Napa’s Worker Squeeze Tightens

Great reason to stop the growth in tourism, event centers, water mining by big wine, industrialization of our rural neighborhoods, living wages and treatment of laborers.

Tougher rules around immigrant labor could see a hike in wine prices in California’s wine heartland.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Saturday, 13-May-2017

Compared to other farm regions, economically Napa Valley is, in the words of Ronald Reagan, a shining city on a hill. But it’s not immune to the worker shortages troubling California agriculture, and it also has unique labor problems of its own.

Vineyard workers are not the only Napa Valley employees in short supply: it’s difficult to find enough workers locally to staff offices, laboratories, tasting rooms, you name it. But getting people to tend grapevines has become such a struggle that recruiting sounds like a spy mission.

Related stories:
Immigration Poses Questions for Napa
Hand Harvesting’s Rage Against the Machines
Sonoma Not All Sunshine for Vineyard Workers

The foremost problem, as everywhere in the US right now, is the threat of deportation. Nearly all vineyard workers are Mexican or Mexican-American. It is an enormous distinction – there might soon literally be a wall between the two – but the fact is that US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) said this week that of California‘s estimated 560,000 farmworkers, 70 percent are in the country without authorization, and even many who are citizens have relatives in the country who are not.

“Our employees are very nervous about their families, their children,” said Oscar Renteria, owner of Renteria Vineyard Management. “There’s always news about ICE and raids, even in Napa. There’s a tremendous amount of fear that exists in the migrant community. Especially here, in Napa Valley. They’re always been a certain fear but it’s in the forefront now.”

Renteria says he normally employs about 450 workers to tend the many vineyards that he manages, but right now he has only 390, yet he’s better situated than most. “We’re getting a lot of calls from people we don’t usually do work for who are looking for people to help,” Renteria said. “This is early for those calls.”

Renteria has raised the minimum wage he pays to $16 an hour, up from $15 last year and $12 three years ago. However, marijuana growers in nearby counties pay unskilled workers as much as $35 an hour, in cash, to trim buds, according to PlumpJack Winery general manager John Conover. And vineyard workers who speak English also have a choice of higher-paying jobs in the construction industry.

“We lost seven good employees who know how to operate machinery,” Renteria said.

A solution in most agricultural industries is to mechanize as much as possible. Even in neighboring Sonoma County, that was an unwelcome conclusion by the main speaker at a wine industry conference last month. Sonoma County is more distant from California’s main population of unskilled workers than Napa, charges less for its wines, and is having even greater problems lining up vineyard staff.

Napa winemakers are resistant to mechanical harvesting not just for reasons of quality, though those should not be minimized.

“Wine that is really about the vineyard, as opposed to a manufactured product, requires a great deal of care in the vineyard,” says Chris Howell, general manager and winemaker of Cain Vineyard. “Tending the vines throughout the growing season – pruning, suckering, shoot-positioning, cluster-thinning – these are all part of the manual craft of fine winegrowing that have not yet been, and are not likely to be, replaced by machines.”

Hilly terrain makes much of Napa unsuited to machine harvesting.

© Hafner Vineyards | Hilly terrain makes much of Napa unsuited to machine harvesting.Even if a Napa winery wants to bring in the robots, many of the county’s most-prized vineyards are on hills where it’s technically difficult to do anything but hand-harvest.

“We are all hillside,” Steve Burgess, president of Burgess Cellars, told Wine-Searcher. “There is no way to replace human labor in the vineyard, so if things got real bad, I figure some compromises would have to be made. Less weeding, less timely canopy management, etc.”

Renteria said he’s hiring a lot more women: a third of his workforce now, up from 10 percent three years ago.

“They work really meticulously in the handwork. And at good speed,” Renteria said. “They’ve always been there but I think they weren’t given the same opportunity. The work can be hard and I think the mindset was just to give the job to a man. But now, it’s like during wartime.”

He said he finds most of his workers, male and female, in Lake County, just north of Napa County, instead of the central valley heartland around Stockton and Fresno.

“We go to places where they congregate. Usually they congregate in churches, or in parks,” Renteria said. “There’s Mexican markets, especially on Sundays, a lot of candidates there. We solicit at churches. We go to laundromats.”

Lake County makes sense because the commute to northern Napa Valley and the county’s most prized vineyards is shorter. That commute is an issue for everyone, not just manual laborers. Though it’s a farm region, it’s not full of farmhouses. Housing prices in rural areas are similar to the most expensive mansions in the nation. Office workers, tasting-room staff, lab technicians, you name it – most of them have to commute.

“Word is, 60 percent of the homes in Saint Helena are weekend vacation properties, meaning, labor can’t live in 60 percent of the homes here,” Burgess said. “They have to commute on two-lane roads with bad intersections, dangerous curves, and many miles. People have to ask themselves if it’s worth it.”

Burgess says that the explosion of small brands, many making only 1000 cases of $300 wine but with a full complement of office and support staff, has led to what an economist might call inefficiencies of scale. People commute to Napa Valley for jobs like they commute to big urban centers like San Francisco.

“When we started in 1972, there were only two dozen wineries in the Napa Valley,” Burgess said. “With the advent of hobby and vanity wineries from the 1990s to now, the number of wineries and the staff to operate them has skyrocketed, yet the overall production of the Napa Valley has only risen slowly.”

Quality and image are the main reasons Napa Valley wines are so expensive. But Conover points out that vineyard sales for hundreds of millions of dollars put pressure on even unrelated wines by driving up the price of grapes. And labor costs are now another significant pressure: you can’t raise wages by one-third in three years, as Renteria has, without driving up prices.

“Ultimately, yes, it will drive price increases,” said Bob Knebel, COO of Rombauer Vineyards, which contracts with Renteria. “We along with virtually every other winery we’ve talked to is going to have to take some price increases with the next vintage.”

Burgess worries that Napa is pricing itself out of the market. “With millennials seeking value, will they buy Napa Valley wines?” he asked. It truly is a first-world problem.