Wine

How Labor Challenges Affected the 2019 Grape Harvest

With drastic labor shortages up and down the West Coast, this year’s vintage may mark a dramatic shift in the way the wine industry views labor

Harvest workers at the Stoller Wine Group. Photo courtesy of Stoller Wine Group.

September 24 was the day. It was time for Anne Hubatch to receive her fruit. The old-vine block of Pinot Noir destined for Hubatch’s Helioterra Wines rosé was ready to be harvested. The Brix and acid numbers were spot-on. The labor contractor had promised to send a team of pickers to the vineyard she had agreed to purchase fruit from, in the Eola-Amity Hills subzone of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. And rain was in the forecast for the next day.

But there was a slight problem. 

In previous years, Hubatch’s rosé site had been harvested by teams of a half a dozen or so skilled pickers. They worked quickly, with laser-sharp focus, crisply clipping clean bunches of grapes into their buckets, vine by vine. 

But on September 24, just one person showed up. And this one person was not, it appeared, a professional. The vineyard owners fired the incompetent worker after an hour and a half, then spent the rest of the day frantically harvesting as much as they could themselves, before the rain started to fall. “I only ended up with half the fruit I had planned on,” says Hubatch, who is also the proprietor and winemaker of the Whoa Nelly! brand and a partner in Guild Winemakers. “Now I’m only going to be able to make about 50 cases of this wine.”

According to a report issued last autumn by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the North American migrant farm-labor workforce coming into the States from Mexico has declined “significantly” since 2007. But 2019 was the year when the West Coast wine industry truly felt the shortage—most keenly in Oregon. “A lot of migrant workers are deciding not to come, not to be here, not to stay,” Hubatch says. “And there is clearly no one else coming to take their spots.”

Anne Hubatch harvesting. Photo courtesy of Helioterra.

Uneven Weather and a Perfect Storm

This year the harvest almost didn’t happen on the West Coast. In Washington, a snowy spring and cold, damp autumn delayed picking to the point at which a portion of the vintage was lost to frost in mid-October. California, too, had a slow start, after a cold spring delayed budbreak, shortening the time frame for picking red grapes and pushing harvest past mid-October in some regions. 

And in the Willamette Valley, the month of September delivered a punishing series of rainstorms and cold snaps, forcing vine tenders to compress their picking calendars to take advantage of brief windows of sunshine. This erratic schedule transformed an already challenging labor shortage into a dire situation.

As harvest dates were scheduled, then canceled as rain fell, then rescheduled, seasonal laborers gave up on grapes and moved on to other crops that not only offered equally high wages but a less weather-dependent harvest schedule. Most prominent among these competitors were two fairly recent arrivals on the scene: late-ripening blueberry cultivars, which have been planted in response to climate change, and hemp, which is enjoying peak popularity at the moment.

Most vineyard managers pay by piece rate—that is, by the bucket rather than by the hour. Under the best conditions, in a productive vineyard, strong seasonal laborers in the Willamette Valley can make as much as $30 an hour by efficiently filling buckets with full, heavy grape clusters. 

But with vineyards compromised by weather this year, and picking windows condensed into hours rather than days, many migrant workers simply walked off the job. “I got shorted three or four times this year when it was critical,” says Chad Vargas, the proprietor of NewGen Vineyard Services in the Willamette Valley. “People just pick up and go somewhere else, and once you’ve lost them, they tend not to reconfigure the way they used to.”

Further complicating the situation for vine tenders, a new crop of labor contractors—U.S. citizens who are licensed by the state to manage a migrant labor workforce—has emerged in recent years, says Vargas. “There used to be just a handful of contractors who managed a lot of people,” he says. “Now there are lots of contractors who each [manage] just a few people”; he adds that these contractors aren’t necessarily familiar with the nuances of vineyard work.

As of August, Oregon became one of 14 states to allow undocumented workers to obtain driver’s licenses, thus removing one of the obstacles keeping laborers from vineyard sites, but for those without proof of citizenship or sufficient skill in English, the idea of going to a state-run DMV office is daunting. As a result, Vargas says, many skilled workers are at the mercy of licensed drivers with vans who charge contractors and laborers for transportation to vineyard sites.

Each player in this complex hierarchy has their own agenda—winery owners competing for vineyard-management firms, vineyard managers competing for reliable contractors, contractors competing for workers, drivers competing for passengers, and those few laborers who have risked the trip to the U.S. weighing their options for making the most of a brief harvest season. 

