When asked what kind of wine Cesar Chavez liked to drink, his former advisor and speech writer, Marc Grossman, replies that a “hearty red” was his preferred drop, though the Mexican-American civil rights activist and labor organizer wasn’t much of a drinker. But many of his followers may not be aware that the success tasted by Chavez and his United Farm Workers in the 1960s was intricately linked with the wine industry.
As Americans mark the anniversary of his death on April 23, 1993, many will recall the table-grape and lettuce boycotts for workers' rights in the late '60s and early '70s, and Chavez's later battle to protect farm workers against the effects of pesticides in the 1980s.
Chavez's relationship with wine, says Grossman, “tends to get the short shrift. Not many people realize that the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) first victory in April of 1966 . . . was with Schenley."
In the midst of what was called the Great Delano Grape Strike, wine and spirits company Schenley Industries agreed to negotiate with the UFW after a nationwide boycott of their products was called. The result was the signing of the first-ever labor contract between growers and field workers in the United States. (Schenley was bought by Guinness in 1987.)
That year – 1966 – Chavez and his allies were also successful with a field strike and boycott of Perelli Minetti at their Delano winery, because of what Chavez called a “backdoor deal” with the Teamsters union. Around the same time, farm workers negotiated UFW contracts with Christian Brothers Winery and Almaden Vineyards.
Then, in the 1970s, Chavez came face to face with the biggest landowner in Napa and Sonoma wine country: E. & J. Gallo. On March 2, 1975, The New York Times reported that 10,000 protesters had arrived at the Gallo winery in Modesto, California, after a 110-mile march in support of a UFW boycott of Gallo wine. At the time, Gallo made almost one in three bottles of wine produced in the United States.
Gallo had been one of the first growers in California to sign with the UFW a year earlier, but had then dropped the union in favor of the Teamsters. Chavez described it as a “sweetheart deal,” and fought to reinstate UFW representation.
"This should make it clear to Gallo that we're not going away," Chavez was quoted as saying. He went on to tell the media that more than 100 liquor store owners had removed Gallo wine from their shelves in Los Angeles. With the UFW eventually triumphant, Grossman observes: "Gallo tastes a lot sweeter today."
Tensions between Gallo and the UFW have continued to surface over the past decade, but the union has been successful in gaining representation of workers in a small part of the wine industry in Sonoma, Napa and southern Monterey County, as well as the sizable Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington State.
In March 2008, just before what would have been Cesar Chavez’s 81st birthday, the UFW decided to make some wine of its own.
Black Eagle Wines launched with a 2007 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2000 Merlot, sourced from “a very respected old-time Napa Valley winery” that had been unionized for decades, says Grossman, who is currently communications director of the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
“Our primary market for this is the young Latino professional,” Joaquin Ross, Black Eagle Wines president, told The Californian in 2009. "The young doctor or lawyer whose parents may have been farm workers themselves.”
The wines were served at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And though the wine label didn’t survive (a victim of the recession, says Grossman), the UFW still has cases in storage, and continues to serve them at official gatherings and dinners.
A part of Chavez's legacy that promises to endure perhaps longer than the cellared wines is his "Si Se Puede!" (Yes we can!) slogan, which was commandeered by Barack Obama's 2008 electoral campaign.
Immigrants' rights activists have also taken up the battle cry and are sure to be chanting it on the 19th anniversary of Cesar Chavez's death. April 23 is also the two-year anniversary of controversial immigration legislation in Arizona giving police the power to question people's immigration status and to detain suspected illegal immigrants. The Obama administration is among the law's opponents as it is called back to the Supreme Court for review. Odds-on that if Chavez were alive, he would be fighting it too.