A near-perfect growing season in Sonoma, marked by record rainfall and a mild frost-free spring, gave way this month to record heat and thunderstorms. This forced some teams of pickers to work around the clock.
The weather has exacerbated continuing concerns about finding enough labor to work the harvest. In addition to immigration pressures, finding labor is an increasing issue for the wine industry as workers flee to construction, hospitality and cannabis-related jobs.
Vineyards Competing for Available Workers
Farm labor will be on the agenda in the House of Representatives next week. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, will introduce the Agricultural Guestworker Act. It aims to replace and improve the H-2A program with a more efficient and flexible guest-worker program for farms.
Ryan Decker is the winegrower for Rodney Strong Vineyards, which owns just under 1,200 acres of wine grapes throughout Sonoma County and buys about twice that amount from other growers.
He works with a management company to pick the grapes, employing grape samplers to help determine a vineyard’s readiness for the pick. Decker says he has had a hard time finding those workers. Typically, he will hire three or four every year. This year he has two.
“This isn’t the first year labor’s a little tough,” he says. “Five, 10 years ago, you’d have people knocking on doors for work. We haven’t seen that for a couple years. But stuff’s getting done, the labor is just very aware of what everybody’s paying.”
There is more competition for the workers.
“To retain them, you have to raise your rates, you have to pay more, and so it’s more costly to get it done,” he adds.
Rates in Sonoma vary, but a fairly straightforward high-yielding vineyard will pay $200 to $400 a ton to pick, spread across a crew of eight to nine workers. If a vineyard is low yielding, rates are often hourly at about $14 to $15 per picker.
“Vineyard workers can make a lot if they’re good,” Decker says.
Like many others, he is increasingly turning to machine harvesting varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir where he can. In test trials, Decker says, the quality has been almost indistinguishable.
Machines cannot help with the hundreds of acres of steep hillside Cabernet vineyards Rodney Strong owns in Alexander Valley, which tend to ripen around the same time.
“We need an army for our own hillside ranches,” he says.
Right now, the region is in a lull between early ripening varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and later varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.