Daylight has not yet broken over Rioja Alavesa but the area is buzzing with activity. Vans, tractors, farm workers and winery personnel prepare themselves for another harvest day.
After a hearty breakfast, the teams of pickers hired by Bodegas Luis Cañas drive towards nearby vineyards. They are a tiny group among the thousands of migrant workers who come to Rioja to harvest the 63,000 hectares in the appellation. Some are families of gypsies, others come from South America, Africa, Portugal and Eastern Europe but recession has brought back many nationals to a job they left behind during the Spanish housing boom. "I quit harvesting eight years ago to become a builder, but the economic crisis has brought me back to the fields", says Vicente.
Some of his 11 team mates are in the same situation. They have travelled from Quesada, a town with 6,000 inhabitants in the Andalusian province of Jaén. Their families remain there so Vicente and the rest will not see them for the eight weeks of the grape-picking season. Mari is lucky in this respect. She is in Rioja with her husband, daughter and daughter's boyfriend. The two of them are the only women in the team. As well as harvesting, they work in the kitchen. "The two of us prepare meals and sandwiches to take to the vineyards. Men give us a hand, but they are always saying "Mari, bring me a beer, or give me this and that... I think they are sexist", says this 57-year-old woman who has been picking grapes since she was 14, when she travelled to France with her father.
They are happy at the lodgings built by Luis Cañas in 2006 for the winery's seasonal workers. Mari and her husband have their own bedroom; the rest share rooms with bunk beds. The house has several toilet facilities equipped with showers, kitchen, laundry room, first-aid room and a dining room with TV. "It's not easy to find houses like this when you are harvesting", says Ismael, who is Mari's future son-in-law. "My girlfriend has been sick for a few days; she can have a rest at her parents' bedroom, where it is quiet. Mattresses and beds are comfortable, we can use the washing machine and the drier; the day we arrived, we found clean sheets and blankets and everything is in working order", he adds.
These little pleasures might seem obvious, but many migrant workers live in shocking conditions. “At a prestigious winery I worked for in nearby Laguardia, we got some funny looks when we asked for a replacement gas bottle. We have found dirty sheets from previous seasons still on the beds and filthy toilets which have not been cleaned for a year”, reveals Ismael, who has eight years’ experience. With this in mind, it is not surprising that workers want to return to Luis Cañas. “My girlfriend and I have been here for five months; earlier this year we were desuckering vines and we hope to be back here next season”, he says. “The pay is good too. We earn 10 euros per hour of work”.
Harvesting Luis Cañas’ 780 plots is hard work. Bunches hang from the lower part of the vine so workers need to bend down to cut them. Speed and efficiency are required but harvesters must also pay attention to their fingers - it is painful to get them in the secateurs’ way. They don’t have time to revel in the gorgeous views around them, against the backdrop of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains. Vine rows are picked in pairs and each worker harvests around 1,100 kg of grapes per day.
When harvesting is done with semitrailers, a basket full of grapes weighs about 20 kg, but the group from Jaén harvests manually with boxes marked up to mid-height. Grape bunches should not surpass that line so that they land on the selection table in perfect conditions. Everyone in the team cuts bunches, but only the men carry the boxes back to the semitrailer, which weigh around 12 kilos when full. They are stacked by José Luis and Jimmy, two winery staff who drive the tractor and trailers back to the winery.
At 10am, the pickers stop for half an hour to eat their bocadillos and drink water. No wine in sight, as in the old days. There’s a lively chatter about past experiences in France -everyone agrees that the vendange is harder- and in the olive-picking season back at home in Jaén. Ismael and a first-time picker share previous anecdotes in the Spanish Army - both served in Afghanistan and Madrid after the Madrid bombings.
Resting periods coincide only with days of rain, but pickers can spend over two weeks working non-stop. When they cannot work, they do the washing or go shopping to Mercadona supermarket in Haro. “We go there because it is the cheapest in the area. Everything is expensive here; a baguette costs €1; in my village I never pay more than 60 cents”, says León, a middle-aged worker.
They all have a contract and papers in order. Neither workers nor producers take any chances because police raids, even with helicopters, are frequent. Both the Ertzaintza (Basque police) and the Guardia Civil (Spanish police) are ruthless against employers in the appellation who hire personnel without a contract, with fines of 6,000 € per worker. This initiative, which seems like a worthy cause, turns grotesque when it is applied to family and friends, who are not allowed to lend a hand during the harvest, as it has been traditionally done. If those helping out in the vineyard are on benefits (unemployment, pension etc) they risk losing it in a case of red tape gone completely insane.
The smell of wine fills the air in the winery, which is a hive of activity. The noise of the destemming machines blends with the sound of tractors’ engines, which line up at the control scales to assess the quality of the grapes on their semitrailers. Jose and Olalla are the two women in charge of the field department who decide, along with technical director Fidel and winemaker Pedro which grapes go to which deposit. Later in the evening, the women will also decide the vineyards that will be harvested the next day based on grape ripeness, weather conditions and winery needs.
“The most common sentence in this area of the estate is “And what about my stuff?”, which is said by providers who bring grapes from some of the vineyards we manage”, jokes Iñaki, the winery’s managing director who acts as “fire extinguisher” in all kinds of complications that occur during these days of stress. Producer Juan Luis Cañas is playing the same role at the new winery that he has purchased in Samaniego, a five-minute drive from Villabuena.
On days like these, all hands are welcome to process the millions of kilos of grapes that enter through the winery’s gates. Even the sales team lends a hand - Óscar and Luis spend a large part of their day at the selection table and at the downstairs deposits, experiencing a different side to their jobs.
There is also a group of youngsters from La Laboral technical college in Logroño, who are working here as part of their course training. They help to remove the skins from the vats, to control vinifications as well as checking grape quality at the sorting tables. Miguel is on his second day of work at Luis Cañas, although he has trained in wineries in Germany and Italy. Experience is as important here as it is in the vineyard. Armed with latex gloves and a pair of scissors, he must remove rotten or botrytised grapes, unripe bunches and any leaves that may have made it through to the box. There is a second selection table, but workers have to be alert, he says. At first glance, it seems like a comfortable job, but the long shifts standing still take a toll, specially on your back and feet. A minor mishap with a filter in the sorting table gives Miguel a chance to go to the toilet and wash his gloves and scissors, which become sticky with the grapes’ sugar.
Someone who has experienced the endless hours at the selection table is Luis Cañas himself. The family patriarch, 86, still retains the energy of many farmers who have relentlessly worked throughout their lives. He retired years ago but he is always around, helping wherever he can. Both his son Juan Luis and his grandson Jon, who works in the vineyard, tell him off if they see him doing chores, but he can’t help it. “I have five hernias on my back but I’m not the type to sit still all day; if something needs doing, I’ll do it”, adds Luis. His eyesight is not as good as it was 50 years ago but with a lifelong experience, he manages to remove faulty grapes almost with his eyes closed.
“We were here till 10pm last night and it will be similar today”, says Miguel. He doesn’t complain -he is happy to be able to work and gain experience. Luis will also be around, shutting the winery gates and keeping an eye on the little things until the harvest season is over.