Under a clear blue sky, Cecilia Méndez is the model of efficiency as she picks grapes and supervises her crew at the Oat Valley Vineyard at Cooley Ranch just north of Cloverdale.
In her hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, she swiftly cuts away clusters of carignane grapes that will ultimately go into a red blend made by Windsor Vineyards. And as a forewoman, Méndez keeps her eyes on her 10-person crew, made up mostly of women, while they work through the 10-acre plot.
The 44-year-old Santa Rosa mother of three is part air-traffic controller as she rises at 4 a.m. to make sure her crew will be at the vineyard and coordinate their rides; part maternal figure as she helps recruit other women for the work and shows them the ropes, and part no-nonsense referee as she recently had to break up chest-puffing between two men over a dispute if one crew should be paid more for helping out another.
Most of all, she is an indispensable link who ensures that her employer, Redwood Empire Vineyard Management Inc., provides quality service in the competitive North Coast wine industry.
“We love her,” gushes Linda Barr, the Geyserville company’s owner and vice president, who has 10 forewomen working for her this harvest along with approximately 60 other women as crew members. “The growers, our clients, saw them and saw what a great job they did and they have complimented them quite frequently over the years.”
Trend in the grape industry
Méndez also represents a trend in the local grape industry as wineries and grape growers hire more women for their harvest crews. It comes amid a tight farmworker market that shows no sign of abating and an increasing realization that women are just as capable as men in the job, which requires them to handle trays that can weigh as much as 40 pounds and work in temperatures that can shoot past 90 degrees.
“I have seen a definite increase (in female vineyard workers) in the last couple of years,” said Amelia Morán Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards, who herself worked in Napa Valley vineyards at the age of 12 in 1967. “It was pretty well even, maybe 50-50 this year.”
The gender breakdown in the local industry is difficult to obtain, but the National Agricultural Workers Survey continues to show that farm work is still a male-dominated profession. In the 2000 survey, 80 percent of the workers were male and 20 percent were women. A decade later, 76 percent of the workers were men and 24 percent were women.
But local vineyard managers say the path is tilting toward more women in the vineyards. Many are recruited by family members who are already working in the fields. Barr said her company began hiring female pickers about 10 years ago and it has grown since, especially as the women build up camaraderie together.
“You repeat year over year over year. It’s the same crew. It’s the same leaders. It makes it so easy,” Barr said. “We know we can pick the grapes; provide the service we say we can.”
Enzenauer Vineyard Management out of Healdsburg hired its first full female crew this year, at the behest of foreman Roberto Vega, who went to management this spring and asked to bring in women as an option for the labor shortage, said Katie Sereni, who oversees crews for the company.