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Local
Wine Industry
Want to work the Napa grape harvest? Due to visa freeze, opportunities abound this year

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on international travel and the Trump administration’s freeze on J-1 visas have disrupted a significant portion of the harvest intern workforce for Napa Valley’s wineries.

Harvest in the North Bay begins as early as mid-August for sparkling wine producers; it stretches into late October and even November for red varieties, including the Cabernet Napa is known for internationally.

Globally, harvest interns play a crucial role in supporting wineries, according to Benessere Vineyards winemaker Matt Reid. Alongside year-round employees, they commonly work 12-hour days, six days a week. For many, it’s a project of passion, done out of love for the job.

A number of interns have made harvest work their lifestyle, Reid said. They travel between the Northern and Southern hemispheres to participate in harvests year-round, working in South America or Australia during the Northern hemisphere’s winters. ‘Intern,’ in the wine industry, does not necessarily denote a gangly college student: many are well-established professionals.

The pandemic had slashed available flights, closed borders and shuttered embassies. Reid was already concerned for a Spanish intern working Benessere’s 2020 harvest, worried he’d somehow end up marooned in the U.S. at the end of the season. Reid had hoped, though, that intern would successfully arrive in Napa. Upon hearing the Trump administration had frozen J-1 visas, the kind most international harvest interns use, he groaned.

The Trump administration wrote in late June that it was “suspending entry” of foreigners who “present a risk to the U.S. labor market” in the wake of high unemployment caused by the pandemic.

“…Visa programs authorizing (non-immigrant) employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” the President wrote in his proclamation, citing high rates of unemployment among Americans ages 16-24.

So far, though, Reid has not had luck filling his open positions.

“We had two local interns lined up along with the Spanish one, and one of the locals dropped out last week without explanation. We’re scrambling right now,” Reid said.

A number of winemakers have found themselves similarly impacted by the loss of international hires. Artesa Vineyards & Winery winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper, once herself an international harvest intern in Napa, said the winery typically relies heavily on international interns.

International interns often adapt to harvest intern work better than do local workers entering the industry for the first time, Diogo-Draper said. They can also arrange temporary, roommate-based housing to cut costs, and are familiar with what constitutes “reasonable” pay for an intern. Pay scale does depend on experience, Diogo-Draper said, noting that applicants with no harvest experience have responded to Artesa’s job posting asking for more money than the winery’s year-round employees make.

Pablo Laguens, who has spent the last four harvests in Napa, was before the Trump administration’s proclamation attempting to secure his own J-1 visa to work a harvest in Napa. Laguens, 31, spends his time during the year as a traveling winemaker in his native Argentina, but he said he never misses the chance to work a harvest in Napa. The pay is comparatively high, the work is interesting and so are his colleagues at Hyde de Villane Winery, where he was set to return for a second year.

Laguens, along with Hyde de Villaine’s winemaker, had plans to experiment with different fermentations this year – and to celebrate the winery’s 20th anniversary. Laguens left the Argentine winery he’d been working at previously in preparation for his departure to Napa.

“It feels really weird to still be here this time of year, knowing I won’t be heading back to Napa—not preparing for harvest,” Laguens said. He’s now looking for full-time work in Argentina.

Having foreseen the difficulty international travel might pose, Diogo-Draper decided in early spring to concentrate her efforts this year on finding local help anyway. The winery is still struggling to fill its available positions, she said. Artesa has posted to popular job board websites like WineJobs.com and reached out to all of California’s relevant colleges – even some out-of-state colleges – with no luck.

At this point, Diogo-Draper said, the winery is actively looking for individuals previously employed by the restaurant industry, the brewing industry – or anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work, so long as they can remain committed to the job.

The Napa Valley Vintners this past week launched an online job board as part of a formal effort to recruit Napa-local and domestic harvest interns. So far, about 25 member wineries have posted, a spokesperson for the organization said.

Diogo-Draper, who herself posted a listing on the Vintners website, said she had hoped to see an influx of local workers interested in the wine industry. That has not happened yet, she said – there are apparently no barrages of domestic workers interested to fill the slots – but she’s continuing to draw awareness to the jobs and may even appear on the radio to discuss the issue in hopes more locals will take note.

