What Wineries Can Do to Better Support Their Immigrant Labor Force

You have the power to change lives by cultivating the talent in your vineyards

Winemaking boils down to these things: the soil and the environment, the vine and the grapes, and the people. It’s essential for winery owners to understand the real importance of the highly skilled people working in the fields to yield high-quality fruit, as well as the great value they can bring to winemaking itself.

I grew up in Mexico—in Jiménez, Chihuahua. My dad came to the United States to work in vineyards in Oregon in 2000; he had spent his whole life working in agriculture and had a lot of skills and knowledge about plants. He started as a vineyard laborer and worked his way up to become the vineyard manager at White Rose Estate in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

I graduated from university in Chihuahua in December 2001 with a degree in computer systems engineering and got a visa to visit my dad. I loved Oregon immediately and got this crazy idea to stay—in part because I tasted two wines that changed my life: the 1999 Archery Summit Arcus Estate Pinot Noir, and the 1999 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir. They were so incredible that I knew I had to pursue a winemaking career. I enrolled in English classes and got work as a vineyard laborer nearby, at Patricia Green Cellars.

When harvest was over, I was invited by Greg Sanders, the owner of White Rose Estate, to help with production by working in the cellar. Greg would open wines and let me taste along with him—he taught me the appreciation and sensory evaluation of wine. Mark Vlossak, Greg’s consulting winemaker, taught me the fundamentals of winemaking. Soon, I was working full-time at White Rose. Over the years, I would work in the field and in the cellar, learning more about the entire winemaking process. By 2004, I was White Rose Estate’s cellarmaster. A few years later, I was given the opportunity to be a winemaker. I was thrilled that my first vintages both scored 94-plus points in The Wine Advocate.

There’s a lesson here: Greg Sanders recognized my drive, my curiosity, and my interest in learning wine. He supported that interest and took a chance on me. And ultimately, it was good for his business—he found someone passionate about producing great wines.

Yes, I already had the drive and the desire to make beautiful wines. But many workers in the fields are interested in learning about winemaking and developing their careers.

First, I think it’s very important for them to learn about the functions of the wine business, including viticulture, wine production, cellar operations, sales, and hospitality management. As a winery owner or manager, you can invite workers to educational tastings and host courses on these topics.

Second, it’s important that vineyard laborers are treated with dignity and respect—they are the foundation of your operation. If they don’t work, nothing happens. Globally, we’ve seen shortages of vineyard laborers, and the impact can be devastating; some vineyards simply aren’t able to harvest their fruit because they don’t have the people power.

These are the most important ways wineries can help their documented workers. But for the many undocumented workers in the industry, there is a third step, and this path is more complex. There are programs for temporary workers permits, where individuals come and stay for a time and then leave. But for the many undocumented people that are already here, this is not an option. They are not provided with driver’s licenses and social security nets, so it’s not an easy life for them.

Even with a winery’s support, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get documented unless you’re considered “skilled labor,” and the worker in the field doesn’t qualify. But winery support can be expressed by getting interested in the issue, and by helping your workers get the information and resources they need. Then, get involved with organizations that can help advance pathways to documentation, and call on legislators and government representatives to talk about the importance of immigrant workers to the industry.

The fact is that immigrant workers are very highly skilled. They are willing to work in extreme conditions of heat and cold; they understand agriculture and the earth they’re working. It’s important for us to see to it that they are happy, healthy, and safe—to allow them to do the best job possible.

My call to action is simple: Recognize the value of your workers, and give them opportunities for growth and education. Share information and resources to equip them for success. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes fiscal sense—your laborers learn more about what’s being made, and you develop a more passionate, engaged workforce. Everyone wins.

Jesus Guillén grew up in Jiménez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and graduated with a degree in computer systems engineering from Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua in 2001. He moved to Oregon in 2002, when he began to study English and started as a vineyard laborer for Patricia Green Cellars. He became a winemaker at White Rose Estate in 2008 and, since 2007, for his own label, Guillén Family Wines.