North Coast grape growers depend on foreign workers and machines for annual harvest

Competition for workers from construction and cannabis firms worry local vineyard managers as the 2018 harvest gets underway.|

Under a cloudly marine layer, workers were out Thursday morning at Martinelli Winery's Zio Tony Ranch in Sebastopol, methodically picking pinot noir grapes to go into premium rosé wine available to buy next spring.

The scene has been repeated countless times through the decades as the North Coast wine industry emerged in the late 1970s as the region's top economic driver, generating billions of dollars of annual revenue through products and wine tourism.

This year's grape harvest, however, comes amid another tight labor market that has local vineyard managers burdened with worries, from housing scarcity in the aftermath of last year's wildfires to competition from the construction and cannabis industries.

Mexicanos en los viñedos del condado de Sonoma

Faltan trabajadores en los viñedos del condado de Sonoma; tienen que traerlos de México.

Posted by La Prensa Sonoma on Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The resourceful farmers they are, they still find a way to deliver the crop. For George Martinelli this year, it means going through a federal program to hire more than 60 seasonal workers from Mexico - mostly from the state of Michoacán - to ensure completion of his family winery's 33rd harvest. Those workers represent about two-thirds of his harvest workforce for 2018.

The program, known as the H-2A visa, has many requirements for wineries, such as placing ads in newspapers to ensure local residents know about the employment opportunities, to providing transportation from Mexico for seasonal workers, as well as temporary housing. There also are legal fees to ensure the winery doesn't run afoul of the U.S. Department of Labor rules.

“It's a pain in the butt,” Martinelli said of the visa requirements. “But it is something we have to do.”

This is the new normal for wine grape industry on the North Coast, where an estimated 5,200 full-time and 2,600 seasonal employees in Sonoma County will work through early November to deliver a crop that last year was valued at $578 million.

Area growers realize no new legislative relief is likely to emerge soon to help ease the worker shortage, especially given the congressional dysfunction in Washington, D.C. dealing with immigration reform. Instead, growers have figured out workarounds.

“Labor is a struggle,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the main trade group representing local grape growers. Overall, farm employment in Sonoma County - the vast majority of which is connected to wine grapes - was down 4.3 percent annually since last July, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Many growers have increased their wages. Those who have available housing go the H-2A visa route to secure workers. Others rely on machines, which long term likely will replace many of the workers. Technology is expected to improve to allow mechanical harvesters to do almost every task - from pruning to leafing - with the precision demanded by discerning Sonoma and Napa winemakers.

“You are going to see technological changes - that no matter whatever challenges you see in the first machines - will continue rather than see a reversal in the labor situation,” said David Slaughter, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis. Slaughter is leading the college's Smart Farm initiative to develop “smart machines” for the agriculture industry in California.

Local growers have grappled with a tight labor market for years, but the October fires put additional strain on the industry. Fortunately, the residences of vineyard workers were largely unscathed from major burn areas, Kruse said.

Still, there are effects beyond making the region even more unaffordable for working families. In the aftermath, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation provided up to two years of rent coverage for 11 families. Also, it bought three recreational vehicles for families to temporarily reside on agriculture land, Kruse said. And many of those who lost wages during the fires received gift cards to help with food and household items.

With home rebuilding ramping up, there is concern the construction industry will lure vineyard workers with promises of higher year-round pay. Pay for construction jobs can start around $20 an hour for entry level workers, according to those in the local construction industry.

“We believe it (construction) might have an impact, but specifically we haven't seen it or heard of it so far,” Kruse said. The emerging cannabis industry also could siphon farm workers as well, she said.

Growers aren't standing by idly. During harvest, wages can go as high as $30 an hour. During the rest of the year, pay rates have increased at many places from $15 to $17 per hour, said Steve Sangiacomo, a partner in Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, one the largest vineyard owners in terms of acreage in Sonoma County.

