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Sonoma County wineries grapple with keeping workers safe as annual harvest nears

With about two months before the first wine grapes will be picked on the North Coast, wineries and vineyards are gearing up for an annual harvest that will be unlike any other, given the coronavirus.

Winemakers are running checks on cluster counts on the grapevines that will determine yields. And vineyard farmworkers are removing leaves from vines to get the right amount of sun on the fruit to make it most favorable.

All the preparation for regional harvest, which was valued at $1.7 billion last year, is being done with greatly enhanced safety measures to try to keep the virus away. Workers are having their temperatures checked and being spaced at least 6 feet along vineyard rows. Cellar crews in wineries are grappling with how they will process the fruit and they realize they will have to take in far fewer grapes each day.

“You’re seeing a lot of face masks. You’re seeing a lot of protection so that people are really not jumping in contact with each other much,” said Adam Lee, owner of Clarice Wine Co., who also assists with Siduri Wines, which he started and later sold to Jackson Family Wines.

Earlier this spring, Lee conducted wine blending for Siduri with its winemaker Matt Revelette, while social distancing in different rooms. “By and large it has been working,” Lee said.

Despite careful planning and preparation, the elusive highly contagious new coronavirus already has infiltrated the area wine sector. That’s raising concerns inside and outside the industry in Sonoma County - with its more than 450 wineries - as final work is being done for harvest set to begin in late August.

Public details are scant on two viral outbreaks involving vineyard and production workers at separate local wineries that county Health Officer ?Dr. Sundari Mase has revealed. The first outbreak, disclosed May 29, infected 14 vineyard workers who were residing in communal living, said Mase, declining repeated requests from The Press Democrat for the name and location of the winery, among other details.

Then during a Monday press briefing the health officer said three winery employees working in production also had contracted the virus. Even with the second outbreak, the wine industry being the premier business sector in the county and annual harvest around the corner, local health officials have remained silent on details about either cluster of wine business infections.

Sources inside and outside wine circles said last week they did not know at which companies the outbreaks are centered. Susan Gorin, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said the winery with the 14 infected vineyard workers is located in her district in the Sonoma Valley, though she doesn’t know the name of the business. She acknowledged she has a suspicion about who it is but no confirmation.

“From my perspective, it is immaterial the name of the winery. What’s most important is to use this as a learning experience for all wineries and vineyards owners,” Gorin said. “OK, this happened and here’s how the (viral) transmission happens. What are you doing to do to prevent or mitigate that from being repeated in your own winery?”

The Press Democrat did speak with at least one prominent local winery executive after reporting indicated the operation might be affected by the virus, but the person insisted the business had no workers infected by COVID-19. (With no confirmation from county health officials or other corroborative reporting on the wineries connected with the two local outbreaks, the newspaper is not disclosing the names of the winery executive or the winery the person operates.)

Taking precautions

Luis Davila, a vineyard crew supervisor for Enterprise Vineyards, said the crew he manages at a vineyard in Napa County has instituted many protocols to protect the 18 workers. That includes social distancing techniques such as working every other vineyard row and eating lunch at least 6 feet away from other workers. Most of the crew comes daily from Yuba City, so he typically has those workers in one section so they don’t mingle with other workers. “No one has gotten sick and we have been cautious with everything,” Davila said.

Balletto winery in Santa Rosa had a scare earlier in spring when one vineyard worker became ill. After a trip to the doctor, the worker was placed in quarantine for seven days even though he started feeling better a few days after his visit, company founder John Balletto said. Other workers were moved to another house.

“It was a big task but we were very proactive on all that kind of stuff,” he said. “That’s important, and I’m sure a lot of my colleagues and friends who are in the same business, you know they’re doing the same thing.”

His winery has taken extra precautions such as ensuring good hygiene in the residences, as well as the buses that ferry workers to the various vineyard sites, Balletto said. These strict rules also apply inside the winery where employees get their temperature checked every day and are required to wear face coverings, especially important now that customers have returned to taste the vintages at the winery’s outdoor patio. “We’re just following the (public health) protocols so we can make sure we’re doing everything we can,” Balletto said.

Regulations to follow

Already, the wine industry operates under regulation of agricultural labor codes and has tighter workplace rules to ensure workers stay safe during the pandemic, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director for the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. She also said county ag leaders have a weekly call with Mase, the health officer, to discuss occupational safety for their 6,000 area workers, who are primarily Latino. And countywide, according to local public health data, Latinos account for 3 out of 4 coronavirus cases although comprising 27% of the population of about 500,000 people.

Educating workers

One primary concern has been farmworkers who may contract COVID-19 outside work, Tesconi said. “Often what is happening is our workers not necessarily being infected at work, but they are being infected at home. And they’re asymptomatic and showing up and causing that spread within different labor pools,” she said.

One nonprofit group, Lideres Campesinas, wants to ramp up an outreach program of health professionals educating farmworkers at their job sites about the elusive pathogen that’s been bedeviling the county since early March. The group already has been distributing face coverings to the workers. It primarily serves female farmworkers and has chapters across the state, including here.

“There is not adequate education about what COVID-19 is. We feel the supervisor is not the proper person to do that education. We have been trying to coordinate doctors to go to the fields and do this,” said Irene de Barraicua, a spokesperson for the group. “We are really hoping to get (virus) testing to go to the workplace.”

Making housing safe

As annual harvest nears, there is growing worry over the inherent risks of dormitory-?style living quarters some large vineyard operations use to house workers who come temporarily from Mexico under the U.S. H-2A visa program to pick grapes. The United Farm Workers’ union has found the workers it represents at local wineries such as E. & J. Gallo of Sonoma, St. Supery Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford and Balletto Vineyards are benefiting because these wine companies are adhering to best public health practices.

But the labor group has heard concerns from some other workers at a few nonunion wineries, said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the local union.

The main challenge over the summer will be workers residing in such bunkhouse living arrangements, Elenes said.

“Wherever there are workers working in close proximity to each other like labor camp housing, it’s happening everywhere. I have seen it in the Central Valley,” he said. “We have been lucky as we also have guest workers under UFW in Sonoma County. They have been working well and they have been taking a lot more extra precautions.”

In the winery

Vintners say they also are paying close attention inside wineries at the crush pad and in cellars because the virus is more easily transmitted in closed spaces.

Chris Carpenter, winemaker for such Jackson Family luxury brands as Cardinale and Lokoya, in March spent more than three weeks during the grape harvest in Australia at the company’s Hickinbotham winery.

In the midst of the global coronavirus outbreak, Carpenter said he ended up assigning each crew in Australia to specific areas of the winery so they wouldn’t come in much contact with each other. “You can be pretty much assured that nobody had touched the tank and other equipment ... and you can work with confidence,” he said of the strategy.

Carpenter said he plans to replicate back home what he learned in Australia. One key thing that will have to change here is the sorting table where a winery crew removes leaves and spoiled or unripe grape bunches from the crush pad. It’s typically done by a crew bunched together.

“There will probably be less people at the sorting table and we will probably move more slowly through the winery,” he said.

That rearrangement means wineries will be taking in less daily tonnage of grapes during harvest. Lee said a huge day at Siduri Wines would be handling 30 tons of grapes a day. For 2020 harvest, it may have to be downsized to 20 tons of grapes daily to process at the winery.

“It’s going to have some impact on how much fruit we bring in on a day,” Lee said. “The logistics aspect is always important. It’s going to be more important and perhaps more challenging this year.”

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

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