Drinking to a Living Wage with Justice Grace Vineyards

People have different motivations for starting businesses be it money, lifestyle, autonomy or sheer passion. I suppose everyone who goes out on their own would say they are motivated by ideals of some sort but giving back is usually not at the top of list, at least not with new businesses that are often struggling to get on their feet. That is what makes Eric Cohen especially courageous. Since founding Justice Grace Vineyards ten years ago, he’s been a champion of the living wage movement and other plights for social and economic justice. 

I met Eric when he was a student in an Introduction to Wine series I was teaching sometime around the Millenium. He’d recently moved to San Francisco from New York where he worked in the financial sector. He always had poignant comments during the discussion and mentioned he was interested in winemaking. 

A few years later he brought me a bottle of a Petite Sirah he made. It was a good early effort. He went his way, I went mine and it wasn’t really until about five years ago that I started seeing him around more often. His wines evolved and it seemed as if he did as well. His hair was longer and he traded in the button downs for T-shirts. Now the father of a young son, he was making wine full time with two labels, Shoe Shine Wines and Solidarity, also known as “We Are…,” and using his chosen profession as a way to help the working poor and other oppressed groups.

Justice Grace Vineyard Ten Year Annivesary bottling

Justice Grace Vineyard Ten Year Anniversary bottling

I won’t hide my admiration. On the wine side, his Petite Sirahs are among the few renditions of this grape I can drink. Unlike so many other versions of this varietal, they are not huge and inky but have balance and nuance. While he adds nutrients, he is up front about it and works primarily with organically grown fruit and only ferments with native yeast. He has a creative approach to winemaking but keeps it simple. The wines have soul… but maybe I’m biased. We’ve had a number of conversations about his work, both as a winemaker and activist, over the last few months. Here are some of the excerpts:

PSB: How and why did you start Justice Grace?

EC: When I was six, I thought I knew everything there is to know about wine (and everything else). It tasted remarkably like grape soda, and you were supposed to dip your pinky in it ten times before you drank any of it – off your dinner plate.[1] The only other exposure I had to wine was a jug of Riunite that my parents kept in the garage for when guests came over. I remember that this single jug lasted for years. Manischewitz and Riunite were basically the only wines I ever had until my early 20’s when I went to work in NYC after college in the early 1990s. I began going to business lunches and dinners where wine, and especially older vintages, were a central part of celebrations, large and small.

I was almost immediately hooked and spent seven years devouring info and wine. Magazines quickly turned into books. Local books turned into international books, which soon grew into technical textbooks on winemaking, chemistry and grape growing. But all the same, I honestly never held any thought or even dreamed that I would one day be a part of the industry. Never. I was just captivated. It was all happening on the other side of the country and I never saw myself as much of a risk taker who would leave one path for another, even though I hated it.

Then one day, I miraculously sat down on a cross-country airplane ride next to an amazing winemaker from a small family winery in Napa, Christopher from White Rock. By the end, he had persisted beyond my self-doubts and graciously invited me to help work the harvest of 1999. After one harvest, that was it. I didn’t know how or when I would take the leap, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I worked a few harvests at other wineries. The 2003 Shoe Shine Wine Petite Sirah from Tenbrink Vineyards was Justice Grace Vineyards’ first. Interestingly, it was from a vineyard I still cherish beyond words and buy from today, after 13 years.

I deeply love winemaking itself; it is so soulful, unique and romantic (before you try to sell it). I love that it all starts from the Earth, the agriculture cycle and the life energy of fermentation. I am awed that as a craft it has been refined over thousands of years. It’s thrilling that unlike cooking or making beer, with winemaking you get one, and only one, shot per year to work with what Nature has presented. I am struck by the fact that it is a time capsule, made from perishable fruit, yet when in bottle, can be used in celebrations after so much of life has gone by and transformed. And that same wine, hailed for its complexity, at its essence, is so simple and can be made with very few ingredients.

In my observation, one’s success at the craft depends on your knowledge of science, but also your willingness to express your creativity in art, and ultimately your unique intuition and palate. I am totally driven by the idea that even I, after thousands of years, could come along and maybe tweak what others have done before me. Winemaking is such a soulful and unique combination of factors leading to personal satisfaction that I haven’t found elsewhere. There is nothing else I want to do with as much passion.