“Labor is still tight. We are all doing our best to deal with it. Wages continue to go up. We all are having to pay more to retain and keep (people),” Sangiacomo said.

That still isn't enough. Those who have room on their land are building or renovating old structures so they can shelter the H-2A visa workers. Vineyard managers and growers within a 30-mile radius of Santa Rosa requested 302 such foreign workers this year, according to a tally from the U.S. Department of Labor's website.

Balletto Vineyards & Winery in Santa Rosa, for instance, just finished a month ago building a ranch house on its property for 37 people who are working the harvest, said John Balletto, president of his family's winery. The visa program has provided 45 workers this year representing about 75 percent of his harvest workforce.

“The investment was huge,” Balletto said. “We're just looking out for the future. We just want a secured workforce.”

On Thursday, the workforce was guaranteed for Martinelli Winery. Windsor resident Javier Contreras, 53, has worked eight years for Martinelli as a foreman and has helped recruit Mexican farmworkers. He said it would be difficult without the help of foreigners.

“This would be chaos without them getting the job done. We started to bring people from Mexico some years ago because many of the workers that went back to their country couldn't come back the following year. We need all the people that left and couldn't get back,” Contreras said.

Porfirio Sánchez, 39, originally from Veracruz, Mexico is one of those working for Martinelli with a worker visa. He learned about the program through his regular transportation job in Tijuana. “I was hired to pick up some guys from Michoacan. I met the coordinator of the farmworkers at that time and he connected me to this business. It's been four years now that I've been doing it.”

Sanchez has been in Sonoma County since April. “It works for me. I work six months here and the other six months of the year I go back to see my family and work as a private bus driver,” he said. “With us coming here, nobody is taking jobs from anyone. There's a job for anyone. Whoever wants to do this kind of work is welcome.”

The H-2A push provides a stopgap until there's more widespread use of harvest machines, according to vintners and growers. Machines are mostly used in the Central Valley, but the majority of the grape picking is done by hand in the premium region of Napa or Sonoma counties. Kruse estimated machine harvest is around 35 percent in Sonoma County.

“As we replant vineyards. We plant them to be mechanized going forward,” said Rick Tigner, chief executive officer of Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa. The company owns more than 3,000 vineyard acres in Sonoma County. “So instead of having the field worker picking the grapes, they are driving the harvester...It's creating better jobs.”

It's not only large companies like Jackson - the ninth-largest winery in the United States - going that direction, but smaller ones such as Thomson Vineyards in Napa, with its 100 vineyard acres in the Carneros region and eastern Napa.

The company is replanting five-acre blocks of its vineyards every other year to ensure new rows will be wide enough to handle tractors and their attachments, said Jennifer Thomson, general manager for her family business.

Thomson said it is much easier to secure a machine pick during harvest as opposed to a work crew that will pick by hand. In addition, machine harvesters are less expensive - up to a 75-percent cost savings in some cases. “At the end of the day, this becomes a number business,” she said.

Academics are attempting to determine if there is a scientific difference in the quality of grapes picked by hand and machine. Two years ago, UC Davis researchers installed a “no-touch” vineyard block of cabernet sauvignon in Oakville only harvested with machines. Still, many winemakers prefer handpicked fruit, thinking those grapes come into wineries in better condition.

That was the case Thursday as winemaker Matt Courtney watched two tons of grapes picked by the Martinelli crew go into bins to be used for his Ferren label.

Although harvesting technology is advancing, “it's not that precise,” Courtney said. “This (handpicked) is still far more gentle and precise. For my brand, making small amounts of pinot and chardonnay, everything has to be perfect.”

Martinelli said he will keep using work crews as long as there are wineries willing to pay for the extra cost, though he added machine harvesting “is what everyone is kind of looking towards.”

Future generations from Mexico may not see the opportunities his crew does this year, Martinelli said. “Who knows if the next generation in Mexico wants to step in (here)?” he said.

La Prensa Sonoma Editor Ricardo Ibarra contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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