Lives of the Vines (copy)

A crew of workers prepare a new vineyard for planting along Highway 29 north of St. Helena last summer.

A low-profile St. Helena supplier of health insurance for agricultural employees is swapping out its wine-rooted name for a broader label.

Formerly the California Grower Foundation, the newly christened Ag Health Benefits Alliance of Northern California (AHBA) traces its origins to the early 1970s and a group of grape growers aiming to offer health insurance to farmworkers years before it was required by law.

The name change today comes with the company’s hopes of staving off confusion between it and a bevy of other similarly named groups, among them the California Growers Association, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the Winegrowers of Napa County, and so on.

Originally founded specifically with vineyard workers in mind, the company aimed to provide medical insurance, pension benefits and a vacation plan, which employers would pay for with an assessment on wages.

Among the company’s seven founding growers was Ren Harris, owner of Paradigm winery in Oakville and a founder of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers industry group. Today, the AHBA board of directors is a who’s who from grape growing companies like Mike Wolf Vineyard Services, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Arkenstone and the Sonoma branch of E&J Gallo, all of which are AHBA clients.

“Way back then, employers weren’t required to provide health benefits,” said Rebecca Barlow, executive director of AHBA. “But this group, the growers, realized it’s something they should do, and that they wanted to, because they value the field workers. So they were really quite a bit ahead of their time.”

Rumblings of unionization in areas like Kern County also helped spur the company’s creation. “Definitely there was an underlying tension between employees and employers at that time,” Barlow said. Growers further realized that benefits and health insurance could also be used to attract workers and get them to stay, Barlow added, “as opposed to a lot of crops where employees migrate back and forth.”

New laws in 1999 ended the ability of insurance carriers to offer the kinds of plans for small employers the company provided, Barlow said. Thus a pivot to the Western Growers Assurance Trust lets the company now dole out its group health plan for 87 employers, the majority of which are vineyard management companies in Napa.

With the Affordable Care Act of 2013, the company also added an insurance agency to its folds, allowing employers to go through them for plans from providers other than the Western Growers Assurance Trust.

In all, the company is the last of five such co-ops founded in the 1970s. “We’ve managed to remain viable because we’ve evolved. We’ve made big changes to keep what we offer current,” said Barlow. “We try to make it as simple to understand and affordable as possible.”

Today, the company provides health insurance for over 1,500 agricultural professionals and their families, and can also offer health insurance to seasonal workers, depending on employers.

Apart from health plans, the company also deals in compliance administration, dental, vision, life, long-term disability and an Employee Assistance Program. Employers have also contributed to a Pension Plan that so far has paid more than $25 million in pension benefits.

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Wine Reporter / Copy Editor

Henry Lutz covers the local wine industry. He has been a reporter and copy editor for the Register since 2016.