Labor crisis now reality for wine region

By Howard W. Hewitt

Earlier this year, Grape Sense featured a look at the potential of a labor crisis in Napa/Sonoma during this fall harvest season.

The potential has become a reality for many in the nation’s premier wine region.

For the past several years, farm labor was paid $15 an hour. Napa has built dormitory-type buildings over the recent past for housing, as well.

This year, wages have jumped closer to an average of $18 an hour with some stories that big-name wineries are paying more, much more. One unsubstantiated report had a $300 bottle of wine producer paying $45. Top pickers in Soma have been commanding up to $30 an hour the past couple of years.

The labor shortage covers a lot of issues. Federal immigration enforcement increased under the Obama administration. Additionally, as the largely Hispanic workforce ages, their children are going to college and finding less physically stressful jobs. Sonoma County winegrowers have more than 5,000 full-time workers but hire an additional 2,600 seasonal workers for harvest, so it’s not a small problem.

There are lots of anecdotes about husband and wife picking up their kids and moving to Napa. But after a few harvests, the married team learns they can work various positions in the thriving hospitality industry for more money and no back-breaking, long days of labor.

When harvest is complete, it will be interesting to see if there is actual fruit that got left on the vine because of worker shortages.

I’ve written several times lately about things going on in Oregon. The Willamette Valley continues to be one of the more interesting regions to follow. The area’s Pinot Noir is now considered world class and is a hot commodity.

Family ownership of Silver Oak Vineyards, known for its outstanding Napa Cab, just recently completed purchase of Dick Erath’s last vineyard near Archery Summit and Domaine Serene — pretty fancy company. Erath, now in his 80s, was one of the valley’s pioneers. He long ago sold his groundbreaking winery to St. Michelle of Washington.

The new money is being found from great Oregon Pinot Noir. It won’t be surprising to see more Napa names turn up there.

Speaking of Oregon, the vintners continue to kick up production. Sales grew by 12 percent last year from acreage of more than 30,000. In 2016 alone, 23 new wineries opened across the state. Cabernet grapes are the nation’s most expensive, but Oregon Pinot grapes from top-name vineyards can command more than $5,000 a ton. A ton of grapes will make about 60 cases of wine. There, you now can do some math.

Howard W. Hewitt of Crawfordsville writes about wine every other week for more than 20 Indiana newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected].