Lisa Strid on Creating a Queer Space for Wine

I really love wine, so when a co-worker mentioned her friend Lisa Strid—a queer, critical-of-capitalism winemaker—I jumped at the opportunity to connect. The night of our interview, Lisa had to taste through her workplace’s wine portfolio for an upcoming presentation, and she generously offered me samples as we talked. Between sips of (delicious!) skin-contact muscat and montepulciano, Lisa spoke about the industry’s lack of inclusion and diversity; the intersections between wine and immigration policy; and her dreams of starting a queer, non-profit winery and tasting room.

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Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into winemaking?

Oh yeah, sure. I’m originally from Wyoming and wine making wasn’t the first thing I tried to do with my life. As you can imagine, Wyoming’s not really a renowned wine growing state, so--

Are there people growing wine there?

Yeah, there are, actually. There’s probably more at this point but ten years ago there was this guy who had a family farm who just decided, “I think we could probably do it here.” They’re called Table Mountain Vineyards and they just started growing grapes on the farm and there’s something unique about the little pocket that they’re in that it doesn’t get so cold that the grapes freeze and die in the winter.

Weirdly, I knew about them before I got into this, but I never really--I don’t know, I just never thought that wine was something that individuals made. It just never really clicked with me. I drank plenty of it and just never thought about, “Where does this come from?” I knew it was grapes, but that’s about the extent of it. Actually, I think I wrote about that winery when I was working at a publication for the Wyoming Rural Electric Association. That publication--the recession hit and we lost all this ad revenue and so one person was fired and then I was fired. I had no clue what I was gonna do with myself at that point. I was really burned out from writing articles about things that I didn’t really care about. I was like, “I’m gonna go find something else to do, somewhere else to live.”

I wound up in Portland. My uncle has a vineyard in Washington not too far from the Oregon border. I didn’t know anybody in Portland, I don’t know really why I chose it--in large part I think because he worked there and I knew him. I wound up going up to his farm and working with him on his vineyard on weekends and then a lot of the time. At some point it kind of clicked for me that, “Oh! This is something that people do and get paid for. It’s a job. Oh, okay.” So I was like, “Yeah I’ll do this!” I had no idea what I was really getting myself into but I went back to school for it and worked my first commercial vintage. I really hated the winemaker, but once I was done with it I was like, “I want to do this again.” I really liked the work. I just kept doing it, and that’s how I wound up in winemaking.

Wine is often seen as a luxury beverage--if it’s not the giant box wine you get for seven dollars that gives you a headache--especially in the US. Why do you think this is the case?

Well, you know--I think there’s a number of reasons for that.

First of all, we’re not a nation that has a wine drinking culture, so it’s not a super common occurrence for a family to sit down to a meal and have wine.  I think it’s coming along but it’s just not a part of our American DNA per se. That’s a broad generalization, of course, but things like prohibition really didn’t help with any sort of wine drinking culture.

To some extent it is an everyday sort of luxury. It’s a luxury that you can afford, for the most part. Certainly not all bottles but there is a wine for just about every budget.

Are you talking about a prestige, sort of?

Yeah. The idea of wine as this fancy thing. Which is interesting because in other parts of the world it’s not at all.

Well, I mean that’s because the American media and the wineries really want us to view it as a luxury item, because it’s all part of the mystique of the wine to build up its bucolic image. The lone farmer tending the vines, making the wine by hand. There’s very much the sense that it’s a handcrafted beverage. There’s this bucolic sentimentality about it that, if you break that down--in some ways it is [handcrafted]--but it’s also built on a lot of hard work and unseen labor. Primarily, in the vineyard, it’s generally immigrants, brown people. And of course it’s all on stolen land and some of this land has very fragile ecosystems. [The wine industry doesn’t] want you piercing through that veil to really deal with, like, “Okay, well what does it mean that these vineyard workers aren’t paid enough to live in the area that they work and they have to be bussed in two plus hours?”

Is that common?

In Napa it’s really common right now. And there’s a major worker shortage, because people can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work and also because of our border situation in the United States. Why risk it?

And it’s backbreaking work. It’s really hard work in the vineyard. There’s a lot of repetitive movement--you’re pruning things all day long, and when you’re pruning, positioning vines, getting down really low and removing shoots from the base of the plant. There’s a lot of maintenance that goes into producing a premium bottle of wine. To some extent, there are parts of that process that can be mechanized, but there are other parts that just have to be done by a human.

I’m curious about the overlap between immigration policy and wine work. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about that.

It’s been an ongoing issue in the wine industry for a number of years. The US is the butt of jokes in other wine growing countries because of it. The French and the Australians are like, “Well, we don’t have a Mexico so, that’s why we mechanize.” They’re well aware that the US has been capitalizing on a migrant labor force for many, many years. And in Europe there are more worker protections, so it’s become too prohibitively expensive to have people do the jobs. A huge amount of vineyard technology has been developed in Europe solely because of this.  And here, we’re seeing less of an influx of migrant labor, because of the cruel border policies that have been enacted, so that affects specialty crop harvests, including wine grapes. Additionally, people aren’t paid enough to do this sort of work and with the legalization of marijuana in California—I don’t know, you tell me what kind of work you’d rather do. It’s a lot more physical labor to be in the vineyard and it’s--there’s ways to bring people from Mexico legally, there’s a program called the H2A visa program and I don’t know the exact status of it right now but it’s being reviewed and will possibly be changed in Congress to the H2C visa program. But part of the requirements of that program are that the employer has to provide housing and transportation for the workers. There are multiple accounts of abysmal housing situations [under H2A].

So they’re technically providing housing, but it’s subpar?

Yeah, yeah. Obviously some places are better than others. But last year workers in Washington went on strike because of poor housing conditions and part of the settlement that they negotiated was they didn’t want retaliation, and yet none of them were hired back this year. I don’t know what you call that, but it sounds like retaliation to me.

Then the revisions that are proposed [to the visa program] would remove some of these requirements that employers have to adhere to—they’d no longer have to provide housing or transportation to the job site, it would reduce the minimum work guarantee, and would effectively cut worker wages by up to $2 per hour in some places. So removing even more worker protections. It does extend the amount of time that a worker can stay in the US, but that’s really more to the employer’s benefit than the employee’s.

The perspective you always get is, “Oh, it’s so expensive for an employer to bring people because even paying for the application is like $2000.” But you’re bringing people here to make you money so you have to expect to pay for that to some extent. And part of the stipulations are also that you can’t hire foreign workers if there are people in the US willing to do the work. A few years ago, in North Carolina, there were over 6,000 jobs that needed to be filled in farming and every US citizen that applied was hired, but only seven of them lasted the season. This rhetoric that immigrants are taking jobs--everyone knows that this is false but patently, here’s proof. Literally you can’t bring people in on this visa unless you can’t find US citizens to do the work. And even if you try, you can’t find US citizens who will do it.

Anyway, yeah, that’s what’s happening in the wine industry. It’s a pressing issue because guess what, if you can’t get people to pick the grapes then you can’t make a prestigious wine. These are time sensitive tasks that need to happen, when the grapes are ready to come in they need to come in.

I don’t feel like my thoughts are fully formed on it, but I’m thinking about the ways that there are these societal expectations that people coming from Mexico or Central America are just coming to do this underpaid, back breaking work in the fields.

Yeah. I mean, the demographic split is really stark in the wine industry. Mexicans and Central Americans, you see them out in the fields.

But they’re not getting jobs making the wine or managing the wine or whatever?

Yeah. I worked at a larger winery and there was one guy who was on the winemaking team while I was there that was Latino. He had been in the same position for like six years. This was a position where people would be promoted after a year and a half, two years. The reason they kept giving him was, “Oh, you know, you haven’t finished your college degree yet.” And he had a few classes to go but he was working full time at a winery doing the same work as everybody and this was the reason that they would never promote them. I was like, “For fuck’s sake, the guy knows this job in and out better than half of the assistant winemakers, he should have been a winemaker at that level.” Yet he wasn’t. And I worked with one guy who was a complete idiot, and was promoted in like eighteen months. It was only because he was affable--because he was nice. He was tall and white, too. I don’t know, good luck with that, promote him all you want but you’re not gonna get better results out of him.

