If someone paid half a million for a single bottle of wine, how much did the grape harvesters earn making it?
ée Conti, considered one of the world’s finest producers. The four-and-a-half acre tract of land where the grapes were grown once belonged to the Catholic Church, and later a Bourbon prince; today, it’s owned by two families. Serena Sutcliffe, head of the auction house’s international wine department, called it a “wine at peace with itself” with “seemingly everlasting power.” Domaine Romanée Conti called the wine “velvet, seductive and mystery” and “the most Proustian of great wines.” The buyer, whose identity remained anonymous, was simply referred to as a “collector.”
When I read numbers like these—and there are other wines that sell for figures like this—I can’t help but measure the sum against my own material reality. Instead of purchasing “Proustian” wine, I could buy the second-hand 2014 Nissan Versa that I got last year, with money from stimulus payments and pandemic unemployment checks, 139 times. I could pay my student loans 111 times. I could pay my current rent for 63 years. It’s easy to dismiss such an extreme purchase as absurd, but sometimes I wonder about the story behind these bottles and the people whose labor brought that wine from vineyard to consumer. If someone paid half a million for a single bottle of wine, how much did the grape harvesters earn making it?
I wanted to learn more about class differences in wine production and consumption, so last September, I traveled around the San Francisco Bay Area to meet with winemakers, land owners, and vineyard workers. First, I drove to Sonoma, California, which has ideal growing conditions for grapes. Summer nights are cold and misty, with the marine layer blowing east from the Pacific. Afternoons are hot and dry. This large diurnal shift—the difference between the nighttime low temperature and the daytime high—is good for the grapes, allowing ripening to slow and the pH to remain balanced, resulting in a wine that tastes even, rather than overly alcoholic or acidic.
The fair weather can partially explain why land in Sonoma is so expensive. Vineyards sell for up to $215,000 per acre, and a typical single-family house in the city and its environs costs around $1.25 million, according to the real estate website Zillow. In 2019, a ton of wine grapes grown in Sonoma and Marin counties sold, on average, for $2,845. By comparison, a ton in California’s Central Valley, which grows more grapes than any other part of the state—and where poverty is generally higher than the state’s average—sold for $301. (Because owning land and machinery is expensive in California, many winemakers sign lease agreements to purchase grapes in bulk from larger and wealthier producers instead of growing their own.)
In September, I visited an early morning harvest where I saw wealth and wage labor come together. The harvest took place at the home of a hobbyist winemaker, whose primary residence was in the Pacific Northwest. He bought his house, on what he calls one of Sonoma’s “most exclusive” roads, a decade ago for about $400,000. Now he estimates the value is around $2 million. He, his wife, and two other couples share thefive-acre tract of vines, which backs up to their houses, and contract other people to grow the grapes for them. Their vineyard manager, David Rothschild, was responsible for hiring workers, tending to the vines, and, ultimately, selling the grapes. For his clients, Rothschild leases the site and gives the property owners a portion of the grape sales—with no cost for his services—but other property owners, Rothschild told me, forgo such deals and instead pay management companies $8,000 to $12,000 per acre in vineyard maintenance. “It’s a super expensive, stressful hobby,” Dan Marioni, one of Rothschild’s business partners, said.
When I arrived at the vineyard around 8 a.m., the harvesters had already been working for three hours. They were picking grapes for various winemakers, including five hundred pounds for the property owner, who did not sell or make money off his wine. Usually, he kept it for home consumption, though he planned to bring bottles from the 2021 vintage to his upcoming business school reunion.
Wearing gloves, long-sleeved shirts, and hats, the workers proceeded quickly along the rows, clipping Syrah grapes and tossing them into plastic buckets that, when full, held forty pounds. Speaking Spanish, Rothschild directed them, telling them which rows to cut. As they worked, the property owner strolled though the vines, grinning. “This is beautiful,” he said. He described to me a romantic vision of harvesters all around the Northern Hemisphere picking grapes that very September day, as though he were taking part in something much bigger than hisvineyard. “This is [also] going on in all these little villages in France.”
Many of the workers on the vineyard that morning came from Michoacán, Mexico, and some were undocumented. They earned around twenty-five dollarsan hour during harvest, the most intense time of the year. One thirty-nine-year-old worker, Juan, first came to the United States when he was seventeen, and moved to California permanently fifteen years ago. The rise of narco-trafficking had brought violence to his hometown, Juan told me, and he didn’t have many work opportunities there anyway. After crossing the Sonoran Desert by foot, with a backpack full of water and cookies, he began working in Arizona’s strawberry industry. Later, he moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he lives in one room with his wife and teenage son.He worked multiple jobs—in grapes and in restaurants—to save money to bring his eleven-year-old son, who was still living in Michoacán, to California.
For them, wine was work. For the property owner, wine was leisure.