Yet, as much as I love making wine, that could never completely fulfill me as a life worth living – to make a luxury good for the benefit of so few. I believe that all businesses owe a debt to society, and all wineries owe a debt to the Earth. So, this business could never just be about my son and I. I needed to find a way to merge my passion for winemaking with my need to find meaning and purpose for my life, which could benefit others as well. And this is actually selfish. It brings me joy to share and give – my father is the most beautiful role model of this wisdom that I will ever know.

So by combining the two, my hope is this could bring me, and my son, the greatest happiness. And as the Dalai Lama says, happiness “is the very purpose” of our lives. Nothing would bring me greater joy than to bring even the slightest happiness to those who have suffered so much.

PSB: Which vineyards/growers have you been working with over the last few years?

EC: Since day one, I have had a long-standing relationship with Steve and Linda Tenbrink, for organically farmed Petite Sirah, going on 14 vintages now. I have ongoing relationships with Marty & Eileen at their small family Mais Fica Vineyard for organically grown Mourvedre and Grenache, Remi and Zoubeda at their small, family Powicana Vineyard for biodynamic Petite Sirah, and others for new wines I am evolving into. Over the past 13 vintages, I have explored many varietals and high-altitude, cold-climate, and old-vine vineyards from all parts of Northern California. I am constantly looking for something special and take great joy in walking the land with all of the amazing vineyard owners/ stewards. Because my wines have very few additions of any kind, and little processing manipulations, these vineyards must be, and truly are, special. For real.

Two long time workers at the Tenbrink Vineyard, Enrique and Leandro

Two long-time workers at the Tenbrink Vineyard, Enrique and Leandro

PSB: Why is Tenbrink so special to you?

EC: From a personal standpoint, Steve and Linda Tenbrink gave me a chance. They have an amazing list of winemakers they work with like Abe Schoener and Matthew Rorick. If you come off the street like I did at the beginning and no one’s heard of you, you have a very small chance of getting grapes. I’m grateful that they didn’t make me wait four or five years. They opened their vineyard right away to me and that’s beautiful.

PSB: How do the farming methods used by your growers support your beliefs about labor? Have you ever had to change your fruit source because the grower’s practices ran into conflict with your principles?

EC: This is a tough issue that many conscientious growers are dealing with. When I first started out, I was very naive, and at the same time resolute about how I intended to buy grapes from growers with “demonstrably” better labor practices than all the others. So, towards the end of vineyard tours I would ask questions and soon learned that virtually all growers avoided giving informative answers, and seemed annoyed that someone so small like me would even ask. I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge or experience so I’m sure I seemed arrogant and obnoxious to them. It turns out it wasn’t so easy to see a big difference in labor practices on the scale of vineyards I was self-selecting to partner with. It was a steep learning curve like everything else has been. And still is. Everything meaningful in the wine business seems to take many, many years.

At the end of the day, I haven’t seen much differentiation among my current or prospective vineyard partners, who are certainly at the smaller end of the vineyard spectrum. Most use vineyard management companies or contractors. Some have a vineyard manager, who might reside on the property for many years, but even that I have learned might not be positive for the vineyard workers. Since I lean heavily towards organic or biodynamic vineyards, while their labor costs are higher per acre, they tend to retain their key people much longer – their special skill set makes the workers much less of a commodity.

Wage rates seem to be around $12 – $15 per hour during the ten months of the year vineyard crews generally work and during harvest, they can make much more. Wage rates have been on the upswing for several years, but it’s definitely not enough. There is a race between two opposing sides of the equation right now: a growing shortage of skilled vineyard workers, versus the increasing automation on the volume side of the business. Absent unions, the consumer is the critical difference maker here. Consumers must vote with their dollars– every single one of them. But there is little information from which they can make informed decisions.

PSB: Can you talk some more about how you feel it is affecting the workers?

EC: The issue of labor in the vineyards is changing a great deal right now. The use of labor contractors is widespread and seems to have supplanted unionization, which in my view is rarely good for the workers themselves. Political scapegoating of immigrants have decreased the overall labor pool, especially for migrant laborers during harvest. And larger vineyards are increasingly moving towards mechanization of some vineyard tasks that used to be handled by farm workers. The middle class has pretty much been destroyed and at the same time, we’ve seen that the number of people involved in unions has also gone down dramatically. There is a direct correlation between the two. After Chavez and the United Farm Workers, there’s been a horrible decline.

Shoe Shine Wine back label

Shoe Shine Wine back label

PSB: Why do you think that is?