It was frustrating to watch things like that happen. It’s like the cards are even stacked against you if you get to that level. I mean, it’s nothing new, everybody knows this and it happens in every industry.

That leads to my next question. I was looking at the interview that you sent me. You were talking about wanting to see a greater diversity of folks in the wine industry, which is pretty male and pretty white. Why do you think the shift is important?

There’s a lot that’s been said about women in the wine industry. The number of women that are winemakers--the percentage is ridiculously low, I think it’s something like eleven percent in the US. I think it’s highest in Santa Barbara with, like, sixteen percent. I might be wrong about those numbers but it’s really, really low and yet, the vast majority of wine buyers are women. So, it seems like perhaps you might want somebody who identifies as a woman to--

Make the wine that women are buying?

Yeah. You see these marketing efforts to reach women fall flat constantly. The one that comes to mind right now--it’s not wine, it’s whiskey. They came out with a Jane Walker whiskey because why would women want to drink Johnny Walker? It’s like, “Oh, thank God, finally, a whiskey for me!”

Wine is just so terrible in terms of--yeah, I mean even the women that are in it, most of the women that are actually winemakers are white.

I remember sitting through meetings where we’d be getting these statistics: “Latino drinkers are on the rise, so we’re gonna market a sangria to them.” It’s like, “Really, that’s the best you could come up with? A sangria?”

A drink that’s from Spain!

Yeah, ugh. Lots of people like sangria but can we maybe get somebody who is a member of this community in here to speak to what they’re seeing? It just seems obvious. There’s no lack of people that are training for these positions. If you look at the university level it tends to be a representative sort of swathe of what the American public looks like, and yet it’s still just white men at the upper echelons. If you bring people into the room that have studied [wine] and have their own unique experiences and belong to communities that you want to reach, then my god you’ll--just seems like we’re in the business of capitalism here with wine and if you want to make money, I don’t know, it seems simple that that’s how you do it. You find out what people want to buy. Not that I’m a big proponent of “Let’s go capitalism” but, I mean …

It seems logical if you’re trying to make a bunch of money.

Yeah, yeah. It’s just stupid. It’s just so short sighted.

When I was working at a larger place and we would have tastings with all the winemakers you’d see whose voices were prioritized in the room while smelling and tasting. “Oh, is it another white guy? Yes it is.” Not that there was a lot of choice in terms of whose voices could be heard in that room.

I guess you mentioned the wine strike that happened in Washington, which I wanted to learn more about.

That was actually in an apple orchard.

Oh, it was an apple orchard.

Yeah, but I mean--

Similar kind of.

Yeah. Same visa, you know? I’d hope that the wine industry tries to do right by its workers but I can’t say that they do. I think there’s at least kind of an awareness in the really high end regions--Napa, Sonoma--that it’s a workforce they need. So, you kind of have to do what you can to insure that you can get people to come and work for you.

I need to look into this more, but there’s a cooperative hiring thing that’s been happening. Vineyard workers generally want to work about ten hours, so if they’re working in a sort of cooperative with a couple of different wineries, if they end up finishing their work in eight hours there’s the potential to go and work at a different or vineyard for the rest of the day to fill out the rest of the hours. I don’t know if this has caught on, but I remember reading about it. It seems like a way to make sure that people do get their hours but at the same time I don’t necessarily know that it’s better for workers.

Do you know of any moments in the wine industry or wine history where there has been some really interesting, badass stuff going on?

There’s some rad shit going on in southern France right now. There’s a group of--they’re branded in the press as winemaker terrorists--that are doing things like if a tanker of Spanish wine comes across the border they’ll stop it and open all the valves on the truck and dump all the wine. They’ve dynamited government offices, because they view what’s been happening in terms of French legislation as really leaving them behind and not promoting the products of France. And also misleading the public because the labels that would be put on a Spanish wine would not necessarily lead a consumer to realize that it’s not a French wine, it’s not a French product. They really see it as the government leaving them in the dust and they’re fighting back, literally. I mean, nobody’s been hurt, it’s just a group of radical winemakers who are just like, “Nope.”

