At a recent meeting of the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ small grower group that I attended, the vineyard managers and growers anecdotally noted a shortage of labor during the 2012 growing season. This was attributed to demographic changes (such as older farm workers retiring and returning to their home countries), perceived hostility to immigrants and other factors. Many growers struggled to put together crews to get the job done.
California’s agriculture economy is the largest in the United States. The availability of labor is a critical factor when it comes to getting the crop in, especially for specialty crops like wine grapes, where mechanization is not prevalent and lots of handwork is still required. So, it should come as no surprise that immigration is a topic of concern to grape growers because, of course, most of our workers come from Mexico and Central America.
I think we Californians have a fundamental misconception about our immigrant agricultural workforce. We tend to think that farmworkers are low-skilled laborers doing a job that anyone could do, and, yes, there is plenty of hard, backbreaking work involved in farming. However, my experience is that a lot of skill and experience is necessary to do many of the jobs well, and when you insist on perfection, every job has to be done well. Not anyone can do it. For example, pruning a grapevine correctly involves visualizing how the vine has grown and how it will grow years in the future. It takes experience and judgment to do the job well and efficiently, and California’s agricultural workforce has that experience and judgment.
One of my favorite memories of starting our vineyard was the initial meeting between our vineyard manager, Ulises Valdez, and our consulting viticulturalist, Kristin Lowe. Ulises came to the United States at age 16 with a third grade education, hoping to save some money and return to Mexico and start his own business. Now he is perhaps the best-regarded farmer of Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, with a successful vineyard management company that employs hundreds of people. Kristin is a highly trained scientist, who studied under Andy Walker and earned her Ph.D. from UC Davis.
Candidly, I wondered how they would relate to each other. I needn’t have worried.
As the conversation flowed, I realized that each wanted to learn something from the other, and each had valuable contributions to make to my learning and to the achievement of our goal, which is to grow the best Pinot Noir. More importantly, I realized that to achieve our goals, we need the best combination of science and experience with passion and a commitment to excellence. Our vineyard workforce is a key component of that equation.