Labor Shortages, Heat Spikes and Heavy Rains Plague Harvests in Lodi and the California Coast

Harvest is underway at Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi

An honoree of Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Award for Wine Region of the Year in 2015  a combination of poor weather and labor shortages are leading to harvest troubles in Lodi, California. Located 100 miles east of San Francisco in San Joaquin County, Lodi has more than 80 wineries and about 100,000 acres of wine grapes.

Paul Verdegaal, UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, said the Lodi area experienced rainfall almost 200 percent higher than average at the beginning of the year. He said that the vines, “were growing hard and fast, and used up the soil moisture faster than anybody anticipated.” A series of heat spikes over the summer added to the strain, with some growers experiencing both raisinating and rot.

Labor shortages have exacerbated Lodi’s weather problems. Many growers rushed to pick during a Labor Day heat wave, but could not find enough workers. Winemaker Joseph Smith of Klinker Brick Winery, whose wines are available in 45 states, concedes.

“We’re having a harder time finding people to complete these tasks. It just seems different than last year. It seems like there’s a shortage.”

Grubbing Up Old Vines

Yields are expected to be up to 20 percent lower than last year, according to Stuart Spencer of the Lodi Grape Commission. He adds the higher minimum wage and limited labor supply meant, “ultimately, it’s going to drive the costs of the grapes and wines higher.”

Lodi calls itself the “Zinfandel Capital of the World,” producing 40 percent of California’s signature grape and the complicated trellis systems require handpicking.

Kevin Phillips, vice president of operations for Michael David Winery, maker of 7 Deadly Zins, explains that some estates are choosing to rip out their Zinfandel vines.

“You’re paying more for labor, demand is down, so you’re getting paid less, and your crop has dried up. They’re getting yanked out in numbers I’ve never seen.”

Reduced demand for Zinfandel, combined with labor shortages and a tough growing season, has led some winemakers to grub up the old vines in favor of varieties that can be harvested by machine.

Phillips opposes removing the old vines.

Zinfandel is “what Lodi hangs its hat on, and that’s specifically because of these old vines,” he says, adding, “We’re watching the demise of something that are cultural treasures, they should be valued and protected, and instead they’re getting torn up in record numbers. They’ve been around 50, 100 years and to see them dozed is just tragic.”

Wildfires, Rain, Heat Waves

The Central Coast has also been struck by labor shortages. The region produces about 15 percent of all California wine from boutique to bulk. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties both faced July wildfires, in addition to early season rain and a series of heat waves.

Labor in the region is shared with other agricultural harvests, and many workers now head to Napa where more prestigious wineries can afford higher wages.

Michael Brughelli of Thornhill Companies, whose three properties include 60 clients growing a variety of grapes, said that finding labor was increasingly difficult, “It’s a matter of whether we can pay them enough to entice them to work in grapes rather than fruit or vegetables.”

Congressman Bob Goodlatte, said last week he intends to introduce a bill to replace the existing federal H-2A program with one that is more flexible for guest workers, but the Virginia Republican declined to say when he would make such a move.

Published on September 27, 2017
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