Mendocino – Thinking outside the Bottle

Amelia Singer

Not many people have heard of Mendocino. Whereas neighbouring Napa is the most-visited tourist attraction after Disneyland, Mendocino’s bucolic beauty belies a region of grit – winegrowers here are traditionally paid lower prices for fruit. However, attracting labour is the biggest issue, especially when many vineyard workers are being seduced by marijuana growers. The average price of grape picking is $10 an hour but you can earn $25 trimming weed.

To deal with this crisis, local sheriff, Tom Allman, had a creative solution – why not use prisoners from the county jail as pickers? Driving Joe and I in his police car, Tom explains how he concocted this scheme with Martha Barra, whose family-run winery was being seriously affected. Together they chose several prisoners to do the harvest and paid them a fair wage. It worked so well that the number of prisoner pickers has increased and three other sheriffs have incorporated this scheme.

As effective as this scheme sounded, I couldn’t help but ask Martha Barra if she felt safe in the vineyards. According to Martha, Tom had a rigorous selection system but I was unconvinced.

My doubts persisted until I had seen the prisoners themselves. Out in Martha’s vineyard I could see how studiously they worked. They displayed an impressive knowledge of viticulture but they also really enjoyed it. As one prisoner said “it feels like you’ve accomplished something.” Perhaps the most impressive story was Jaime’s who enjoyed the work so much he then became the vineyard manager as soon as he left jail.

I now view this moody region in a new light. It could perhaps be the innovator of the greatest labour initiative in California. I understand why Martha Barra takes delight in writing cheques for these pickers. This scheme has created sustainable labour but it has also given local people a second chance in life.

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