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Napa and Sonoma Vintners Face Record Heat and a Labor Shortage

When a heat wave hit, some wineries scrambled to pick, but they're pleased with quality
Photo by: Courtesy Saxon Brown
Workers pick Zinfandel at Stonewall Vineyard in Sonoma Valley. More vines are being machine-harvested these days.

Aaron Romano
Posted: September 12, 2017

For three days over Labor Day weekend, temperatures in Napa and Sonoma exceeded 105° F. Some areas saw heat over 110°. The swelter led many vintners to accelerate picking, hoping to get grapes off the vines and into tanks before they overripened or shriveled. But they faced an added hurdle—the rush came at a time when the region is already grappling with a shortage of vineyard labor.

Most vintners tell Wine Spectator that the harvest is safe for now. While temperatures were bad, they were able to pick what needed to come in and protect fruit that needs more time to ripen. But the heat spell has many worried. Are more temperature spikes coming? And what can vintners do about the looming issue of who picks their fruit?

A dwindling workforce

After five years of drought, you could excuse California vintners for hoping that the 2017 grape harvest would be easy and uneventful. And until recently, it looked that way. The state finally pulled out of the drought this past winter. Rain did not persist into spring and summer, staying concerns over mildew. The crop was expected to be average in size, with good quality.

But in recent years there's been a growing concern that a shortage in farm labor could complicate harvest. The reasons for the current labor shortage are complex. A federal survey found that nine out of 10 agricultural workers in California are foreign-born, many of them undocumented. Crackdowns by federal immigration authorities, both real and imagined, lead to fewer workers. For many seasonal farmworkers, it's become cost prohibitive and dangerous to cross the U.S.-Mexico border for a few seasons' worth of work.

Those that are already here are sometimes choosing alternative work, including trimming California's newest cash crop, marijuana, which can offer competitive wages to grape picking, and is significantly easier work, often done in the comfort of air-conditioned greenhouses. The current low unemployment rate means there are jobs in other sectors too.

A harvest accelerated

Despite the shortage, most vintners tell Wine Spectator they were pleasantly surprised when it came time to begin picking last month. But then the temperature started rising.

Many vintners in Sonoma's Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast regions reported record-breaking temperatures and shriveled or sunburned grape clusters. Varieties with delicate skins like Pinot Noir could not handle the intense heat, and unirrigated vineyards fared even worse.

Vintners who could irrigate, increased their watering ahead of the heat spell to avoid excessive sun damage and dehydration to leaves and fruit. Chappellet in Napa Valley experienced 10 straight days of 100° F or higher, peaking at 117°. But they began to irrigate four days before the heat wave hit to give the grapes some breathing room.

"We didn't have any dehydration," said Cyril Chappellet, the winery's current board chairman. "High heat didn't help, but then it cooled down for a week and we are still expecting a good harvest. It wasn't ideal, but the key was we were able to have water on the vineyards before the high heat."

"The heat threw everyone a curve, and this is when you learn how good your growing partners are and how well you can communicate," said Jeff Gaffner of Saxon Brown in Sonoma. Gaffner had already been preparing for labor shortages by planning his picks seven to 14 days out, rather than the five to seven days he's become accustomed to in recent years. The heat spike prompted him to schedule picks for nine different vineyards over a week to ensure he had a crew ready when the grapes were ripe.

A promising vintage

After a month of picking, Northern California is less than halfway through this harvest. Vintners say the grapes show excellent quality and flavors, which has alleviated concerns about below-normal yields. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are all mostly in.

Late-ripening grapes like Cabernet should still be another two weeks out, but vintners are turning their attention to the grape, in the event of another heat spike or other unpredictable weather patterns. The week following Labor Day, temperatures tapered off, but much of Northern California experienced a rare spell of humidity, punctuated by rain, bringing with it the threat of mildew and botrytis. The erratic weather has many vintners on their toes for whatever may come next. "You have to remember it's just farming—you can't control everything, no matter how well you prepare for it," said Jeff Ames of Rudius.

Napa has more than 20,000 acres of Cabernet vines. Picking the region could prove to be the tipping point to show just how much available labor there is. Then again, Napa is where every laborer wants to be. Napa County pays farmworkers an average of $41,940 a year, compared to the rest of the state, which averages anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.

Some workers travel three or four hours to be part of a crew in Napa in order to bring in more money, and some are even offered payment for their commuting expenses. This kind of competitive pay can often lure pickers away from others in need of labor. "Technology has changed the game, because everyone has a cell phone," said Gaffner. "They find out someone is paying more across the valley, and I get 2 a.m. phone calls to negotiate a higher wage."

Next year?

While the shortage isn't having significant impact so far, the issue is making vintners consider long-term options. Wages for farm labor are on the rise, in part because of the statewide increase in minimum wage, which will reach $15 an hour by 2022, and partly due to the fact that there are few willing to do the backbreaking work, whether it's harvesting grapes in Napa or lettuce in Salinas.

Vintners are caught in a limbo, wondering how to keep their business sustainable. One answer: "You just pay more," said Ames bluntly. "With the cost of everything in the valley, the picking is the last crucial step before you get it to the winery; you pay the crews more and make it worth their time."

Robert Abercrombie, senior vice president of vineyard operations for Trinchero Family Wines, the fourth-largest wine company in the country with vineyards throughout California, says they've faced most of their challenges in Santa Barbara County, but they've seen a very tight labor supply in many of the regions they pick. "We've still been able to get the work done," said Abercrombie, crediting longstanding relationships with workers.

Keeping a crew employed year-round or building tight relationships with vineyard management crews is a key strategy. "I am grateful for our decision 20 years ago to give our field crew year-round employment," said viticulturist Jordan Lonborg of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles. "We don't have to worry about whether or not we can find crew in the stretches where everyone is looking to pick at the same time."

Machine harvesting is another option. Roughly 80 percent of California's wine grapes are mechanically harvested. That number is perhaps skewed by bulk wine grown in California's Central Valley, but harvester quality has improved enough that some premium wineries are trying it.

Abercrombie noted that they've had to use mechanical pickers on occasion to ensure they were bringing in grapes at the optimal time. "There are certainly still some vineyard locations we feel are better-suited to hand picking, but we've been pleased with the quality of our machine picks thus far," he said.

T.J. Evans, winemaker at Napa's Domaine Carneros, said they purchased two machines this year but used them for just 3 percent of their grape tonnage. "We wanted to get our toe in the water and reach a comfort level for what we can and can't do with a machine," said Evans.

There's no debating the efficiency of mechanized pickers. A machine with a two-person crew can pick 5 tons an hour, compared to an eight-person team harvesting approximately 1.5 tons per hour. But Evans says that they have yet to find a mechanical system that can deliver the quality they want. "Its hard to machine pick for sparkling grapes because too much breakage could lead to color extraction, and if we can't harvest perfectly intact clusters, we'll be making a lot of rosé!"

He did note that every time they replant a vineyard, they make sure to make it compatible with machine harvesting. "The last three years has really shown a significant rise in labor cost and concern, and we want to get as much as an advantage as we can while decreasing manual labor," he said.

However, the majority of small to medium-size wineries can't afford the price of a machine, which can cost upwards of $300,000. And not all vineyards are accessible to machines, such as Ames' Rudius estate vineyard on Howell Mountain. "The stuff on the floor is fairly flat and planted with 5 x 7 [feet] or 8 x 10 [feet between rows], with room at the end of the rows," explains Ames, "But for vineyards like mine at 3 x 5 [feet] and hilly, there is no way I can do it; I can't even get a tractor in there."

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