And they get in the news for it--I mean, they get in the US news for it. So good on them.

It seems like they’re getting their narrative out!

Yeah, yeah. They really are branded as hooligans but I kind of don’t read them that way. Their country is a major wine drinking country, so why should they necessarily be bringing in cheap Spanish wine in order to pass it off as something potentially French? And this is an area where a lot of growers are producing relatively cheap bulk wine. There are a lot of producers that are doing interesting niche stuff down there as well but, yeah.

What’s your favorite wine?

I really, really love riesling, and I really love German Rieslings, particularly from the Mosel region, especially the Saar tributary of Mosel because it’s really marginal. German Rieslings have a really clear purity of fruit flavor and they can age for so long and just get better and better.

Do you have a favorite wine to make?

I really like making Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec. I like making Sauvignon Blanc because they’re the first grapes that come into the winery in the season, so we really have the time and the flexibility to do a bunch of different things and coax a bunch of different flavors out of the same grapes, so that makes it really fun to make and really fun to blend with.

Because you can do it before everything else comes in and you’re in crunch time?

Yeah, yeah totally.

And I really like Malbec because I like that it’s a grape that you don’t have to try too hard to get color from, which is something that can be trickier with some of the other varieties. And if you treat it just right, it can produce just the most stunning wines, really complex. It’s a really satisfying one to make.

What are your dreams and aspirations as a winemaker?

I’d really like to start a non-profit winery and tasting room that’s an explicitly queer space.  It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, because I decided to purchase some grapes and make some wine of my own this year, so I’ll eventually have to sell it, and that creates the opportunity to open something that is the kind of space that I wish existed in the wine world. I know we’d be selling wine, but something as anti-capitalist as possible, where the workers area all paid a living wage and have health benefits, everyone’s trans or queer, not 100% white, and decisions are made collectively. I wouldn’t even want to be running it, just to be the person who makes the wine.  I’m still in the early stages of just getting the ball rolling, so we’ll see how it develops, but I really want to create a place for people who haven’t had access to these kinds of jobs in the wine industry.

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How To Choose a Good (for you) Bottle of Wine:

If you’ve ever purchased a bottle of wine, you probably know that the experience can be overwhelming. Wine is the rare product that you’re being asked to purchase without knowing what it is that you’re getting, and there are so many wineries out there that it’s impossible to know every one. Add in vintage variation—the fact that the 2016 tastes different from the 2017—and it goes from confusing to exponentially confusing.  But really, there are only a few things you need to know when going to pick out a bottle of wine – your price point, a willingness to have a conversation, and some of your personal taste preferences.

I recommend going to a shop that either specializes in wines, or has a dedicated staff member in the wine section, because these people are invaluable in that they actually know what the wines they stock taste like. Find that person when you go in, and say (for example), “I’m looking for a wine that has tropical fruit flavors that’s under $20.” The person who is helping you can ask a few more questions and easily show you a couple of options and tell you, “this one taste like passionfruit, but this one tastes like mango,” to help you narrow it down.  When I worked in wine retail, I loved chatting with people looking for wine, getting to know the things they liked, and I could usually remember the wines that they purchased. If you take the time to chat a bit with the salesperson, and give them feedback on how you liked the wine when you come back in, they’ll be able to hone in a bit on your preferences and point you to new bottles and good values. It’s good to know your local wine salespeople.

If you can, go to a tasting. A lot of shops these days will pop a few bottles on the weekend and let you sample. Nothing like trying before you buy.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable talking about price when buying wine, but as someone who drinks across a wide swath of price points, I can say that there are good and bad wines all across the board.  One of my favorites at the moment is only $9—it completely outshines much more expensive bottles. If you lead with the amount you want to spend, you make it easy for a salesperson to take you to the best wines in your price range, and you don’t have to deal with the pressure of trying to stick to your budget when the $60 bottle that’s been talked up sounds so amazing.

Finally, don’t let anybody shame you, or talk you into something other than what you want when buying wine. There are plenty of bottles out there that will bring you pleasure, so don’t spend your money on something if you feel at all uncomfortable with the situation.