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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Humans of SoCal's wineries

An interview with Kevin Yelvington

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Whether you visit wineries for wine tasting, wine drinking, or work, there's far more to this booming touristic phenomenon than at first meets the eye. To learn about the human aspect of wine production, I talked with Kevin Yelvington, Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Since 2010, Kevin has been conducting research in Temecula Valley, California. What has he discovered?

Studying the Californian wine industry seems like a sweet job. What inspired you to do this research?

I had visited the wine country in California in the early 1990s as a tourist, a wine tourist I guess. Like the folks I am studying now. At that time, the Temecula Valley, which is in Riverside County between San Diego and Los Angeles in southern California, had like 10 or 12 wineries.

Twenty years later I was thinking of a project to do with my graduate students here at the University of South Florida, and I remembered the Temecula Valley. I did some research and realized that they had experienced a dramatic increase in the number of wineries and in tourism. There are now around 40 wineries there, with more coming into existence almost monthly. There is a winegrowers association. There is a tourist board touting "Southern California Wine Country." Wine tourism there is now a really big deal. There are over 20 million people living in the immediate area. A huge potential market. The state has become involved, trying to regulate growth while at the same time trying to encourage growth.

Given my background as an economic anthropologist and one who has done research on the anthropology of work, I immediately thought of the labour needs, and of course in this part of the world in agriculture this means undocumented migrant farm labourers from Mexico. I looked at the wine boom, the increase in wine's popularity, especially among "Millennials" or "Generation Xers" or whatever they are called. I thought about wine as a commodity. I thought about the environment. If they were planning for more wineries, how was this going to happen in a desert environment? How was this going to play out in the context of California's water wars? And when I saw the kinds of advertisements and the marketing, I started "reading" them as to how place becomes commodified.

So in 2010, I made my first fieldwork trip of like a week to 10 days. I started by doing oral history interviews with some of the pioneer winery owners and figures in the early wine industry, which really only dates to the late 1960s. I have also been doing extensive archival research. For me, it, this history, was the basis of understanding the development of "wine capitalism."

Now I have students working with me too. In late 2012, I received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation's Cultural Anthropology Programme that is funding my research and theirs. Jason Simms, did his Ph.D. with fieldwork on how water is used in the wine making process and tying that to the processes and politics of how water is provided and allocated in the area. Laurel Dillon-Sumner, did her M.A. with funded fieldwork on public policy and resistance to that policy. Elizabeth Murray looks at how the area is marketed, and Russell Edwards is going to focus on the tourist experience.

My role is to coordinate all this, and to be involved in their fieldwork as much as possible, to do archival research, and to concentrate on how labour is deployed throughout the industry.

What makes the Temecula Valley different to other wineries in the US market?

The Temecula Valley takes the rap that it is merely a party destination, and not a place where serious wine is produced and where serious wine is appreciated. Certainly, you can see and meet a range of tourists in the wineries' tasting rooms, from the serious to the not-so-serious. My students and I have interacted with both kinds. On the one hand, there are party buses that take tourists from winery to winery and the joke is that they are going "wine drinking," not wine tasting.

More upscale folks travel in chartered limos. There was even an episode of "Real Housewives of Orange County," one of those so-called reality TV shows, where they take off in a limo for wine tasting in Temecula, which is perhaps an hour or so away. There are bachelorette parties—you probably say "hen parties" in Australia—where the women arrive in limos and get rowdy.

On the other hand, South Coast Winery has now won the Golden Bear Award three times. This is the award given since the 1850s at the state fair for the state's best winery. When South Coast first won a few years ago, it was said that it was the first time a winery outside Napa or Sonoma had won in the 150 years of judging. And I think only one or two other wineries in the state have won the award three times. So, quality wines are being made in the Temecula Valley.

The business model for the wineries there is to attract members to their wine clubs. This is where they cultivate connoisseurship. They sell bottles to wine tourists in their tasting room. You won't find these wines in national distribution. The production is too small. Plus distributors take a huge cut. The winery owners can sell what they produce in their tasting rooms, and get high prices doing it. The wineries have restaurants and, increasingly, hotels and villas. They are all involved in catering weddings. There are really beautiful wedding venues at these wineries. They have concerts. They put together and sell wine-themed cruises. They offer behind the scenes tours of the wineries and vineyards and special wine tastings at a price.

There are big plans to turn the valley into a massive tourist destination. Who benefits and who loses?

The Wine Country Community Plan was approved earlier this year, in March. It was backed by a conservative Republican county supervisor, Jeff Stone, and had the interests of the large winery owners closest to heart. In the five-plus years of the planning process, there were some critiques by environmentalists, but the main complaints came from local residents who live in the wine country and who didn't like their way of life being interrupted. They complained about the noise from the concerts and wedding receptions with deejays and all. And about the traffic and possible drunk drivers on the weekends when the wineries are packed with day tripper tourists.

The Plan would pave the way, literally—little anti-development joke there—for close to 100 wineries. Yeah, certainly there will be more employment if this comes to pass. There will be some skilled positions: Winemakers, catering managers, hotel managers. Those kinds of jobs. But it would seem that most employment would come at the lower rungs of the ladder.

