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As the grape crop hangs heavy on the vine, picking up color and sugar as the sun’s heat ripens the fruit, vineyard managers are making plans, vintners and growers are getting restless, work crews are assembling. Trucks, tanks and equipment are being tested and positioned.

The 2017 harvest will soon begin. Added to the usual levels of adrenaline-fueled stress and anticipation is a new concern that has taken root over several years and this year is more insistent than ever — a shortage of labor to bring in the crop.

Vineyard manager Duff Bevill, who’s preparing for his 44th wine grape harvest, got into the business because he loved farming. But Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, has found that many of his day-to-day duties have been shoved aside by the demand that he address a persistent shortage of field workers, critical to ensuring that the wheels of the wine industry — an outsize driver of the region’s economy as well as a large chunk of its identity — continue to turn.

The reasons for the labor shortage are many, from stepped-up federal immigration law enforcement that began under the Obama administration to competition from less strenuous, higher-paying jobs. Also, the workforce steadily gets older, as the children of farmworker families opt to, and are encouraged to, go to college.

“Everything with it (labor) triggers all these issues,” said Bevill, who employs about 120 workers to work on approximately 1,000 acres around the Alexander Valley.

While Bevill and other vineyard managers see the effects of the labor shortage firsthand, the reverberations are being felt elsewhere across the industry as well. Winemakers, who know that how and when grapes are picked affect the wines they create, consider whether to resort to mechanized harvesting. Wineries, forced to pay more for workers by the law of supply and demand, must decide whether to accept less profit on a vintage or risk passing along the higher labor cost to consumers.

“Those grapes, which become wine, are our calling card,” said Ben Stone, executive director for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. The wine industry brings billions of dollars annually into Sonoma County and nearby areas, especially through the tourism that comes with it.

“People come here for the wine we generate,” Stone added.

Getting the grapes picked

Vineyard managers hold a critical position in the process of turning grapes into wine. About 60 percent of vineyard owners in Sonoma County don’t want to take on the tremendous burden and hassles of year-round vine maintenance as well as hiring and retaining workers, so these companies serve as a one-stop shop, ensuring that all the jobs required to ensure their grapes reach the winery crush pad get done.

To do such work, they need workers. Critical jobs include pruning vines in the winter, strategically removing leaves and managing canopies in the summer, and picking the grapes at just the right time come fall. According to the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group, the local industry employs 5,186 full-time workers and 2,644 seasonal workers, who come into the region just during harvest. Top workers during those two to three months can make as much as $30 an hour or more to pick grapes.

“You are pulling a lot more levers than you were pulling 10 years ago,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, of the strategies needed to ensure the grapes get picked.

To get by, growers and managers are using a variety of creative solutions, including use of more picking machines, which work especially well on valley floors, and temporary foreign workers through the federal government’s H-2A visa program — almost 300 of them are working in Sonoma County this year. They also outsource some of their labor needs to outside third-party contractors to supplement their own workforce. Bevill says about 40 percent of his acreage is picked by machines and he brought in 24 workers from Mexico this year through the H-2A program, which allows agriculture employers to hire foreign guest workers for jobs lasting up to 10 months.

The worker shortage is clearly reflected in Bevill’s evolving duties. He’s part air traffic controller, as he juggles less-than-ideally staffed crews through crucial summer tasks before picking begins. Bevill for the past five years has had to rely on an outside farm labor contractor to provide backup workers.

He’s part builder, as he looks to construct more bunkhouse housing for foreign workers to provide help in the fields.

He’s part diplomat, as he has to work with winemakers who may not necessarily get their grapes picked at the exact moment they want unless they opt for machine-picked grapes.

And with his foreman he is part motivational leader/coach, ensuring that his work crew is kept happy and gainfully employed throughout the year. That includes paying a wage increase of about 33 percent over the past two years. Bevill knows if he doesn’t, other businesses both inside and outside the industry, such as construction and cannabis, will readily sweep them up.

“Managing people is a big, big chore,” he said.

Tightest labor market ever

No matter how tight the labor market, no grapes under contract go unpicked, Kruse said. But growers and managers may defer non-essential work at various times of the year based on their workforce needs, especially given how many vineyard tasks are seasonal. The local industry could probably use some 2,000 additional workers, she said, based on discussions she’s had with her members.

But those workers aren’t coming as they did in the past, for reasons that include immigration enforcement, competition from higher-paying jobs, and families that encourage their children to better themselves rather than follow in their elders’ footsteps into the fields.

“I don’t think any child in the United States dreams of being a seasonal farm worker,” said Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

The result has been as tight a labor market in 2017 as has ever been seen in the North Coast.