Listings describe various responsibilities commonly assigned to interns: cleaning and preparing the winery for harvest, operating forklifts, lifting loads of up to 50 pounds and doing pump overs and punch downs (a hands-on part of the winemaking process that ensures even fermentation). Listed pay for positions ranges from $15 to $20 per hour.

Harvest interns typically begin work in Napa Valley at the beginning of August, according to Sean Taylor, a travelling winemaker who runs and owns the job-listing website WineVoyage.org. He recently convened an “emergency zoom meeting” with some of the client wineries who use his site, including some in Napa Valley, hoping to better understand how he could help recruit workers for harvest. Taylor says he’s been vetting applicants – he’s looking for former restaurant or brewing industry workers — but is, like Diogo-Draper, open to anyone looking to commit to the work.

“This year more than any other year is the best possible time to get a harvest job with no prior experience,” he added.

Though he couldn’t quantify the number of industry jobs filled by international interns, Taylor said the number is “in the thousands.” He’s still hopeful a response to his clients’ needs will arise locally, but added the industry remains hard hit nonetheless.

“One of the draws to being in the wine industry is the international community,” he said. “Everyone in the wine industry knew this was going to be a big deal, and that there would be serious issues. A lot of us are disappointed that this happened.”

A list of open positions can be found at napavintners.com/wineries/harvest-interns-needed.asp and on WineVoyage.org.

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Local
Development
City to evaluate Napa hotel straddling Wine Train line; two historic homes to be moved

Napa’s city land-use authority will weigh in on a downtown hotel project – unveiled nearly four years ago – that would straddle the Napa Valley Wine Train line.

The First and Oxbow Gateway Project, which is to feature 74 hotel rooms spread across a pair of four-story buildings, will come before the Planning Commission on Thursday, July 16. Planners will decide whether to recommend the hotel’s approval by the City Council.

Announced by the developer JB Leamer in August 2016 and originally branded Foxbow, the complex would occupy both sides of the Wine Train rails at the southeast corner of First Street and Soscol Avenue, at the edge of an Oxbow district that has become an increasing focus of Napa tourism in recent years.

Each building at First and Oxbow would contain 37 guest rooms, with space for street-level retail stores and two levels of underground parking. The complex would include an interior courtyard and private terraces, along with a swimming pool, spa, fitness center and conference and meeting space, along with a cafe featuring a sculpture garden, according to plans filed by Leamer.

City planners received their first detailed look at the hotel complex in 2018. While the design generally came in for praise, commissioners also expressed caution about placing a multistory building within the Oxbow area’s mostly low-rise and residential environs. Some Napa residents also worried about adding to the number of hotel developments already planned for the Oxbow, a list that includes a hotel planned at the site of the Wine Train depot on McKinstry Street and the Black Elk project announced for the opposite, north side of First Street.

On Thursday, Leamer’s hotel plan took an early step forward when Napa’s Cultural Heritage Commission cleared him to relocate two small historic homes, both more than a century old, from the property marked for the project’s eastern building. Because the single-story houses are listed on Napa’s registry of historic resources, moving them off the property requires the commission to grant a certificate of appropriateness, which affirms that changes to a building – including its location – will not harm its historic character.

One of the buildings, a clapboard-sided dwelling on 731 First St., began life in 1880 as a private home but now hosts the Trade Brewing craft beer taproom. The other home, a shed-roofed structure at 718 Water St., was built in 1900 and remains in use as a private home.

Plans submitted to the city call for both buildings to be placed on a residential lot at 58 Randolph St. in the Napa Abajo neighborhood, an area south of downtown well stocked with homes also dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A portion of the neighborhood north of the relocation site forms the Napa Abajo-Fuller Park Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At Randolph Street, the two structures would be separated by a driveway from an existing home on the property, with the Water Street house facing the street and the First Street home set back.

