Reflected Vines

Dormant vines are reflected in standing water in this vineyard along Yountville Cross Road earlier this winter. Local grapegrowers are participating in a program to expose high schools students to wine industry jobs. 

A new initiative may soon have more Napa high schoolers eyeing futures in the local wine industry.

Fields of Opportunity, an eight-week paid summer mentorship program for high school students within the Napa Valley Unified School District, opened this week for applications.

Stemming from a partnership between the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation and the school district, the program is designed to cycle 16 students between four host companies, offering participants an interactive cross-section of the many occupations that drive the county’s staple industry.

“We have a big industry here that provides a lot of different opportunities, not just in the vineyards but in the winery, and marketing and sales and hospitality,” said Sonya DeLuca, associate director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “Our hope is to be able to provide the students who grow up here and go to school here with a chance to see all aspects of that.”

Geared toward local students approaching graduation, the program also doubles as a potential means of recruitment for the county’s wine industry, channeling a prospective workforce from Napa’s schools to its wineries and vineyards.

“It’s desperately needed,” Stephanie Solberg, vocational specialist with the Napa Valley Unified School District, said of the program. “We should have a sustainable, local employment stream from our students to the businesses that people come to visit from all over the world.”

Pete Richmond, owner of Silverado Farming Company, one of the four participating employers, echoed Solberg’s sentiment. “Just from a sustainability point of view from our workforce, we really would love our workforce to be based here and not be commuting,” Richmond said, pointing to a shift in recent years toward more of his employees traveling to work from areas like American Canyon and Vallejo.

Open to all Napa Unified high school students above the age of 16, organizers are optimistic that the program will attract a broad range of participants. The goal, Deluca said, “is to have some students who are college-bound and want to be a viticulturist or a winemaker one day,” as well as other students “who might be going to the junior college but have a strong interest in agriculture, possibly. And then we have a group of students … that might not know what they’re going to do when they graduate.”

As the students, divided into cohorts of four, rotate through the companies, “they’ll get a little bit of a different view of the industry,” DeLuca said. “So, they’ll be exposed to viticulture, vineyard operations, mechanics, but also cellar work, winery work … they’ll also be doing some marketing and social media and tasting room hospitality work.”

In addition to Silverado Farming, host companies include Walsh Vineyard Management, Quintessa winery and Renteria Vineyard Management. To enhance the real-world element of the program, organizers noted that each company will compensate students with the wages offered for the various positions they will hold.

At Silverado Farming, Richmond said, those wages will be set at $16 an hour.

The company, which works with 35 vineyards on approximately 600 acres throughout the valley, has been involved with the program since its inception in 2015, Richmond said, and has hosted students through a precursor program for the past two summers. Speaking Wednesday morning at the company’s Napa offices, he described portions of the upcoming curriculum for students during their two-week rotations with the company.

While working with the company’s mechanic a few days each week and learning about equipment maintenance, students will also work with vineyard crews and viticulturists, Richmond said. “At that time of year we’re going to be doing canopy work so they get some understanding of what the crew’s doing. And then we want to get them exposed on the technical side of things, so they’ll be working with our viticulturists on determining when to do irrigations, doing some scouting for pests,” and more.

But overall, he said, the program will emphasize “moving them through all phases of that work, so they get a taste of everything and see what they’re interested in there.”

Once the program concludes, Richmond said, students may have the option of joining the company. “The reality is if we have openings and they are interested, we will hire them as full-time employees once they graduate.”

If students choose to pursue continued education, the company will also strive to accommodate class schedules, Richmond said, adding, “…we really want to push them to go to school. If it’s a certificate program, we’ll work around that from an employer point of view because … I think part of this is giving kids an opportunity that may not have had an opportunity otherwise.”

As of Wednesday, students can apply through the program’s website: http://nvusdcareerprep.org/programs/classroom-connection/fields-of-opportunity/

Space is reserved only for 50 applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, though there will be a wait list for additional applicants. Selected students will be contacted in May for an interview with an employer.

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