Also, this Plan assumed the availability of more hyper-exploited and hyper-exploitable undocumented migrant farm workers. There is a real possibility of environmental problems. Where is the water going to come from? These kinds of projects demand an Environmental Impact Report before approval. Often those reports over-exaggerate the availability of water and under-exaggerate the detrimental impacts. And it just might be that when 100 wineries are built, the place is like Las Vegas or Disneyland and the now carefully-constructed rurality is ruined. I don't know.

You personally worked as a labourer picking grapes as part of your research. Why not just do interviews and surveys?

There are farm management firms in the valley. The wineries contract with one of them to harvest their grapes, source grapes if they need more or sell their grapes if there is more production than can be used. I was able to persuade the owner of one of these firms to allow me to work alongside his crew during the harvest in the fall of 2013. We started work at around 4pm each day, when the temperature was in the mid-30s Celsius, and then we'd finish after midnight when the temperatures would be, say, 5 degrees Celsius.

Remember that the valley is like 350 meters above sea level, it's a desert, and it's cold at night all year round. It's task work, and so it would be a sprint to the finish. No breaks. We'd pee, quickly, in between the vines. The work was really hard. Speed was of the essence. It's hard, dirty, low-paid work. Just what you'd expect. There were chronic back injuries. Knees. They use this sharp, curved knife. There were really nasty cuts. This past spring, I worked with them preparing land for the planting of vineyards. We cleared fields. We put in irrigation pipe. We put in trellises.

While the workers presented the boss with some sort of papers, most were, in fact, undocumented labourers in the sense that they dared not cross the border or even go near the local Border Patrol Station. I was able to learn of their labouring and life histories. You can't get this kind of information from this kind of population using sit-down interviews and surveys. I think my own hard labour made me legitimate in their eyes. I was proud when one of them said to the company owner in the English that he had that I was a hard worker and they wanted me to work with them all the time.

Most of the agricultural labour is done by immigrants. What do they think of the wine industry's plans?

When I started the fieldwork with the workers, to explain myself, to tell them who I was and why I was there, I told them I was doing a research project on wine tourism. As a Marxist, I told them that all of the wineries that they see around them, and all the big homes, and all of the hotels for the tourists, that it all starts with them. It all starts with their labour. If no grapes, no wine. No wine, no wineries. No wineries, no tourists. They agreed that this was so. Now, at the same time, they want and need work desperately. I told them about the Wine Country Plan, and they were mixed in their reaction. There was resignation. There was the feeling that more workers would be needed. I guess it's kind of like the old saying: "The only thing worse than being exploited by the capitalists is not being exploited at all."

What are you planning to do next in your wine research?

I have funding for the next two years, until the summer of 2016. I have a full agenda. I will do more archival research, more fieldwork in the tasting rooms with tourists but also with the tasting room bartenders. I will also do more fieldwork with other kinds of employees, such as those in the barrel rooms as well as tour guides and caterers. I will continue to "study up" by interviewing winery owners and even real estate developers. People in positions like that.

Here's something I might not have mentioned: I have interviewed winemakers. I want to learn about their strategies of wine making for whom they perceive as their consumers. Theoretically, this gets to the nexus of production and consumption. I also want to continue investigating how they use science, a practical science, in their craft. All of these wineries have small laboratories where they test the sugar in grapes, test wines, and so forth.

Finally, what's your hot tip for which wines we should be buying from the Temecula valley?

Ha! No one has asked me that question! I'm not sure why you are asking me now! Ha! Actually, when they hear that I am doing this research people assume that I know about wine. You know, from a critic's perspective.

What I can tell you is that by delving into the literature, I can tell you that wine criticism is so arbitrary. It's part of the fetishization of the wine commodity. In any case, that being said, the Syrah has been a kind of signature grape for the valley. This might be traced to Vince and Audrey Cilurzo, pioneers who are credited with planting the first commercial vineyard in 1968.

For me, I guess I like red Zinfandels. It's a kind of "California Creole" grape. You're a Caribbeanist and so you know what I mean by "creole." It was brought from Italy and to the east, from what is now Croatia. It was brought to the eastern United States in the mid-nineteenth century and then was taken to California during the Gold Rush. It's been a mainstay in most wine growing regions of California, going in and out of fashion over the years. Now it seems to be back in fashion. Not every winery there makes red Zinfandels.

Now, this doesn't amount to a hot tip. Sorry. But even if I had a hot tip, I've already said that I don't know anything about wine. So, don't listen to me!

Fieldwork snapshots by Kevin Yelvington

I was able to learn of their labouring and life histories. You can't get this kind of information from this kind of population using sit-down interviews and surveys. I think my own hard labour made me legitimate in their eyes.

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Kevin Yelvington at work in a Temecula winery, Califorina. Photo courtesy of Kevin
Kevin Yelvington at work in a Temecula winery, Califorina. Photo courtesy of Kevin