First and Oxbow is one of two hotel proposals scheduled to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, which will meet remotely because of the county’s social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

Later Thursday, planners will join forces with the Cultural Heritage Commission for a preliminary look at a five-story, 163-room hotel that would incorporate the Franklin Station post office, an Art Deco landmark on Second Street that opened in 1933 but was shut down after being damaged in the 2014 earthquake. No vote on the Franklin Station hotel is scheduled.

Watch video: Things you won’t see in hotels anymore thanks to COVID-19


National
AP
Trump starting to waver on GOP convention

WASHINGTON — After months of insisting that the Republican National Convention go off as scheduled despite the pandemic, President Donald Trump is slowly coming to accept that the late August event will not be the four-night infomercial for his reelection that he had anticipated.

After a venue change, spiking coronavirus cases and a sharp recession, Trump aides and allies are increasingly questioning whether it’s worth the trouble, and some are advocating that the convention be scrapped altogether. Conventions are meant to lay out a candidate’s vision for the coming four years, not spark months of intrigue over the health and safety of attendees, they have argued.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to move forward will be Trump’s alone.

Already the 2020 event has seen a venue change — to more Trump-friendly territory in Jacksonville, Florida, from Charlotte, North Carolina — and it has been drastically reduced in scope. For technical reasons, the convention will be unable to formally adopt a new party platform. And what is normally a highlight of the convention — the roll call of the states to renominate the president — is set to be conducted through proxy votes in the original host city.

Still, Trump and his aides had pinned their hopes on creating the pageantry of a formal acceptance speech in Jacksonville, envisioning an arena of packed with supporters, without face masks. Outwardly, the White House and the RNC have said they’re full-steam ahead with the revised plan.

“We’re still moving forward with Jacksonville,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week. “It’ll be a safe event. It will be a good event.”

But privately, concerns are mounting, and plans are being drawn up to further scale back the event or even shift it to entirely virtual. Officials who weeks ago had looked for the convention to be a celebration of the nation’s vanquishing of the virus now see it as a potent symbol of the pandemic’s persistence.

“There’s a lot of people that want to do it. They want to be enthusiastic. But we can do that and we can do it safely,” Donald Trump Jr. said. He told Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures” that “it’s going to be an awesome event.”

Jacksonville, whose mayor is a former Florida Republican Party chairman, issued a public mask order two weeks ago as virus cases in the area surged. That mandate is unlikely to be lifted before the convention. Also, Florida has limited facilities statewide to operating at 50% of capacity.

Organizers now plan to provide COVID-19 testing to all attendees daily, conduct frequent temperature checks and offer face coverings. Even so, Trump aides and allies fear that the entire spectacle will be overshadowed by attendees’ concerns and already heightened media scrutiny on the potential for the convention to be a “super-spreading” event.

Key decisions about the event, including precisely where or if Trump will appear, need to be made in the coming days to allow sufficient time for the build-out of the space.

Increasingly, aides are pushing Trump to move his acceptance speech outdoors to minimize the risk of virus transmission. But Trump has expressed reservations about an outdoor venue, believing it would lack the same atmosphere as a charged arena.

Despite the economic downturn, GOP officials insist they will have the financial resources needed to hold the convention. Vice President Mike Pence flew to Florida on Saturday to hold a fundraiser for the event.

“The convention is still a month and a half away, so there is time to adjust and make the most appropriate decisions regarding venue options and an array of health precautions that will allow us to have a safe and exciting event for all,” RNC spokesman Mike Reed said. “We will continue to coordinate with local leadership in Jacksonville and in Florida in the weeks ahead.”

The Trump team’s worries were compounded after the president’s embarrassing return to campaign rallies after a three-month hiatus caused by the virus. The empty seats at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, brought about a shakeup to Trump’s campaign and renewed fears that the president would not be able to return to his signature campaign events in their traditional form before Election Day in November.

A Saturday rally in New Hampshire that was meant to be the president’s second attempt at a return to campaign travel was called off on Friday, ostensibly because of weather concerns from then-Tropical Storm Fay. But aides acknowledged they also were worried about attracting enough of a crowd to fill the Portsmouth aircraft hangar.

