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Wine Industry

A smaller harvest spells trouble for Napa Valley's agricultural workforce

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 23, 2020 series

Wildfire smoke has forced many of Napa Valley’s wineries to cut this year’s harvest short. First to feel the sting of that loss, industry members say, will be the men and women whose job it was to pick grapes now doomed to remain on the vine.

A harvest interrupted by smoke has negative implications for the whole of Napa Valley’s wine industry — vintners and grape growers, yes, but also the staff they employ in tasting rooms, cellars and winemaking facilities. Still, tasting room associates won’t be pouring the 2020 vintage for at least another year, and though this harvest has been a small one, there is still wine to be made from grapes spared the worst of the smoke.

But farmworkers’ income directly correlates with the amount of fruit picked, according to Michael Wolf, who owns an eponymous vineyard management company in Napa, which puts them in an especially vulnerable position this year. The more fruit rejected, the less work there will be — and the more dire the situation for the agricultural workforce becomes.

“We’ve been having lots of conversations about somehow trying to make farmworkers whole in this situation,” Wolf, who sits on the board of the valley’s Farmworker Foundation, said. “They’re the ones who are really going to get beaten up by this — the men and women who pick.”

It’s not immediately clear just how short of average this year’s grape harvest will be, Wolf said. “The range is huge,” he said, even among the handful of growers on the Farmworker Foundation’s board. One is slated to harvest 90% of the crop he’d managed; another, with concentrations of vineyards in the twice-impacted Pope Valley region, is bracing to “get clobbered.”

Wolf’s own crews are 43% of the way through harvest — only Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety Wolf’s work is “heavily weighted” upon, remains on the vines. Optimistically, Wolf said, he and his crews will make it more than 50% of the way through, though he knows it’s unlikely they’ll reach 60%.

“Just driving around the valley (and observing), I don’t think that’s a bad number,” Wolf said. “I’m seeing some significant-sized winery-owned vineyards that have not been picked.”

That’s been frustrating to observe for Wolf: there are wineries who have not have even attempted to harvest the year’s crop, fearing smoke taint doom or otherwise turning to crop insurance. A viral headline last week advertised that an estimated 80% of Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon grapes had been ruined by smoke — an “irresponsible figure to present,” in Wolf’s opinion.

To Matthiasson Wines’ Jill Klein Matthiasson, though, that figure sounded about correct. Her first thought, reading the article, was how that would unavoidably ripple through the region’s larger economy.

“This is a major industry and a major economy — it’s not just wealthy vintners,” she said. “Everybody (in the fields) depends on harvest for a big part of their salary. Industry-wide, it was already a lower crop for Napa Valley, and then it was cut short.”

Matthiasson Wines managed to harvest the entirety of its grape crop before the worst of the smoke, she said; their small crew will be fully compensated for the year. Farmworkers may make as much as a fourth of their annual income during harvest, according to Matthiasson — employees clock significant overtime hours during the long workdays.

Harvest typically requires so much manpower that Nord Vineyard Services brings in a crew of H-2A workers — international workers, most commonly from Mexico, whose visas grant them license to hold seasonal agricultural jobs. As vineyard after vineyard has been struck down by smoke taint, the workload has lightened considerably, according to Nord Vineyard Services co-owner Don Clark. He sent his H-2A crew home at the beginning of October, about a month early.

“I would be shocked to hear it’s not very widespread,” Clark said of the lessening demand for labor. “There’s a lot of fruit that’s been rejected, and at this time of year, there’s not a much other vineyard work that needs to go on.”

Beyond H-2A crews, domestic seasonal workers — typically men who travel the state, following regional harvest schedules — are most at risk of losing work, industry members say. Even so, vineyard managers say they are most concerned for members of the permanent workforce — highly skilled employees, crucial to the industry, many of whom live in Napa Valley and have families here. To lose those men and women would almost assuredly spell disaster for the industry down the road.

Asked what solutions the Farmworker Foundation was considering, Wolf said board members were weighing options — among them, weather permitting, assigning crews work typically done in the spring.

“We can’t forget this is happening in the backdrop of a pandemic, and a lot of folks have unexpected childcare costs because of the situation with the schools,” he said. “They’re just not going to have the cash, and this is all around the state. It’s a pretty big mess.”

He voiced hope that individual employers would take responsibility for their workers, noting his own company had been able to scrounge together enough work to keep his own crews going.

“We’re fortunate that we had enough other projects we were doing … that we’ve been able to keep them busy,” Wolf said. “We’ve tried to spread out the picking that we have among as many of the crews as we can, and we’re trying to be as equitable as we can about it.”

Crews had lost work even before the Glass Fire erupted in September, Wolf said; smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex made the wine industry skittish, and legions of wineries hoped to submit grape and wine samples for smoke taint testing before proceeding with harvest. Amid substantial backlogs at labs performing the testing, Wolf said, wineries were having a hard time deciding what to pick and what not to pick — and “rightly so.”

And so wineries face a sort of paradox: as long as they did not know the fate of their grapes, the crop was both tainted and not. All the while, “everything else was moving on,” Wolf said: sugar and pH levels in the grapes was rising, acid was dropping, and the grapes were maturing.

“Time was marching on, and in the middle of the smoke, we had a really nasty spell of hot weather,” Wolf said. “If you leave the fruit on the vine, it starts to be past its prime.”

A lot of winemakers chose to go forth with harvest, even without having received smoke taint test results. Many chose to conduct smaller batches of fermentations, which they could then perform their own preliminary sensory analysis on.

What was most frustrating to Wolf, though, were the producers who chose to leave their grapes on the vines — who “didn’t even try,” he said. He was pained at the thought of forfeiting what could have been a perfectly good crop, and grimaced to think of how the decision would trickle down into vineyard crews.

“It’s really, really difficult. And you feel the worst for the people at the bottom of the ladder,” Wolf added. “They have zero control over this. Zero decision making power.”

In a perverse sense, Wolf said, crews could benefit from damage wreaked by wildfires: there will be some replanting to do, irrigation systems to replace, trellises to repair. A smattering of properties will need to undergo work to control erosion. Even that work, though, will be no replacement for a harvest lost.



Watch Now: California’s wine country remains under siege from Glass Fire

The Napa Valley region has been ordered to evacuate due to wildfire. It has destroyed homes, buildings, forests and one of Napa Valley’s iconic resorts. A look at forests burning and firefighters scrambling to save homes and buildings threatened by the Glass Fire.

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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