Some of the workers I met said they didn’t even enjoy drinking the wine they helped make. For them, wine was work. For the property owner, wine was leisure. Their labor made possible his pleasure. And yet, even though he outsourced all of his vineyard work, the property owner considered himself a farmer. Writing in a letter to his alumni magazine, he hoped that this year’s would be “the best vintage ever.”
Generally, only people with upfront capital, and access to land and cellar space, can make wine a viable venture. This is especially true in California, where agricultural land is more expensive than most everywhere else in the country. In Europe, young winemakers often inherit land passed down over generations, continuing the tradition of their ancestors; I met one winemaking family in northern Spain that had owned their estate since the fourteenth century. In California, by contrast, wine is a relatively new industry, and young, landless winemakers hoping to start their own business have to be creative. They sign lease agreements with landowners like the man I met in Sonoma, tending the vines in exchange for deals on purchasing grapes, or they buy grapes outright without doing any of the farming themselves. They rent cellar space and equipment—grape presses, stainless steel fermentation tanks, barrels, and pumps. The vineyards where they source their grapes are often hundreds of miles apart, requiring hours of driving during harvest season. Margins are so low that many small winemakers I met worked other jobs—as bartenders, mostly, or, in one case, a freelance fashion designer.
The barriers to entry for winemaking are high, and, as a consequence, the industry skews white and male. But Christopher Renfro, a thirty-nine-year-old Black winemaker in San Francisco, is trying to change that. Renfro tends a tiny patch of vines in an unlikely place: a community farm on a hill overlooking Interstate-280, which cuts through the middle of the city. He doesn’t own the land—it’s shared—but he dreams of one day starting a venture on land in Louisiana that his family once possessed. His great-great-great-grandparents were enslaved, and when they were freed, they acquired land in the southern part of the state, where generations grew up and in turn raised their own children. But slowly the family was dispossessed of it. Today, only six acres remain.
For Renfro, farming and winemaking are acts of justice. He wants to reclaim his family’s land and promote Black land ownership. Through his work, including an initiative called The Two Eighty Project, a winemaking apprenticeship program for people of color, he hopes to bring people underrepresented in agriculture into fields like winemaking. Directly adjacent to his vines is a public housing community called Alemany Apartments, where more than a hundred families, many of them Black, live. Yet few of them, he says, ever visit the farm. “There’s project housing right there,” Renfro told me. “It’s a busy freeway. It’s kind of weird that there’s no grocery store, nothing in sight. It’s an actual food desert next to a farm.”
One Sunday in September, I visited the farm around lunchtime. The gardens were lush. Bright red and orange tomatoes burst from their tendrils; Mexican sage bloomed deep purple. Renfro and a host of other twenty and thirty-year-olds were standing behind an outdoor grill, preparing a meal of Malaysian-style coconut chicken; kale salad with a cucumber makrut lime vinaigrette; and mullein and lemon balm herbal iced tea. The lunch was an event called “Feed the People,” and Renfro and his team would deliver free plates of food to each of the Alemany apartments.
By meeting them at their doorsteps, Renfro hoped to bring community members into the farm—and show them the possibilities of food and agriculture. As a former server and assistant wine director in a fine dining restaurant, Renfro finds deep joy in gastronomy—caviar and ferments and “small beautiful plates.” He wants to share these meals with as many people as possible.
We fanned out across the neighborhood, holding warm paper plates covered in aluminum foil. After accepting a plate, one woman pointed to her balcony, where tendrils and leaves tumbled from pots. “I don’t know what I do, but successfully I’ve grown green beans, tomatoes, strawberries,” she said. A volunteer encouraged her to help out at the farm. “Your garden is so impressive,” the volunteer said. The woman smiled. “I feel so great because I started everything from seeds, and you come out and this is here. Tomatoes, oh my God, how?” she said. “I can’t wait to get a house with a backyard.”
Listening to the conversation, I started daydreaming. What if all of us had backyards? And access to beautiful—and delicious—food? What if we shared wine with our neighbors? Wine, like art, is an object of interpretation. While drinking it, we bring our own histories and subjectivities to the glass. What we taste is bound up in our own deeply personal experiences and sense memories. Imagine what we could learn from one another if money weren’t a barrier to enjoying wine, and we drank at the same table, across social classes? There would be so many stories to tell.
Recently, Renfro told me, a few kids from the neighborhood helped him plant new vines on the hill. They discussed the legacy of those vines, how the kids were shaping history with their own hands. Some vines, Chris told them, can live for a century. Come back in thirty years, he said, and see how they grow.
Meg Bernhard is a writer from California's Inland Empire who spent several years living in Spain and Belgium. She's written for the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Guernica, and others. An essay she wrote for Hazlitt about finding meaning in shared grief will be published in the 2021 Best American Travel Writing anthology. She is currently working on a book about wine and power.