“Once you’ve had to cancel a crew because of weather, the contractor doesn’t know if his guys are going to come back,” Vargas says. “There’s not much loyalty in the industry anymore. We need the crews more than they need us.”

Deportation Risks Rattle Workers

Larger economic and political factors are at play as well. A construction boom up and down the West Coast has pulled itinerant labor to urban areas. In addition, Mexico—traditionally the primary source of migrant labor in the U.S.—is currently enjoying a strong economy, with increasing employment opportunities, a declining birthrate, and an unemployment rate lower than that of the U.S., albeit with a minimum wage that’s less than $5 an hour. 

In recent years, with the Mexican male workforce dwindling, vineyard managers say that they’ve seen more female laborers, and more arrivals from Central American nations, such as Guatemala. But now this new wave of laborers is also disappearing, for a couple of reasons. First, in posh wine-growing regions, even the most basic short-term accommodations are expensive. “The data suggest that it is very high housing costs in hand-harvested areas that deter the arrival of workers,” commented Philip Martin, a professor emeritus in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis, in an email. 

Then there is the political elephant in the room. This year, more than previously, vineyard managers and winemakers tell me that they believe the migrant labor population has dropped significantly because of fear generated by the rhetoric and actions involved in the mass deportation campaign underway in the U.S. under the Trump administration. Whether they’re undocumented migrant laborers, H-2A workers—more on this below—or even naturalized citizens, agrarian laborers live in a perpetual state of dread.

In 2017, Donald Trump issued executive orders expanding the powers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to detain residents, and rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. More recently, the president has been threatening to end the nation’s long-standing birthright citizenship policy. In addition, the administration recently announced Operation Second Look (OSL), a program that will investigate the files of 700,000 lawful permanent U.S. residents to determine whether they can be denaturalized. 

In Oregon, a state that has traditionally welcomed migrant laborers, the risks of daily undocumented life are beginning to outweigh the benefits of high-paying seasonal work. “ICE is showing up when people are just trying to pay their bills or their parking tickets,” says Iván Hernández, the communications manager at Causa Oregon, an immigrant rights organization. On October 18 this year, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon issued a statement calling for the state’s Uniform Trial Court Rules Committee to adopt a rule prohibiting civil immigration arrests in and around Oregon’s state courthouses without a judicial warrant. 

ICE officials have been staking out Oregon courthouses, according to the ACLU and news reports, using brute force and pepper spray to detain people they suspect of lacking documentation of citizenship. “When you have an administration creating these radical policy changes,” says Hernández, “that is definitely going to keep certain people away.” 

“We have been seeing record labor shortages in the mid–Willamette Valley and also statewide,” confirms Reyna López, the executive director of the PCUN farmworker union, an advocacy organization for Latinx working families in Oregon. “This is a trend up and down the West Coast.” 

According to López, workers are afraid to show up. There have been recent instances of ICE officers seizing laborers’ vans in Oregon as they were heading to the fields, she says. “This type of news spreads like wildfire in our community,” she adds. “People don’t want to leave their houses, to get groceries. Kids don’t show up to school, even if they are citizens. It has a real effect on our local economy.”

Harvest worker at the Stoller Wine Group. Photo courtesy of Stoller Wine Group.

The False Promise of the H-2A Program

A legal workaround for employers as well as employees is the H-2A program, first enacted in 1986. Designed by Congress to enable U.S. agricultural businesses to hire temporary laborers from other countries, it has eased the labor crisis somewhat, albeit mostly for farmers working in higher volumes and with more than one crop. Demand for H-2A visas has grown steadily since 2011, with a jump of 21 percent between 2017 and 2018, when the number of H-2A workers increased from approximately 200,000 to 242,800.

The wine industry, however, does not appear to make much use of the program, as the economic disincentives are greater than the incentives for the small crop and short harvest season that are characteristic of wine grapes. Employers must be able to prove that they have tried and failed to hire American laborers, and they must pay the workers’ travel expenses to the U.S., provide free housing, cover the cost of transportation to and from the work site, and guarantee a full-time work schedule. In addition, H-2A guest laborers must receive an hourly wage, adjusted by state, that’s higher than the minimum wage

Vineyard owners and managers say that on top of the costs, the process can be a bureaucratic nightmare, particularly in Oregon—because of state laws and a particularly litigious state agency—where migrant labor is needed most since mechanical harvesting has not yet become the norm.