EC: It’s hard to organize vineyard workers because they come from different places. A lot of times they work for labor contractors. That is happening in a lot of businesses. And then the companies pretend they have no knowledge of the working conditions. Contract companies are aggregating people. Because of their immigration status, they are vulnerable. So they trust the vineyard management company and don’t look beyond their own co-workers and strive for something bigger. They are not organized into one cohesive group; they move as one team as opposed to a collective labor class. It’s a race against time. On one hand, there is increased mechanization and on the other, there is a shortage of workers. By the way, this is the best time for them because there’s been a shortage of labor. That’s slowly been happening. They’ve been getting more per hour. But they’re still living in poverty. It’s a brutal job.

At the end of the day, I believe the ultimate power for change rests with the consumer. In our capitalist, consumer-oriented society, you, the consumer, sit at the top of the pyramid. Make every dollar count in your purchasing decisions and the change you desire will happen infinitely faster. If you feel powerless, or believe your dollar doesn’t matter, recall the Zen saying: “A bucket is filled by 1,000 drops of water”.

PSB: How do you make contributions to the living wage movement through your business?

EC: It’s up to me and my financial situation every year. At the least, the first couple of cases gets donated to different causes.

Since Shoe Shine Wine was introduced in 2003, it always had a back label telling folks that this brand was about supporting the living wage movement and the working poor. As it happens, I’ve learned that the folks most excited about the label itself are the working poor, most of whom obviously have no money for a luxury good like wine. Over the last ten years, I’ve been at a lot of events and it’s easy to see that people are excited; it’s really genuine. It’s the restaurateurs and retail shop owners that you get some negative feedback when they see the label. It’s a huge topic of controversy paying folks a living wage in the Bay Area.

PSB: How concerned are you about alienating current or potential customers?

EC: My concern about possibly alienating customers is simply not as important to me as all the other considerations. It will happen, but so be it. It saddens me not because some people are unhappy with my choices but because of my sense as to why they are unhappy. Their comments revolve around the “us” vs. “them” paradigm that is the exact opposite of what my “We Are: “ series represents. Or, it has been suggested, by being “for” some oppressed group, I am stating that I am “against” another. Again, it is the opposite of both my intention and my perception of what the “We Are” series represents. But either I stand for something important to me, or I don’t. I’m not taking a poll.

Solidarity "We Are Transgender" label designed by Ronnie Goodman, http://www.ronniegoodman.com/

Solidarity “We Are Transgender” label designed by Ronnie Goodman, http://www.ronniegoodman.com/

PSB: Tell me more about the “We Are” series and the new labels.

EC: About two years ago, I introduced the first label in something I call a “Label Series of Compassion.” “We Are: Immigrants” was the first of what I hoped would be a series of new wines introduced each year, which would publicly call attention to an exploited or oppressed group from around the world, and do what I could to support them.

It pains me how those in power, and the gatekeepers of public opinion, divide the masses into “fictional” groups based on fear, in order to divert attention and energy away from the united masses regaining our democracy (which has been sold). By declaring “We Are:” on the front of every bottle, I am trying to remind us of our shared humanity and celebrate rather than demonize those among us who have suffered so much.

I am proud to shortly introduce two exciting new blends, with “We Are: Palestinian” and “We Are: Transgender” on the front of every bottle.

PSB: When are these going to be released?

EC: Hopefully before harvest begins.

Shea and Eric bonding over grapes

Shea and Eric bonding over grapes

PSB: You talk about your son a lot, even though he is just nine and a half. How has he been involved?

EC: Shea has been absolutely beautiful in supporting me. I couldn’t describe in words how great he has been since the time he was two years old. Sitting in vineyards with me. He loves mixing the grapes up with his hands. He goes to all the campaigns I go to supporting the working poor.

Every kid I’ve met doesn’t see any reason why everyone in the world shouldn’t be entitled to the same thing. It’s only through socialization we beat the hell of them. It’s just society that says you have to compete against your neighbors.

PSB: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow your model for giving back through winemaking?

EC: The wine industry is the perfect industry for it. It’s an industry that relies on labor that lives in poverty. It attracts wealthier people who own wineries and sell a luxury good using other people. They can provide their time and donations. Balance is one of the most important words in the universe. Find your balance. How much time do you want to give? I wish I could do more. I wish I could say publicly I could donate a percentage of sales…I give as much as I can every year and still manage to get by. Everybody can be a drop of water.

[1] This is one of the Passover rituals. Each drop of wine represents one of the ten plagues brought down on the people of Egypt.


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