Smoke, pandemic threaten vineyard workers

When you enjoy your glass of wine this evening, please spare a thought for California’s embattled farm workers, who are toiling through the state’s harvest season amid black, choking smoke and the threat of Covid-19 … and many of them lack proper masks.

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You’ve seen the horrifying images of California’s raging wildfires this summer, and you’ve probably read that many parts of the state’s wine country are threatened by flames and smoke. But that’s not all there is to the story.

“The wildfires hit the state while it is still struggling to contain Covid-19,” writer W. Blake Gray reported in “Several counties in Northern California wine country reported Covid-19 outbreaks among farmworkers earlier in the summer. Farmworkers live in crowded conditions and often commute to work together in vans or buses.”

In July, Gray went on, nearly 20 percent of the residents in Napa County’s three farmworker housing centers – 30 out of 180 – tested positive for the virus. Similar results were reported in many of the state’s other wine regions. “The housing centers were a good response to a shortage of affordable housing in the county,” Gray wrote, “but they sleep two people to a room, with shared bathrooms and kitchens.”

"Protect the Hands That feed Us." United Farm Workers poster.

“Protect the Hands That feed Us.” United Farm Workers poster.

For many farm workers, Gray said, “the opportunity to pick grapes in air quality that has ranged from ‘Unhealthy’ to ‘Hazardous’ presents an unpleasant choice: work in the fields and risk their health, or stay home without pay.”

Meanwhile, this past spring, California assembly member Robert Rivas sponsored a California Farmworker Relief Package. The measure would have given hazard pay and sick leave to farmworkers, but the bill did not pass.

CalOSHA guidelines require that each farmworker be given one N95 mask for each shift. However, wineries simply do not have that many masks. Last week, Gray said, Rivas wrote Governor Gavin Newsom, urging that the state provide N95 masks to every farm worker required to work in smoky air.

The United Farm Workers union is working hard to do something about that. “UFW is working around the clock to assist farm workers already dealing with repercussions from the pandemic and a dangerous heat wave,” UFW wrote in a public petition to CalOSHA. “Now with the recent wildfires, the danger is escalating.

“CalOSHA is supposed to be protecting the workers,” UFW wrote, “but according to what we are hearing, many workers just aren’t protected. Legislation passed last year mandates the grower provide N95 or equivalent masks if the Air Quality Index is over 150. Sadly, we are hearing again and again of cases where this just isn’t happening.”

According to a poll of farm workers the UFW conducted Aug. 21, 84% of farm workers have not been given N95 masks by their employers.

Want to help? The farmworkers union is seeking as many signatures as possible on its petition, “Tell Cal/OSHA they need to be in the fields right now to ensure the people who labor so hard to feed us are kept safe.” You needn’t be a California taxpayer to sign: The whole world is watching. Use this link to read and sign the petition.

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Today’s Tasting Report

Nino Franco “Rustico” Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore ($24.99)

Nino Franco "Rustico"

Nino Franco “Rustico”

This crisp, fresh sparkling wine is a bright straw-gold in color. It pours with a frothy mousse that rises high in the glass but soon falls back to a lighter but persistent bubble stream. Its delicious aromas show ripe, juicy apples at first, joined by whiffs of pear and grapefruit. It comes across dry on the palate, with a rich and prickly mouthfeel from carbonation in the wine. It’s not overly acidic and claims a light 11% alcohol, but offers plenty of balance for enjoyment with food. Subtle white fruit and a hint of peach-pit bitterness remain in a very long finish. U.S. importer: Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill. (Aug. 27, 2020)

FOOD MATCH: In addition to the obvious – sipping it alone or with salty snacks as a refreshing quaff – the winery suggests enjoying it with “finger food, tapas, light hors d’oeuvres, and delicate dishes.” We followed along similar lines and enjoyed it with BLT sandwiches on rye bread and reheated leftover onion rings from a local eatery.

WHEN TO DRINK: Prosecco isn’t made for aging and benefits from serving when it’s young and fresh. That said, this bottle had “2017” printed on the cork – likely time of bottling rather than vintage – but it remained in great shape, so there’s no need to rush.

VALUE: shows a $20 average U.S. retail, with some offers as low as $15, which puts my $25 local price into unfortunate perspective. That said, though, it’s a very fine Prosecco and worth a reasonable toll if you’re looking for quality Prosecco.

Here’s a quick fact sheet on Nino Franco Rustico from importer Terlato Wines.

You’ll find similar information in English on the Nino Franco winery website.

Check prices and find vendors for Nino Franco “Rustico” on

Follow this Wine-Searcher link for a wide selection of Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore with vendors and prices.


More affordable wines

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10 or less that I’ve told you about during the past year or two. Please tell us about your favorites!

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