By contrast, in Washington, where many vineyards properties double as fruit-tree orchards, the H-2A program is more popular, as an on-site workforce can be kept occupied full-time for months on end, from June cherry harvest through October apple picking, rendering the travel costs a more worthwhile investment.

Still, H-2A is not a feasible option for most of the wine industry, whose leaders continually voice frustration that they aren’t able to access the skilled workforce they need through legal avenues. “Addressing labor in a systemic way, and a way that ensures long-term stability, is constantly at the top of our talking points whenever we are meeting with members of Congress or the administration because it has been an intractable issue for so long,” remarks Ryan Pennington, who serves on the board of directors of the trade and policy groups Wine America and the Washington Wine Institute, in addition to his role as senior director of communications and corporate affairs at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “We have not seen signals that there is a desire to enact anything.”

Mechanical harvesting at Stoller Wine Group. Photo courtesy of Stoller Wine Group.

Why Mechanical Harvesters Can’t Replace All Pickers

With the labor outlook bleak, winemakers in Washington and California have set their sights on mechanical harvesting; even for high-end, hand-sold wines, machine picking is the new norm. Lance Vande Hoef, the U.S. sales representative for Pellenc, a prominent producer of vehicles and equipment for mechanical harvesting, says his sales growth has been notably strong over the past four to five years, increasing by some 50 percent during that time. 

Vande Hoef attributes his company’s success in part to increases in minimum wages. In 2017, California approved a wage hike from a minimum of $10 per hour to $15 per hour by 2023. In 2016, Washington voters approved a minimum wage increase from $9.47 per hour to $13.50 in 2020. Also in 2016, Oregon set its $9.25-per-hour minimum wage to increase by as much as $5.50 by 2022.

“Handpicking has been costing around $2,000 an acre,” says Vande Hoef. “So in five years, it’s going to be close to $3,000. If you own your own machine, you can pick for $250 an acre.” Vande Hoef adds that the retail price of a towed harvester, pulled behind a tractor, is approximately $200,000, while self-propelled machines sell in the $350,000 to $450,000 range. Attachments that enable the machines to perform other functions throughout the year—such as cultivating, mowing, pre-pruning, leaf pulling, and compost spreading—can add another $50,000 to the price, but these year-round capabilities offset the overall investment in the equipment.

A less expensive option, Vande Hoef says, is to hire a vineyard-management company able to bring its own mechanical harvesters to multiple sites. “If you hire people to machine harvest,” he says, “rates are still just $500 or $600 an acre.” The latest technology, he adds, has rendered harvesters more precise and thus able to handle more delicate grape varieties. And the harvesters reduce the labor needed at the winery by destemming and sorting fruit in the field, dropping debris such as stems and leaves to compost on the vineyard soil.

“It’s really good bang for the buck,” says Jason Muscio, the owner of Chalky Ridge Vineyard Management in Santa Barbara County in California. Muscio specializes in custom picking with mechanical harvesters. “You can go out and pick a truckload in a couple of hours,” he says. Muscio’s crew machine-picks approximately 700 acres of vines annually, and handpicks another 150 or so; mechanical harvesting, Muscio says, is a much better deal for his clients. “We charge $600 an acre,” he says, “and that includes the machine, the operator, a tractor driver, me, and my right-hand guy.”

Oregon has been slow to adopt mechanical picking, but after this fall’s challenging harvest, it’s on the minds of vine tenders here. “We are in the middle of a shift,” says Jason Tosch, the vice president of vineyard operations for Stoller Wine Group in the Willamette Valley. “The political climate at the federal level has definitely created a point in time where it feels like there’s no going back and there’s a new norm we’ll need to adapt to and prepare for. We will have to raise prices or mechanize.”

Photo courtesy of Pellenc.

The state has been late to mechanical harvesting for a number of reasons. First, the machinery available in the U.S. at present can’t navigate steeply angled hillside sites, which are ubiquitous in Oregon. In addition, the predominant grape variety in the state, Pinot Noir, is thin-skinned and delicate, requiring a highly skilled operator who can machine-harvest the fruit without smashing it. The cold, damp climate of the Willamette Valley poses another stumbling block, as mold-and-rot-tainted grapes tend to hide among healthy fruit clusters.

