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Where Have All the Workers Gone?

Wine prices could jump if field hands opt to stay home in Mexico

Tim Fish
Posted: July 31, 2006

Napa vineyard manager Pete Richmond noticed something different this past April. It had been a long and soggy winter, but the fields had finally dried and it was time to start preparing the vines for the new growing season. There was just one problem: Where were all the field hands?

"As soon as the weather dried up, the labor force dried up, too," said Richmond, whose Silverado Farming Co. is contracted to manage a number of small vineyards in Napa. "In the 20 years I've been doing this, this is the hardest I've ever worked."

Steve Dutton, a Sonoma County grower who farms 1,100 acres of vines, agrees that many workers didn't return in the spring. "I'm worried about it," Dutton said. "It's my guess it will only get worse as harvest approaches."

Labor shortages, of course, are a common complaint among Northern California growers, but 2006 is shaping up to be one of the most troublesome years in decades. And that could potentially have an impact on consumers. If competition for workers increases, wages for workers could rise, putting pressure on growers and wineries to pass the cost along to consumers. Alternatively, wine quality could suffer if producers are forced to use machines to do the vineyard work rather than people.

The reason for the shortages, many believe, is increased tensions over immigration in the United States. The California wine industry relies heavily on migrant workers from Mexico, and even the United Farm Workers (UFW) concedes that a majority of the vineyard workers in the United States are undocumented.

"A lot of the workers went home for the winter and never made it back," said Elias Torres, a native of Mexico who has operated a vineyard management company in Sonoma County since 1974. Torres estimates that the size of his work force is down more than 50 percent from normal. "There's a crackdown at the border and they keep trying and trying to get across. When they run out of money, they give up and go home."

The problem is particularly acute in small, remote growing regions such as Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. "I'm hearing that people are having a hard time keeping crews together," said Glenn McGourty, the University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties.

But not everyone believes that immigration difficulties are the cause of the shortage. UFW spokesman Marc Grossman called it a complex issue, and one a long time in the making. "We had already seen the impact of the border crackdowns with 9/11," Grossman said. "There are plenty of people out there, but they are choosing to work elsewhere."

For example, there has been a boom in construction in recent years, Grossman explained, and that industry pays far better than the $7 to $15 an hour that field hands make. Also, while the pay for service jobs in restaurants, for example, is on par with field work, those jobs are considerably less physically demanding. "And the cost of housing is terrible in Napa and Sonoma," Grossman said, so the workers are moving elsewhere.

Growers and managers would like to see a guest-worker program established, which would allow migrants to work in the United States six to nine months a year. "The guys who work for us don't want to be citizens," Dutton said. "They just want to make a quick buck and go home."

With tensions flaring in Congress over immigration, no one sees a solution arriving anytime soon--certainly not by harvest. And if the harvest is fast and furious, with most vineyards ripening all at once (as was the case in 2004), "it's going to be scary," Torres said, adding that he'll be in the field this year himself, picking grapes alongside his crew. It'll be the first time in 25 years he's had to do so.

As harvest approaches, growers and managers are already offering more money to workers, and are increasingly worried that a bidding war might break out. "In the end," Torres said, "it's the consumer who's going to pay."

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