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By Marguerite Thomas
Apr 27, 2021
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“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, the vegetables and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”  
--Cesar Chavez

Annual incomes are traditionally low for people who work America’s land on farms and vineyards, with about 30% of agricultural workers’ families—almost double the rate of the US as a whole--estimated to be living below the poverty line.  In view of this country’s longstanding failure to pay an adequate minimum wage, a large part of the wine we drink today is thanks to the work of underpaid laborers.  Among the explanations for their low pay is that most vineyard workers, like other agricultural workers, are employed seasonally rather than year-round, which results in wages that are too low to yield a reasonable annual income.  Because seasonal workers often move from one crop to another, and frequently from one region to another as they follow the crops, their relationship with various far-flung employers can make them ineligible for health coverage.  Moreover, vineyard workers and their families are often overwhelmed by our nation’s labyrinthine health care system, and without costly insurance they tend not to seek healthcare until their problems become acute.

Thirty years ago a group of Oregon winery owners and health care professionals got together too help address some of these issues.  The outcome of this meeting was the birth of ¡Salud!, an organization dedicated to the healthcare of seasonal vineyard workers.  Guided by OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University), Hillsboro Medical Center and the Washington County Health Department, ¡Salud! provides comprehensive health services to some 2500 vineyard workers and their families through mobile clinics.  Doctors, nurses and other health care workers travel to vineyards and wineries in nine different counties, during the workday, to provide innovative and wide-ranging care for issues including prescriptions, monitoring blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, and providing vision screenings, prenatal care, wellness care, basic dental care and much more.  

Not surprisingly, the past year focused on covid vaccinations, with worksite screening, treatment and vaccination provided for vineyard workers and their families.  All of this care is funded one hundred percent by philanthropy, with about ninety percent of the money raised through an annual auction.

Oregon’s Pinot Noir Auction takes place every November.  In the pandemic year of 2020 the traditional walk-around tasting was replaced by a six-part nationwide series of virtual winemaker panels during which vintners discussed the 2019 vintage.  Despite some early concern that the new format might fail to inspire generous bidding Oregon’s 2020 virtual auction (held November 9-16) was in every way a success.  The event raised $1,021,581, with 20 custom lots of Pinot Noir created by Oregon wineries exclusively for the cause.  Among the offerings were the “Vintners’ Circle” wines, from 36 different wineries each offering four 12-bottle cases of 2019 Cuvée Pinot Noir created especially for the auction.  In addition to the wines, a selection of tempting auction lots included such dreamy sounding items as this package from Domaine Serene: 3 days and 4 nights at Domaine Serene for up to 6 people, plus tastings with Domaine Serene’s winemaker Rachel Zasadni, complimentary car service for a day of tasting in the Willamette Valley, and a gift certificate for $250 towards dinner at Bistro Maison in McMinville.

To be sure, a handful of organizations in other wine-producing states also host annual auctions that raise money for a variety of winery-related programs, with many of them designed to relieve at least some of the economic hardships faced by struggling viticultural workers.  Several organizations target several deserving and needy winery-related causes, from environmental disasters to food banks to scholarships, with wineries, individual vintners and chefs among the good citizens dedicated to such causes.  But Maria McCandless, ¡Salud! foundation manager, points out that the single minded focus on the relationship between vintners and physicians makes Oregon the only state with such a “unique and effective program in support of the health of seasonal workers.”  Since providing a living wage for the workers who toil in our nation’s vineyards seems an unlikely prospect ¡Salud! deserves the thanks of all wine lovers.

Photo Credits:  SaludAuction.org, Facebook.com/SaludAuction/

Read more from Marguerite:    Marguerite Thomas
Connect with her on Twitter at @M_L_Thomas