Also, it’s impossible at present to machine-harvest whole clusters, removing an essential part from the Oregon winemaking tool kit. In this state planted heavily with Pinot Noir and Gamay, carbonic maceration is a popular method for turning out light-bodied, fruity red wines, and stem maceration is used to add texture and spice to more seriously styled Pinots.

Finally, because the majority of producers in Oregon are boutique family wineries farming low-yielding vineyards, the math just doesn’t pencil out yet. “You need to be harvesting 200 acres, producing 3.5 to 4 tons per acre over a six- to seven-year period,” says Tosch, “if you are going to buy a machine.” Growers in Oregon tend to farm only a handful of acres and harvest less than 3 tons per acre.

Tosch, who works primarily with Pinot Noir, says that for his purposes, machines are slower than a team of skilled stewards. “The thing about hand labor,” he says, “is that you can have 80 people show up in the early morning and pick 50 tons within four or five hours and be done before noon.” A mechanical picker, he says, must be operated all night and into the next day in order to cover the same amount of ground and avoid the heat of the afternoon. 

Humanitarian Solutions to a Labor Crisis

While Tosch does harvest a portion of his fruit mechanically—he brought in a total of 2,000 tons of grapes this year, making the Stoller Group one of Oregon’s largest wineries—he also relies heavily on hand harvesting. 

In an effort to retain skilled labor, Tosch currently oversees 15 full-time agricultural laborers—all of whom receive health care and 401K benefits—and tells me that he plans to hire approximately 15 more in the near future. With 500 acres of estate property on top of leased vineyard sites, Tosch says he’ll find ways to keep the team busy with landscaping and other tasks during the off-season.

At Stoller Family Estate, the company’s flagship property, Tosch shows me an attractive new barn that’s been set up as a break room for vineyard laborers—it has a unisex shower, men’s and women’s restrooms, a kitchen outfitted with multiple microwaves, a garage door that rolls up for fair weather, and dining tables. It can also be heated or air-conditioned, depending on the season, making for some of the most pleasant agricultural working conditions in the Willamette Valley. “We recognize,” Tosch says, “that it’s all about the people.” 

Likewise, at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Kevin Corliss, the vice president of vineyards, oversees a full-time crew of more than 150 vineyard hands, all of whom enjoy benefits and are members of the United Farm Workers labor union. SMWE is the third-largest premium wine company in the U.S., with wineries in Washington, Oregon, and California, as well as international partnerships, and can afford to take care of its employees. “Our crew members tend to have very long tenures,” says Corliss. “These people have been with us for a long, long time … You cherish good people and try to keep them happy.”

López, of the PCUN farmworker union, says she’s been hearing that the recent labor shortages have resulted in some positive changes for vineyard stewards. “One thing we are seeing,” she says, “is vineyard workers being contracted for longer and kept around longer because of the fear of losing the workforce. Workers are realizing that they are not disposable.”

Harvest at Cramiosi Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Cramiosi Vineyard.

Innovation and Activism

Indeed, there is an upside to the labor crisis. Not only are conditions improving for itinerant laborers but a new movement seeks to better their prospects for the long term.

Miguel Lopez (no relation to Reyna López) is one advocate for positive change in the Oregon vineyard-labor community. Alongside his sister, Eva Lopez, he has launched a new vineyard-management company, Red Dirt Vineyard Labor, with a progressive mission.

Lopez was born in the U.S. but grew up surrounded by families of vineyard workers without documentation, when his father, Santiago, managed the vineyards for Beaux Frères in the Willamette Valley from 1991 through 1995. After working in various positions in the Oregon wine industry, from winemaking to vineyard management to sales to operations management, Lopez and his sister launched their business with the determination to improve conditions for laborers and ease the uncertainty of vineyard owners. 

“My father always encouraged his guys to learn how to drive, get their licenses, and learn to speak English,” Lopez says. “I can see a lot of the people he promoted and encouraged working in the industry today. It’s a matter of paying it forward. I’m now in a position to help.” Lopez left a position as operations manager and brand ambassador at Domaine Roy & Fils to run Red Dirt Vineyard Labor

Miguel and Eva started their business when they saw how dysfunctional migrant labor was in Oregon, with well-trained vineyard stewards disappearing and being replaced by inexperienced laborers, who were in turn underpaid by mercenary labor contractors. I hope,” says Lopez, “that by being here, we can do away with third-party contractors who aren’t interested in showing people how to do the job correctly and are charging a fee to provide labor.