The Peña family of Santa Rosa illustrates one reason it’s difficult to find workers. Vicente V Peña and Liset Perez Martin moved here from Mexico City about two years ago with their four sons. Their move was made easier because Perez Martin is Cuban; Cuban citizens are eligible to apply for legal permanent residence after living one year in the United States.

The couple worked in vineyards for nine months after they settled in the region. They left the fields for housekeeping positions at the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park.

“You come here with another language and another culture, so you work wherever you can. The fields gave us that opportunity,” Perez Martin said. “It was a hard experience for me. I was a teacher in Mexico. I have a degree in pedagogy. The fields have so many obstacles, the heat, the humidity and the salary is not enough for what you work. I really respect the people that have done it for many years.”

Their eldest son, 20-year-old Vicente VI, said he wanted to help out as well, even though he saw how hard they worked and the effect it had on his parents, especially on their worn and tired hands. But they refused to allow it, telling him instead to care for his three siblings while they were at work and to pursue his high school general equivalency diploma.

“I didn’t want to see his life wasted in the vineyards when what he really wants is to become a mathematical physicist,” she said.

Peña is now enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College and studying physics. He said he would like to get a Ph.D. in the subject.

“It is my dream to work in a laboratory,” Peña said. “I know I will have that opportunity.”

Above minimum wage

Sonoma County vineyard employees earn on average of $16.34 per hour, according to the winegrowers association, well above the state minimum wage of $10.50.

The overall workforce has not grown in the past 15 years, even as vineyard acreage has expanded exponentially, thanks primarily to the popularity of premium wines made by local vintners, according to data from the state Employment Development Department. For example, the number of agricultural workers in Sonoma County — the vast majority of whom work in viticulture — was 7,100 in May 2002, according to EDD data. In May of this year it was 6,800.

“It’s been much, much harder to find workers,” said Andy Beckstoffer, owner of Beckstoffer Vineyards in Rutherford, whose properties include the famous To Kalon vineyard in Napa Valley. “And we (the North Coast) pay more than anybody else.”

Meanwhile, the workload in the vineyards has increased. Sonoma County had 46,093 planted acres in 2002, according to the most recent annual U.S. Department of Agriculture report. In 2016, workers picked grapes from 58,007 planted acres in the county, a 26 percent increase. During the same time period, there was an additional increase of 12,224 bearing acres in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, stretching demand for workers in the North Coast even more.

Humans vs machine

A survey this year by Silicon Valley Bank found that labor was the most pressing of all issues for American wineries. The cost of labor is one component of the increase in the average price per ton for grapes in the North Coast, where demand for premium grapes goes unabated, steadily increasing, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of the bank’s wine division. In Sonoma County last year, the average price per ton was $2,566, while in Napa County it was $4,683.

“To the extent we have any cost increase, that’s difficult to pass on to consumers,” McMillan said. Many wineries are opting to reduce their profits rather than bump up their bottle price, he added.

Winemakers are also adjusting to the new normal in labor. Alison Crowe, director of winemaking at Plata Wine Partners in Napa, which sources grapes from both Sonoma and Napa county vineyards, said that now when she starts making her harvest plans, she has to factor in the availability of labor, adding to her checklist the task of ensuring that crews will arrive when they’re needed. That’s a task that winemakers never used to have to worry about.

She said she’s heard stories about some crews being bribed away from one job to another for more money.

“There’s that natural tension between the winegrower and winemaker,” Crowe said. “For the farming company, there is little they can do if that happens.”

Crowe noted the growing acceptance among winemakers toward machine harvesting, especially as the quality of the technology has improved in recent years. Some vineyard managers contend the machines can now pick grapes cleaner than traditional human work crews — with fewer stems and leaves, for example. Bevill too said he is seeing less resistance from winemakers.

“We are using machines for everything we can get them to do,” said Rich Schaefers, viticulturist for Silverado Premium Properties in Napa, which is the third largest vineyard owner in Sonoma County. E & J Gallo Winery and Jackson Family Wines are the two largest.

Vintners and growers agree that over the next decade, machines will gradually do more of a vineyard’s jobs and the human workforce will be smaller, more specialized to work with the new technology, and higher-paid.

The North Coast will not become like the Central Valley where virtually all grape harvesting is done by machine, they say, as the technology doesn’t work well on hillsides, and some premium winemakers will likely continue to insist on hand-picked grapes no matter the cost.

Martin of UC Davis, however, said the history of almost all American crops is about how technological advances eventually replace most tasks that had previously been done by humans. Farmers in Iowa during the Great Depression picked corn by hand, for example. Today, vast John Deere tractors roam those same cornfields.

“When labor costs go up, you try and save on labor,” he said. “Agriculture is the story of replacing people with machines.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.