Sonoma County grape growers raise funds to support workers

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The Cloverdale home of Emigdio and Celia Olivera wasn’t damaged in the October firestorm, but they were displaced nonetheless.

Their landlord evicted them from their rented house after his own Mark West Springs house was destroyed in the Tubbs fire. He moved into their house, and the Oliveras searched, without success, for another rental at a time when thousands of homes had burned and rents were rising

Emigdio, a longtime vineyard supervisor for Redwood Empire Vineyard Management in Geyserville, and his wife, Celia, now live in a spanking-new, silver-and-black-trimmed white Keystone Springdale travel trailer on a vineyard property on Healdsburg’s Westside Road.

It’s a cramped yet consoling shelter purchased by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation Wildfire Housing Support Fund, which raised more than $700,000 for agriculture workers and their families impacted by the fires.

The couple and one of two adult sons will stay in the trailer until they find permanent housing. When they do, the trailer will be passed along to others in need.

More than 175 families of Sonoma County agriculture workers suffered losses in the fires, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. Some lost their homes and possessions, others their jobs, and for a few, their means of transportation. Kruse, whose Fountaingrove house was leveled in the Tubbs fire, quickly joined forces with grape grower Steve Dutton, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, to establish the housing support fund.

“These families work hard, and some saw their livelihoods, their careers, all go away in one night,” Dutton said. “It’s important that the industry support them, and the ag fund does that.”

In what later would be considered ideal timing, the nonprofit Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation was relaunched in 2016. Kruse is the executive director.

“We had a labor shortage and were deep into our efforts to achieve sustainability, so we asked ourselves if we were doing enough for vineyard employees. The answer was no,” she said of the foundation. “We conducted feedback sessions in Spanish for workers, most of whom are Latino, and housing was their big concern — finding it, affording it and having it be convenient to where they work.”

Within a week of the fires, a GoFundMe campaign began online ( and raised $74,000, Kruse said.

“We had people from all over the county, and all over the country, donate. Prima restaurant in Walnut Creek and Bernardo Winery in San Diego made significant contributions. We’ve had an amazing support system outside of Sonoma as well as within,” she said.

Large companies made an even bigger impact, handing over fat checks for housing relief. Wilber-Ellis, an international agriculture services company with an office in Healdsburg, donated $50,000, as did Foley Family Wines, whose wineries include Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma, and Chalk Hill Estate and Lancaster Estate in Healdsburg.

The GoFundMe dollars were used to purchase Visa gift cards, which the nonprofit Burbank Housing organization gave to agriculture workers to pay for food, clothing, utilities, transportation, other essentials and holiday gifts for their children. Larger amounts from the foundation were paid directly to landlords for rent and rental deposits and, in the case of the Oliveras, for a temporary home with a grand view of vineyards, a pond, and rose and vegetable gardens.

Their trailer is hooked up on the Westside Road property of an absentee vineyard owner from Texas. When she visits next, she will discuss with Emigdio the possibility of converting a garage and shop adjacent to the shiny Keystone into a house for the Oliveras.

“We stayed with friends until the trailer arrived,” said Emigdio, who has spent 30 years working for Redwood Empire Vineyard Management after arriving from Oaxaca in 1988. “We had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the trailer, with my boss telling me I could stay in the trailer as long as we needed,” he said.

Celia rolled her eyes as if to say, “I hope it’s not too long.” Her kitchen is a lot smaller than she needs, and with three adults plus pet pooch Charlie packed inside, the quarters are tight.

But Emigdio said he sees a positive future on Westside Road, and he has plans if the garage becomes a home.

“It’s beautiful here,” he said, smiling broadly.

“After winter, I’ll tend the gardens for the owner. We’ll get our belongings out of storage and have family over.”

He points to a patio next to the pond, to be topped with bamboo once the weather warms up. “It’s perfect for a party, yes?”

Perhaps a house-warming party.

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