“My margins are small,” he adds. “I’m not here to get rich overnight. I’m here to help people out in a pinch—and grow in a way I believe is right.” Red Dirt pays above minimum wage and retains 15 highly skilled employees year-round, a number that grows to 40 in the high season, Lopez says. “We seek out and train individuals we can work with,” Lopez says, “and keep them long term by paying more per hour throughout the year. We pay more per bucket. We say, ‘Do a good job during the growing season and you’ll receive rewards during harvest and a bonus if you stick around for the whole season.’”

The Lopez siblings do their best to assuage the fears that keep workers away, and their roles as business owners include tasks like navigating the bureaucracy of the public school system on behalf of their employees’ families. We are the children of immigrants,” Lopez says. “Our guys have stuck with us because they trust us. We grew up farming in this valley; we speak Spanish. We will share a meal with them, sitting on the ground in the vineyard, and invite them over to our homes for dinner.” 

In addition, along with his Willamette Valley wine-industry friends Jesus Guillén—the winemaker at White Rose Estate, who died last year after a brief battle with cancer—and Sofía Torres McKay, the proprietor at Cramoisi Vineyard in Dundee, Lopez has cofounded a nonprofit, called AHIVOY, to educate vineyard stewards. “A lot of times I’ll be talking with folks in the field and they’ll ask, ‘What happens to the grapes after we harvest them?’” Lopez says. “I say, ‘Let’s go to a winery and take a look.’ And I tell them, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity here for you and your children to educate yourself in this trade.’”

His AHIVOY cofounder Sofía Torres McKay grew up in Mexico and worked in tech before founding Cramoisi Vineyard with her husband. Because of her heritage, Torres McKay says, her vineyard stewards confide in her that they don’t see opportunities available to them. “Working in the vineyard is wonderful,” she says, “and it is a beautiful job, because everything that we have in the wine industry starts in the vineyards. But believing that it is the only position [the workers] can take, to me, is wrong.”

As their bodies age, it’s critical that skilled, longtime vine tenders consider work that isn’t as physically taxing, Torres McKay says. She cofounded AHIVOY to encourage these knowledgeable vineyard stewards to aim for managerial or other jobs in the industry. 

Torres McKay says when she asks vineyard workers why they haven’t, for example, taken English classes or considered furthering their prospects in the wine industry, she hears that they lack the time and money to look past each day’s work. In addition, their fear of immigration officials keeps them from venturing further than the fields. “They feel isolated,” she says. “We as an industry let them feel isolated.” And while there are organizations that provide essentials, such as health care, legal assistance, and basic services, “there is no action,” Torres McKay says, “to let them feel like they are part of the industry.”

AHIVOY aims to change that by providing career-enhancement education. The program will launch with 12 students in 2020, registering them for classes and paying them for any work hours missed. The curriculum will cover vineyard management, winemaking, and sales. The classes, held in Salem at the Chemeketa Community College Wine Studies Department, will be conducted in English. 

Torres McKay says that while stewards who have been laboring in the U.S. for years may appear to speak only Spanish, “they hear English all the time. They don’t speak it because they are afraid to make mistakes. I tell them, ‘It’s okay—this is my second language and I still make a lot of mistakes.’” Vine tenders know enough terms from the field, she says, to be able to pick up the rest through immersion. “We also include biodynamics in the curriculum,” she adds. “They get very excited about it, because it’s [similar to] how the Aztecs used to farm.”

The long-term goal, says Torres McKay, is to establish a force of workers that sticks around because they can see opportunities to move from the field to other areas in the industry. “Who will tell a better story in the tasting room than someone who has worked out in the vineyard?” she asks. “Visitors hear about winemaking all the time, but they say it’s eye-opening for them to taste wines outside and hear about what happens in the vineyard throughout the year.” 

Offering field laborers the opportunity to transition into the winery, she says, will instill loyalty and give vine tenders a reason to stay in the region. For vineyard and winery owners, the program should provide a source of security. And for the stewards who have been quietly toiling in Oregon’s vineyards for so many years, it will be a source of hope.

Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.

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