Monday, July 19, 2010

One Romance (22)

“It’s Catawba, Nick. You aren’t going to get rich on it.”

This was the advice Nick was given by his neighbor after he balked at the price per ton that the large winery in Canandaigua offered: $300.

“I know, Danny, but how do you guys make a living on that kind of price?”

Danny laughed so hard it scared Nick. He thought maybe the man was touched!

“Nick, you should make wine and stop growing grapes. You don’t have the heart for it. Grape growing is the one business where you buy all your supplies and equipment at retail, and you sell your produce at wholesale. It’s been like that for some time now. In the old days, when Taylor was a big national winery we made money. But as you can see, I’m still driving my 1960s Mercedes.

Anyway, do you want me to tell the grape buyer over there that you are in with three acres at about, what, 18 tons?”

“Yeah, I’m in. Gotta get rid of them somehow. Take a look at them. Do you think I’ve got about 6 tons an acre there?”

“Without a doubt.”

Nick had that conversation in mid September. By late September, he had received a phone call that picking was scheduled three days from then. He was incredulous.

“Danny, they are like peas out there.”

“C’mon, Nick. I’ve seen ‘em. They have some color.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m talking about their firmness. They simply aren’t mature.”

“They doan need no mature grapes. They need grapes for acid and so that they can use the word “grape” on the label. They make up for no juice with water and sugar. You know, this stuff doesn’t go into the kind of wine you drink every day. It goes into someone’s back pocket…”

There was that laugh again, that fell between a howl and a growl. It wasn’t the last time Nick would hear that laugh from a local grower. Over the past few years, they had fine-tuned sarcasm and black humor concerning their fate. Some of them have pulled up stakes; some have started their own little wineries; the rest of them laugh sardonically and keep the bill collectors at bay.

The crew showed up just before dawn. Nick heard them coming in the distance, the quiet, steady groan of a few tractors, one that was connected to the mechanical harvester and two others trailed by wagons with one-ton bins in them. He looked out the window in their direction and saw what appeared like a large insect with bright beams for eyes bouncing its way into the vineyard road. He put on his boots and gloves and went out to start his tractor.

“Now, here’s how we do this,” Danny told him.

“I’ll set the harvester at the end of the row. My guys here will drive a tractor on either side with the bins in them. You will ride on one of the tractor wagons and my son over there will ride on the other. Your job is to clear the bins of debris—you know, dead birds, pieces of wire, whatever ain’t grapes. Don’t worry about the way the grapes look—they suck anyway.”

After about an hour or so into it, Nick was enjoying the work and especially the camaraderie. He had been working for so long all by himself that he missed talking to co-workers. Talking to tourists was not the same, and not nearly as pleasurable.

Unfortunately, for Nick, three acres of mechanical harvesting goes rather quickly, especially when nothing goes wrong—and nothing went wrong. The grapes were picked, the bins were loaded onto a truck, and everyone was gone well before noon. Danny would get back to Nick in a day or so with the full tonnage and a check for $300 each ton, less the picking fee.

Nick’s phone rang early the next morning.

“Hey, Nick, it’s Danny.”

“That was fast. I expected to hear from you tomorrow or the day after.”

“Yeah, well, the news ain’t good. When I got the grapes to Canandaigua I was told that they over purchased and didn’t need all that I was able to bring them…”

Nick cut in.

“Huh? I have no market for those grapes and I have no way to take them back…”

“Relax, relax. They took the grapes, but they gave me less money for them.”

“Is this some kind of scam, Danny?”

“Oh, I know how it looks and I wondered how the hell I was going to break this news to you. But we all were forced to take $250 a ton instead of the promised $300. This is the way these big guys deal with us now. In the old days, Taylor would never have dreamed up such a scheme. Tell you the truth, this may be my last year at this.”

“Well, it certainly is my last year growing Catawba. Have you got the check? How many tons did I come in at?”

“Yours was as I expected, just over 18 tons. The check will be issued today and I will go get it. They are paying me for the whole lot because they have no contract with you. I’ll pay you out of my bank.”

“OK, Danny. Thanks for the call.”

“Hey, Nick. Don’t take it too hard. Chalk it up as a lesson: the money is not in the vineyard; it’s in the bottle.”

Nick sat down to eat breakfast and for the first time that he could remember, he didn’t feel like eating anything. He felt like strangling the grape buyer at the winery, Danny, and himself, as all were complicit in how terrible he felt just then—and just then, the phone rang.

“Nick, it’s Fred.”

Fred was Nick’s longest standing friend—they met in the fourth grade. He was coming up from “the city” for a visit.

Nick couldn’t have gotten better news.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2010. All rights reserved.

4 comments:

Arthur Esteban Franciso Maria Conchita Alonzo Conception de Corazon de Jesus de la Vina Przebinda, MD, PhD, PDQ, ret. said...

"Grape growing is the one business where you buy all your supplies and equipment at retail, and you sell your produce at wholesale."

In the grocery business, produce tends to be a firm loss leader.

What is it about the value of agricultural products of all types being undervalued - well except maybe cannabis ......

Thomas said...

Well Arturo,

We call it market capitalism:
when farm production is increased through chemistry and then big companies take over the farmland, apply for taxpayer subsidies, add sugar, salt, and more chemicals and then package the products so that both the per-pound nutrition and cost are cut in half.

It makes real food seem expensive and real farmers seem like crooks, and so the market punishes them by making farm products a commodity, which forces farmers to accept prices paid by buyers rather than develop the prices they need in order to stay alive.

In addition, the federal govt. does not consider wine grapes an agricultural crop in the same league as, say, corn, which is a nutrition stealer, both form the earth and from those who try to live on it.

Marcia Macomber said...

The state of the agricultural economy (subsidized veggies, grains, etc. AND non-subsidized grapes, etc.) never ceases to amaze me in its backwards-ness.

Growers work their fannies off to get paid a pittance. Corporations make tons of money they don't deserve just 'cuz they know how to work the system.

Let's hope Fred brings better news during his visit....

Thomas said...

Fred's a true friend--you'll see.