear the life of a migrant worker isn't an easy one. While the work isn't always that hard it can be incredibly monotonous and the hours tend to be outrageously long for very little pay by Canadian standards*. One ends up having way too much time to think while in the vineyard, maybe it is all this thought that has lead to this confused but zen like acceptance of Sancho.

Now here is a picture of a young grape cluster:

* They do seem to be fairly wealthy by Mexican standards making roughly 10 times what they would make in Mexico

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sucker for Wine (How wine gets made: grape growing in the spring)

I, as a 27 year old man, with an average bathroom usage of 4 times a day, have made roughly 40 thousand trips to the bathroom. This rough guestimation of bathroom usage suggests that I have touched the reproductive organs of a grape vine far more than my own.

The amount of work that goes into producing wine for our consumption is unimaginable. The sheer scale of production would astonish anyone not intimately familiar with the process. A 100 acre vineyard in Niagara would be home to roughly 400 thousand vines, each needing individual care and attention multiple times a year. Very little work is done by machines in the vineyard, in general the only time a vine will be touched by a machine is at harvest, the rest of the year it is human (often Mexican migrant workers') hands that are transforming a grape vine from a wild plant to a neatly trellised vine that will produce quality fruit. My hands serve as a testament to the attention required by each vine. In 4 short weeks my hands went from being the soft hands of an academic, to cracked, cut and permanently dirty, unable to feel the stab of a branch or the bite of a spider.

During the early spring the job that takes the most amount of time is suckering. Suckering is done to ensure that the grapes that are grown are quality grapes. A grower can choose to grow for quality or quantity. Grapes are sold by the tonne; an acre of quality grapes producing anywhere from 2-5 tonnes, less quality grapes for bulk wine will often yield 6 or more tonnes an acre. Suckering brings what would be around 8 tonnes an acre to about 4 tonnes an acres. The less grapes grown on a vine the better quality the grapes will be, the vine will put all its energy into 5 bunches rather than 10 bunches which increases concentration and ripeness it's the difference between this:

Thirty Bench "Triangle Vineyard"- one of the best Rieslings coming out of Niagara

and this:

If you were drinking in the 70's or 80's I think you get the point, to anyone else: this is still sold go pick up a bottle to see the effect of (what I'm guessing is) large tonnage per acre.

There are several practices employed to control yield (tonnage per acre or hectare if you want to be all European about it) one of which is suckering. Keep in mind a vineyard of 100 acres has roughly 400 thousand vines, the crew I'm with is responsible for maintaining roughly 360 acres so about 1.5 million vines. There are 15 of us. 100 000 vines per person. The reason we have to sucker is because vines love growing shoots. In the picture on the left you can see shoots coming out of the cane. The shoots are the light coloured branches that the grapes and leaves are attached to, the cane is the horizontal piece of dark wood the shoots are growing out of.

Without suckering the picture above would look very different, instead of there being 6 or so shoots visible there would be none visible because the foliage and grapes would be so dense. Because god hates wine and vineyard workers he decided it would be appropriate for a vine to produce anywhere from 2-4 shoots (called the secondaries, tertiaries, and quaternaries) from the same location, for good wine we want 1 (the primary shoot). All this is a long rambling way for me to say I have to turn this:

Notice the leaves on the bottom of the stem and in between the two wires.

into this:

No more leave on the bottom or between the wires.

These vines are simple, they are young and the suckers (the shoots that grow in places we don't want them; bottom and between wires in this case) and the secondaries are all easily accessible and visible. On older vines, particularly Pinot Noir, they are neither easily accessible or visible. The labour involved is often back breaking and extremely mundane but there are a mere 100 000 vines I will have to do this to in the span of a few weeks, roughly equivalent to the number of bathroom breaks I will have taken if I make it to the age of 60. It is amazing that any of us can even afford to drink wine, given the amount of labour involved and the risks from disease and insects each bottle of wine should cost about $10 000, '47 Cheval Blanc anyone?

As a final disclaimer: I don't work for either 30 Bench or Mateus but I do think both wines are worth trying.