Winemakers Wonder: Who Will Pick the Grapes?
Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
It will be many months before any grapes are ready to pick but winemakers in the Napa and Sonoma valleys are already fretting that they will not have enough workers for the harvest.
“I’m super-worried about it this year,” said Nico Cueva, winemaker at Kosta Browne, a high-end winemaker in Sonoma County. “Our industry is based on immigration.”
More than two-thirds of California farmworkers are undocumented immigrants and the Trump Administration’s threatened crackdown is scaring many of them away, winemakers say.
The labor crunch is hurting all types of agricultural businesses in California but the upscale vineyards of Napa and Sonoma have particular needs. Unlike the industrial grows of the central coast, where grapes are often mechanically harvested, grapes in Napa and Sonoma are almost always handpicked.
Winemakers say this helps avoid bruising the fruit, among other advantages.
Another factor, says Mr. Cueva: California’s cannabis industry has been poaching some workers and outdoor-grown marijuana and grapes are harvested at around the same time.
Austin Peterson, winemaker at Ovid, a boutique winery on the hills overlooking Napa Valley, says winemakers have already had trouble finding workers to prune the vines this year.
“There’s already a shortage of labor — more than in recent memory,” he said. “Everyone in agriculture is hopeful that immigration reform comes soon.”
The shortage has overtaken water concerns as the No. 1 problem for vineyards, says David E. Block, the chairman of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis.
At elite wineries the optimum harvest window can sometimes be as short as six or 12 hours – even less if unfavorable weather arrives around harvest time. So having crews available is crucial to the quality of the grapes.
Could the labor shortage hurt the quality of this year’s top California wines?
“I’m not sure it’s gotten bad enough to where people are thinking it will compromise the quality of the harvest,” Mr. Block said. “But everyone is racing to get a crew ready to pick.”