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I've been at turns horrified and riveted by some of the news coming out of the California wine country. Nobody's exactly sure how the fires started, but one of the largest grape farms in the country has suffered almost complete destruction.

After taking the wine world by storm, wine country in California has settled in as an economic powerhouse in a state that already boasts one of the world's largest economies. Their success has inspired many, many copycat attempts all throughout the country. Tennessee wine, though, has not exactly become a household name, although many admit, if grudgingly, that California wines are some of the best.

The specific vineyard in question grows (grew?) zinfandel grapes for some of the biggest brands of California wine, and I gather that the total economic loss is expected to be many times the value of the crops themselves. Much like whisky, which is distilled in a relatively few places and then blended, marked up, marketed, relabeled, and sold under many different names, wine is rarely these days grown, fermented, and aged in the same place or by the same company.

Tens of thousands of blenders and retailers will have to either change their lines or put them on hold, and the volume alone is apparently a significant amount of the zinfandel available for the year. Some have said that the ripple effect might stretch into the billions, after everything is accounted for, with consumers ultimately spending less on unfamiliar labels or being turned off by unannounced changes to familiar ones.

And although the economic losses are the focus of most of the talking heads and industry analysts, at the center of it is the vineyard's disgraceful behavior surrounding the death of a worker during their initial attempts to control the fire, and I'm surprised it's not getting more attention nationally.

A little background: landslides in the area have clogged the roadways for weeks, and firefighters were unable to make it past either a turn or a curve (reporting is contradictory on many of the small details), with some saying the trucks and engines were in fact bogged down by the churning morass of scenic country roads after early hard rains

Worried about the delay and fearing for the crops, some of the supervisors at the vineyard apparently sent as many workers as they could find to go dig trenches with makeshift shovels and planks of wood, and run garden hoses and irrigation drippers to try to contain the spreading blaze.

The kicker: They only sent illegals out into the dangerous areas, while visa holders and American citizens were told to stay out of the most dangerous areas.

There were several injuries, mostly smoke inhalation, and one fatality.

A large section of trellis collapsed on one man and pinned him down, beyond help. The other workers, without any kind of protective gear, couldn't breach the flames to pull him out, and by the time the fire department arrived it was far too late. In fact, most of the fires had simply burned out.

Surprisingly, even in the socially conscious climes of California, protesters have been fairly thin on the ground. In fact, there has been what seems to be an unopposed and disproportionate backlash against the few people protesting the exploitation of illegal workers.

The protesters make an excellent point - immigration reform is necessary to protect illegals from exactly this kind of hazard, since they are by nature of their illegal status vulnerable to exploitation. Such as being ordered to run into an inferno with no training or protective gear, at the risk of either being fired or deported summarily after a stay in ICE holding pens.

But, despite the powerful message, the protests are relatively meek. However, the typical rhetoric of California conservatives is out in force. "They chose to do it" and "Nobody was holding a gun to their head saying run into that fire" and whatever else they can drudge out of the pseudo-Libertarian handbook. Again, a total emphasis on the economic argument from people desperate to ignore the facts of the situation.

Not much comfort to the family and coworkers of the dead man - Jesus Hernandez, who had been working illegally at the same vineyard for three years.

The small communities surrounding the vineyards have been galvanized by the event. Despite being beholden to cheap labor for their record profits year after year, many are resentful for reasons they can't always justify with hard personal experience.

And in the case of the man who died trying to protect their crops, so very few of them are thankful for Jesus' sacrifice: that he died for their zins.


"The Aristocrats!"

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