At Home & At Work in Wine Country - Wine & Spirits Magazine

At Home & At Work in Wine Country

Seasonal workers settle into the wine community as year-round vineyard staff.

The recent fires on California’s North Coast have shone a light on a growing problem for the wine industry: a shortage of affordable housing. The massive increase in wine tourism, as well as an accompanying increase in vacation rentals and second homes in one of the country’s most prestigious destinations has meant a significant increase in the local population. Wine tourism and an influx of wealthy residents have built demand for more service and hospitality workers. As those workers have moved in, it’s become harder for agricultural workers to find homes.

“People with the specific skills needed to do what we do in vineyards in Napa Valley outpace temporary labor that isn’t regularly focused on those tasks.” —Oscar Renteria
In 2015, Karissa Kruse, who serves as president of the Sonoma County Wine Growers, set out to revamp the group’s mission, focusing on sustainable conditions for the county’s agricultural workers. To better understand the challenges, the group initiated a community study.  They found that key issues included workforce development, education, healthcare, childcare and affordable housing.

“We realized that addressing these issues wasn’t something vintners could tackle on their own,” Kruse says. So SCWG invited political leaders and community groups throughout Sonoma County to help design the new sustainability program. The response was unprecedented. “We had 49 community organizations and 89 people show up to help us plan,” Kruse says.

The group launched a pilot program to create architectural plans for dorm-style housing and get fast-track permitting from the county. The goal is to make the plans available for free to anyone who wants to build near their vineyard, along with an expedited permitting process. The group was close to finalizing the permitting process when the wildfires hit in October 2017; now they’ve shifted to handling urgent needs for those impacted by the fires, and the county has put a hold on all nonemergency permitting as they reassess where it is safe to build.

In the midst of dealing with the loss of her own home to the fires, Kruse helped displaced families find housing. She looked back over a survey she’d taken before the fires that tracked available employee housing and discovered some placements from that research. The SCWG also raised funds to help agricultural workers who’d lost income during what is usually their peak season and were threatened with eviction. And they raised funds to purchase RVs.

“An RV is not an amazing long-term solution,” says Kruse. “But in the midst of winter weather, if you need a roof over your head, here is a place to go.”

For the region, the fires were simply part of a larger reckoning that sustainability of the nation’s most prestigious wine industry depends on supporting the people who do the work.

The North Coast employs the highest concentration of vineyard laborers in the nation, with well over 10,000 agricultural workers in Napa and Sonoma. But the skilled farming needed to make the region’s wine depends on a trained labor force.

“People with the high-level specific skills needed to do what we do in vineyards in Napa Valley outpace temporary labor that isn’t regularly focused on those tasks,” says Oscar Renteria, a director for the Napa Community Foundation and owner of Renteria Vineyard Management.

Renteria has found that, while temporary employees cost less per person, the long-term cost is significant. Without regular experience, Renteria says, “they were slower in the vineyard, and needed additional training. It cost me twenty percent more in both production and labor costs.” He’s moved to year-round employees now.

Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley has also made the change. “We are directly farming 175 acres with a vineyard team of 23 people,” Frog’s Leap vineyard manager Rory Williams says. “That’s not a huge team to get all that work done.  We don’t bulk up come leafing or suckering. It takes a lot of planning to make sure we get the work done in a timely fashion and don’t have to push or stress.” The approach, Williams explains, can be challenging, but means greater intimacy with every block, and so higher-quality farming.

To retain talented employees, both Renteria and Williams increased pay rates. At Frog’s Leap, vineyard, garden, cellar and office staff are now on the same benefits, overtime and paid-vacation programs. The only differences depend on how long a person has worked for the winery. By effectively leveling the status of employees, workers from one aspect of the winery can help out in any other without worrying someone else is getting paid more for their work. It helps in busy stretches and has fostered a stronger sense of community as well.

Renteria offers support for professional training and for learning English; his company also helps fund staff efforts to gain citizenship—since 2015, nine of his employees have become US citizens. Renteria’s and Williams’s efforts are uncommon in the industry, but the success of their businesses has begun to influence other employers as well.

In Sonoma, Kruse’s group is developing training to help even the newest vineyard employee excel.

“There is a gap in teaching those soft skills of conflict resolution or communication needed to advance,” Kruse says, “so we are creating a leadership workshop to teach those skills.” As with the affordable housing program, the plan had been to start early in 2018. It, too, is now on hold.

This story was featured in W&S February 2018.

Based in Sonoma, Elaine Chukan Brown serves as the American specialist for Their work also appears in World of Fine Wine, the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine and on their own site, Prior to writing about wine, Chukan Brown was a philosophy professor specializing in ethics and social politics.

This story appears in the print issue of February 2018.
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