The challenge in Jacksonville may be more daunting. The administration’s top health officials have demurred when pressed on whether the convention could be held safely. Many among the party’s leadership and the donors who attend conventions are older, putting them in a higher-risk category for the coronavirus.

Already a half-dozen Republican senators have indicated they won’t attend the convention. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has expressed reservations.

“I’m not going to go, and I’m not going to go because of the virus situation,” 86-year-old Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said on a conference call with Iowa reporters last week.

Asked whether he’d want to limit the gathering if the state’s coronavirus cases continue to rise, Trump replied that the decision “really depends on the timing.”


Local
City planners to review post office-to-hotel conversion in downtown Napa

The plan to recast downtown Napa’s 1930s-area post office building into a 163-room hotel will go back before city land-use and historic preservation authorities Thursday night.

Napa’s Planning and Cultural Heritage commissions are to meet jointly at 7:30 p.m. to study the five-story, 175,000-square-foot boutique hotel that would incorporate the Franklin Station post office, a tan-brick example of Art Deco design at 1351 Second St. that has been vacant since it was damaged by the 2014 earthquake. The meeting will be a step toward future decisions on granting developer Jim Keller a design permit and affirming the historic preservation of the landmark, which was built in 1933 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985.

In addition to the hotel project, city officials also will review a mechanized parking garage slated to replace a city-owned parking lot east of the post office at Second and Randolph streets. The structure would include space for 240 vehicles – 65 for the general public and the rest for hotel guests – above ground-floor retail stores and office space on the second floor.

The hotel’s footprint would occupy much of the downtown block bounded by Second, Franklin and Randolph streets, as well as Randolph between Second and Third streets. It also would extend south into the parcel currently occupied by Zeller’s Ace Hardware on Third Street.

The project will cost more than $100 million, Keller, who is partnering with Cypress Equities of Dallas, estimated in September.

Keller purchased the Franklin Station building in 2017 for $2 million from the U.S. Postal Service, which earlier had triggered an outcry among Napa residents and preservationists when it announced plans to tear down the landmark for $500,000, rather than spend the $8 million it said was necessary to repair and reopen it.

Napa opened the way to the hotel project in 2018, when the City Council approved a rezoning of the property to allow for mixed uses and a maximum building height of 60 feet.

Keller shared an early version of the hotel project with city planners in June 2019, with sketches showing a newly built structure of metal and plate glass enveloping the historic facade and extending upward behind it. At the time, some observers objected to the size and scale of the annex to the original post office, saying it overwhelmed and partially obscured the core structure from the 1930s.

Revised plans filed with the city show an annex set farther back from both Second Street and the post office lobby, which will be renovated to house the hotel’s lobby and bar. The building will feature two restaurants, two bars, meeting space, a spa and a fitness center, as well as a rooftop swimming pool and lounge.

City guidelines for downtown historic structures will require the developer to retain key design elements of the post office. Among those elements are the facade, windows, staircase and the urn-shaped light fixtures on Second Street, as well as the lobby’s hanging lamps, ceiling, terrazzo floor and other decoration, according to a city memorandum published Friday.

The Franklin Station project is one of two hotel proposals scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on Thursday. Earlier, the agency will review the First and Oxbow Gateway Project, which includes a pair of hotel buildings slated to straddle both sides of the Napa Valley Wine Train line east of Soscol Avenue at First Street.

Planners also will review a proposed new middle-school campus for the Blue Oak School, a private academy for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade. The project at 1120 Seminary St. is to include a two-story, 11,450-square-foot building with eight classrooms, along with a 10,000-square-foot gymnasium.

The new campus would be built across Polk Street from Blue Oak’s existing classrooms for elementary grades, and would replace its existing middle-school site a half-mile away at 1272 Hayes St.

Due to Napa County’s social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic, the Thursday meeting will be conducted as a teleconference. Viewers may watch the meeting on local cable television at Xfinity Channel 28 or online at cityofnapa.org, and take part in public comment periods through the Zoom program or send emails to the Planning Commission in advance.

Video: Things you won’t see in hotels anymore thanks to COVID-19.