On a recent morning in a Carneros vineyard, a crew of 22 workers moved methodically down rows of chardonnay vines, hastily plucking leaves from an overflowing emerald canopy. As they worked and passed on, the growing berries were left with better access to sunlight and a greater chance to prosper in the months ahead.
Walking along the end of the rows and peering down each, Ciriaco Hernandez counted off.
“Thirteen,” he said, finally stopping. Of the 22 workers carefully pulling leaves that day, the 13 he counted were women. Hernandez, who is director of vineyard operations at Renteria Vineyard Management, the company employing the crew, said “nowadays” that ratio is normal.
Over the past few years scenes like this have become increasingly common, defining the transformation of a vineyard workforce, plagued by labor shortage and fewer male workers, that has coped by taking on women workers at an unprecedented rate, not only at Renteria, but across Napa and throughout the entire state.
Adelina Siva, 50, and Carina de la Cruz, 39, were among the 13 women on the crew ‘leafing’ in the Carneros vineyard.
Originally from Mexico, each woman immigrated and came to work in Napa’s vineyards, they said, for “a better life.”
“It’s better than if we work in factories,” de la Cruz said of laboring in the vineyards. “It’s better work.”
Having been with the company for three years, both Siva and de la Cruz said they noticed the number of other women vineyard workers had grown in that time.
Though Renteria offers vineyard workers $16 an hour, as well as dental, health, life insurance and a 401K plan, Hernandez has seen men more often seeking better paying construction jobs who “don’t want to be in the field.”
“Our male workforce has dwindled,” said Joe Garcia, whose company, Jaguar Farm Labor Contracting, provides labor for vineyards throughout the state, from Napa Valley to Paso Robles. “And now since we have a labor shortage, because of the borders closing, women have become an integral part of that workforce now.”
Renteria’s owner and CEO, Oscar Renteria, said his company today employs 404 vineyard workers and estimated that women now make up 28 percent of his workforce. Four or five years ago that percentage would have been “single digits.”
Also fueling the labor shortage, grape growers and vineyard managers say, is the loss of the migrant farmworker. “The only time we see a migrant workforce come into the wine industry is at harvest,” Garcia said, citing immigration reform as a driver for much of the change.
Steve Moulds, president of the Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation, said that although the county has three dormitory-style housing centers for migrant male farmworkers, it’s “a paradigm that’s very antiquated. … Even though we provide 52,000 bed nights a year, it’s chasing an old protocol where people were migrant farmworkers. And we just don’t have those anymore.”
Instead, companies like Jaguar and Renteria have come to rely on a workforce based in the area year-round. Though in the case of Napa, many workers are also forced to commute from more affordable areas outside of the county. Siva commutes from Fairfield, while de la Cruz travels from Woodland. Both women make their respective trips to Napa six days a week, Monday through Saturday.
“On Sunday we clean the house, we go to market, we do the laundry, and then cook again, sleep and get up,” de la Cruz said.
Another woman working on the Renteria crew in the Carneros vineyard was Socroro Cruz, who drove more than two hours from her home in Stockton that morning to be there. Cristina Alvarez, who handles human resources at Renteria, translated for Cruz, who spoke only Spanish.
Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Cruz joined the company this year, her first time working in the vineyards. Cruz said she makes the commute six days a week with her husband, who also works for Renteria. They wake at 3 a.m. to reach Napa by 6 a.m. and work until 4:30 p.m., when they make the commute back to Stockton, arriving between 7 and 7:30, she said.
Upon arriving home, Cruz showers, preps her meal for the next day, and spends the remaining time with her four children.
“That’s like her motor to motivate her to continue to do this job. Because of her kids,” Alvarez said.
Garcia said the women he employs for Jaguar have similar routines, waking early, making lunch for their families and getting their children ready for school. “And now she’s part of the workforce, so she has to do all that, then come home at the end of the day, cook dinner and clean also.”
Though the daily commute is daunting, Cruz said, “When you love your job, there’s no excuses.” While she has been in the vineyards for only a short time, Cruz said she enjoys the work and has yet to come across a task that she cannot do.
As more women first began to join the ranks of the vineyard workforce, however, employers were initially skeptical about their capabilities to work alongside men in the same crews.
Hernandez, who began his 28-year career with Renteria as a vineyard worker himself, said at first employers didn’t support integrating crews because “they thought the women were more slow, slower than the men, and so that was going to put everyone behind.”
Garcia noted that some employers were also concerned about integrating men and women because of the risk of potential sexual harassment issues.
“It’s a total culture change from just having a male workforce,” he said. With the growing presence of women in the vineyards, men have had to curb what both Hernandez and Garcia called “locker” talk.
“So they had to watch what they say, how they say it, when they say it,” Hernandez said. “And so they kind of had to change their culture, in a way, to be more professional.”
Employers also began to adjust their views of women workers’ potential as more joined the crews. As more women came to work, Hernandez said, “and they showed what they could do … it proved us wrong.”
Renteria noted that when it comes to selective picking during harvest he has found “men are very fast and they fly,” but women are more reliable “when it comes to the selective criteria for work that we’re doing. They’re just more meticulous.”
Moulds said he has also found this to be the case, having requested all-women crews to harvest for him for the past three years.
Working alongside men has been a non-issue, Siva, de la Cruz and Cruz each said. Siva said she enjoys working with the men, who have been helpful, she said, adding “also there’s a lot of respect.”
Each woman said she plans to continue working at Renteria. De la Cruz said she hopes to eventually be promoted to a forewoman or “majordoma.” The company now has two women serving as majordomas, Renteria said, while others are being trained to operate tractors and equipment.
Today when women are interested in moving up in the company, Hernandez said, “We open the door.”
Such is now the case at Jaguar as well, Garcia said. “They can achieve whatever they want. We’re trying to empower women now. In our workforce, they can do the same jobs as men.”