grape pickerIt is common practice for wineries to offer their wine club members the opportunity to participate in harvest by helping to pick grapes or work on the crush pad. As payment, the winery will throw a barbecue, open some wine, but more importantly their customers get the satisfaction of helping to make the wine they drink, come to know the people behind the wine, and learn about the wine making process. The point is to have fun and create a sense of community.

Of course the winery benefits from some unpaid labor. But I know in San Diego, there is not enough surplus farm labor handy to harvest grapes when the winemaker determines its time to pick. So at harvest time, the call goes out to friends, family, and fellow growers—everybody in the wine business in fact—to come help harvest. Everybody helps each other out and everyone benefits. Again, it’s called a sense of community and it is a key element in what makes the wine business attractive. Without this sense of community many artisanal wineries could not survive.

It turns out that according to the California State Department of Industrial Relations this practice is illegal. Westover Winery in Castro Valley was fined $115,000 and forced out of business for using wine club members to help with harvest.

The Department of Industrial Relations released the following statement regarding this case:

“The public policy of the state, as expressed in the California Labor Code, is to vigorously enforce minimum labor standards so that employees are not required to work under substandard conditions and to protect law-abiding employers from unfair competition by others who don’t comply with minimum standards. The Labor Commissioner is the state’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for carrying out this policy. Like any law enforcement officer, the Labor Commissioner responds to complaints received and must follow where the evidence leads. “

The policy applies to interns as well who are learning the wine trade through volunteering, another common practice. Apparently in this case one of the volunteers filed a workman’s compensation case which triggered the investigation.

I don’t have any particular knowledge of what was going on at Westover Winery, but the idea that wine club members are “required to work under substandard conditions” is ridiculous. They are volunteers—no one is required to work. Moreover they are not trained pickers or skilled laborers. The idea that they are replacing the labor force with virtual “slaves” doesn’t pass the laugh test. It really isn’t hard to distinguish volunteers from unpaid immigrant laborers or workers who aren’t permitted to use the bathroom.

This appears to be another case in which large commercial wineries use the state to stamp out mom-and-pop operations.

I have a lot of sympathy for people charged with writing regulations that captured the complexity of a practice. But applying the law requires good judgment and in this case it’s hard to see how the state bureaucracy is applying good judgment. Are we next going to outlaw pot-luck dinners because its unfair to the catering business?