Mario Diaz, the vineyard foreman, and his wife. All photos courtesy of Refugio Ranch Vineyards

Why We Should Honor Farm Workers as Much as Winemakers

Wineries often glorify the winemakers, but what about the farm workers? The winemaker doesn't have anything to work with if there are no grapes.

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Apr 8 2016, 8:00pm

Mario Diaz, the vineyard foreman, and his wife. All photos courtesy of Refugio Ranch Vineyards

If it wasn't for the vineyard workers sweating and making wine happen, none of this wine business would even be possible.

It all begins with them.

During harvest, we can have teams of about 20 people picking grapes at once. Watching them work is a very admirable experience, especially when you actually get to see the vine roots in the ground, the grapes growing from them, and the crew picking those grapes. It is a fully vertically integrated process. You see every single step of making wine, and this gives you a real appreciation for the effort and the energy that goes into a bottle of wine. In contemporary society, so many people's jobs are not directly related to the final product, but watching field workers makes you realize the fundamentals of work in a very back-to-basics way.

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Santa Ynez Valley

My father founded Refugio Ranch Vineyards in 2004 and I followed the family business. But art is my passion, first and foremost. One time I took some photos of the guys while they were working and they just had this awesome, stoic, rugged look to them. It inspired me to paint portraits of them and hang them in our tasting room in Los Olivos, California.

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I focused in on their facial expressions, their hands, and eliminated everything else. This way, you get to see the essence of what these guys are all about. My dad wanted me to do a painting of a landscape originally, since it is beautiful wine country up here. But I was like, "Dad, I don't do landscapes!"

The people who grow the grapes are the first line in the wine chain. They should be seriously valued.

I thought, Why not do portraits of our vineyard workers, since they are basically the source of everything here? Instead of doing a landscape, I did a portrait of the guys who work the land. If you look at the painting, it's pretty rough, expressive brush strokes. I paint with a lot of linseed oil mixed in, which causes the paint to drip and create the flesh. This way you can almost see all of the blood running through them and the dirt in their hands. This effect also shows the visceral vitality of those guys.

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2014_RefugioRanch_TNT-220 Refugio tasting room in Los Olivos

The deep red tone of the flesh really helps communicate their sheer aliveness, you know? They work in a field and do manual labor all day, rather than just sitting behind a fucking computer all day. I think every industry should recognize the hard labor needed to make the end product. For some reason, winemaking has always really held on to the value of the craft behind wine. It may be a product that is sold in supermarkets, but many still view it as art.

If you go to a lot of other tasting rooms, they definitely glorify the winemaker by having a picture of him on a wall, but what about the farm workers? The winemaker does not have anything to work with if there are no grapes. Maybe there is some kind of social stigma that other vineyards have, but I don't believe that. The art and creativity of wine starts in the vineyard. The people who grow the grapes are the first line in the wine chain. They should be seriously valued.

Over 90 percent of our crew are migrant workers. This should influence political decisions. Think about who you are going to vote for: If these guys disappear, your wine is going to get much more expensive because there won't be the labor force to work the vineyard.

There is another vineyard up here called Stolpman Vineyards and they have put together a red wine called La Cuadrilla. All of the profits made from this wine go back to the vineyard crew. We are currently discussing creating a wine with a similar business model.

As told to and written by Javier Cabral

Max Gleason is the Creative Director at Refugio Ranch Vineyards in Los Olivos, California. For more info visit Refugio Ranch Vineyards' website here.