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The pandemic pick — how vineyards plan to keep workers safe during harvest

With harvest in motion, vintners have their protocols in place to guard against the spread of the coronavirus and protect vineyard workers.

Pam Bacigalupi, co-owner of her namesake winery in Healdsburg, said she plans to scan each worker to check their temperatures and have each fill out a COVID-19 checklist, among other precautions.

Meanwhile, Ben Papapietro of Healdsburg’s Papapietro Perry Winery said he intends to scale back the number of workers in the vineyards and at the sorting table.

“Since we feed the crew daily,” Papapietro added, “we’ll have one person cooking and serving so that no one other than that one person is touching the utensils.”

At A. Rafanelli Winery in Healdsburg, one worker per row will hand-pick grapes, according to vintner Dave Rafanelli. Each worker will be solely responsible for his own box of grapes, including depositing them into the gondolas. Rafanelli also expects to reduce his crews to eight, with teams working in several different parts of the vineyards.

“Our vineyard crew is like family to us,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re safe.”

Strategies

Since March, Carlos Chavez of Healdsburg’s Safety & Environmental Compliance Associates has been developing strategies and protocols for wineries and growers based on an ordinance created by Dr. Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County health officer. Chavez has roughly 80 winery and grower clients based in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties.

“The biggest challenge will be asymptomatic workers,” he said. “Asymptomatic people wake up and when they don’t have a fever they go to work, infecting others.”

To protect against asymptomatic cases, Chavez is advising vineyard workers to forgo carpooling.

“I recommend that workers use their own vehicles,” he said. “It’s more expensive but they’re protecting their families, their companies and their ability to keep working.”

Another of Chavez’s suggestions is to pare vineyard crews to 10, with eight harvesting and two operating tractors.

“We’re trying to create this nucleus in case someone becomes ill with COVID-19,” he said. “Then you won’t have to quarantine the whole company, just the crew.”

Yet another suggestion, Chavez said, is to encourage workers to protect themselves outside of the workplace. They should keep hand sanitizer, with 70% alcohol, close by when they go to their bank’s ATM, the grocery store and gas station.

“They should also stay away from people who don’t wear masks,” he said. “Be courteous, but stay away.”

Chavez said some of his clients’ vineyard workers did contract the virus, but none of the cases were fatal.

“It’s my business to educate people,” Chavez said. “When they’re educated, they do the right thing. The industry is taking this pandemic seriously.”

Labor shortage

Amelia Moran Ceja, president and CEO of her namesake winery in Napa Valley, said a labor shortage is going to make it even tougher for large wineries to keep vineyard workers safe.

Bernie Narvaez, president of Napa’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has seen signs of a labor shortage. As an insurance agent, he sells short-term car insurance policies to migrant workers in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. But over the last four years, he’s noticed a “significant drop” in the number policies he sells to workers.

Workers fear sharing personal information and being deported, he said. “Many migrant workers said they were not coming back because of the current administration’s policies.”

Housing is another complication.

Moran Ceja is on Governor Gavin Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Job Recovery and was recently featured in an NBC piece about the pandemic in the vineyards. The report followed a crew of workers who couldn’t afford housing in Napa Valley so they commuted from Sacramento by carpooling.

While carpooling won’t be necessary at her small winery, it might be at larger ones, Moran Ceja said. She knows several wineries that contract for vineyard workers from Stockton and Lodi.

“I think a lot more resources need to be dedicated to protect the most vulnerable because they have taken the brunt of this disease, while many others are working from home,” she said.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between workers, growers and vintners and, Moran Ceja said, the trio needs to thrive.

“It’s frustrating,” she said, “to see people disproportionately suffer.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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