It’s 5:30 a.m. at the Rancho Guejito Vineyard. A cool morning breeze nestles into the San Pasqual Valley as a dozen crew members finish picking Grenache grapes, an hour ahead of schedule. As the harvest crews head home, a forklift driver begins moving five tons worth of harvest grapes onto a loading truck. By 9 a.m., these grapes will be put into tanks, beginning the fermentation process. Not a minute is lost — especially when the summer heat is near. 

Harvest is where all the magic happens. It’s game day, or days, in wine culture. It’s what determines a good wine versus an exceptional wine. It’s what puts a winery on the map. So, after months of preparation, picking grapes at the right time, with the right hands – it plays a big part in how that wine will taste once it gets to your lips. CampestreMAG interviewed several local vineyard owners, managers and labor groups to understand more about the labor force behind San Diego County vineyards and the challenges they are facing this harvest season. 

Who is picking the wine grapes in San Diego County?

CampestreMAG reached out to the San Diego County Vintners Association to help answer this question. The Association says: “With the exception of Hill Springs Vineyards and Fallbrook Winery, very few seasonal workers are hired in San Diego County for the grape harvest. Orfila has their own year-round work force and most of the smaller boutique wineries use volunteers and family members to harvest. We use our regular employees and supplement with two or three college student interns that are studying viticulture or enology at college.” 

CampestreMAG found that there are also additional vineyards that hire seasonal workers for harvest using labor contracting groups. 

According to the Employment Development Department’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, San Diego County wine jobs are growing – more than doubling from 2014 to 2017.  While the job market for wine workers may look positive, it’s still an area that local vineyards struggle with – especially when it comes to finding and paying for skilled harvest workers.

“They [harvest workers] need to have experience. People who don’t have experience can’t pick the grapes. People who have good experience, it is good for them to make extra money. There are only a limited number of people who get to harvest,” said Rao Anne from Hill Springs Farm LLC. 

Overall, It was extremely difficult to find specific numbers regarding the demographics of seasonal harvest workers in California. Of the wine regions that CampestreMAG spoke with, many regions didn’t have specific data showcasing the exact number of seasonal harvest workers hired or data on where the workers were coming from to work seasonally.  

How does labor affect your wine’s final price tag? 

“People want hand-picked [grapes]. They pay a little extra because labor costs went up. You used to pay $12 an hour, now we almost pay $15 an hour,” said Rao Anne from Hill Springs Farm LLC. 

With those rising labor costs, local vineyards have to, therefore, raise your wine bottle’s cost in the process. 

“Good vineyard workers are hard to find! The crew that is with us has been with us for over 5 years and we pay them well.  We have had to increase the cost of our wines this past year to reflect the rise in Stehly’s [Stehly Grove Management] costs as well as ours – on average $1-$2-dollars per bottle,” said Lynn LaChapelle from Domaine Artefact Vineyard and Winery.

Based on the 2018 San Diego County Economic Impact of Wineries report from the San Diego County Vintners Association, winemakers in San Diego County listed labor costs as one of the top issues affecting their business’ growth.  

“Labor is about 70-percent of cost once installation is complete followed by water then inputs, said Christina Smith, Owner of The Farm Smith. 

How does labor affect your wine’s quality?  

Three words: Timing. Timing. Timing.

To truly understand the tight deadlines winemakers experience, Rao Anne at Hill Springs Farm LLC described the sense of urgency when picking grapes on his Chardonnay plot: “I need to harvest in 2 to 3 days because once [the grape’s] sugar level goes up, it’s no good.”

That’s a serious timeline. And, to pick these grapes with that deadline, there has to be a labor force ready. But, that’s easier said than done.

“If they [harvest workers] don’t come on the day we specify, we lose a lot of money. So, that’s why, a lot of big wineries in Northern California, Central California are going 100-percent mechanical. The equipment has become so sophisticated. The quality of mechanical harvest went up substantially,” said Rao Anne. 

But, mechanical harvesters are extremely expensive and are meant for larger plots – something that might not be the answer to San Diego County’s labor issues. 

Why are we seeing these changes in labor supply at local vineyards?  

Al Stehly attributes the challenging labor supply to the tightening of the U.S.-Mexico border and an aging workforce, to name a few reasons.  

“There are no workers crossing the border in the last couple of years. The border is shut so tight and it is so expensive to get across. They [workers] aren’t coming. And the ones that are here aren’t going home to Mexico for fear that they wouldn’t get back to keep working,” said Al Stehly. 

Another issue: agricultural workers are moving into more stable jobs. 

“Our labor shortage most directly correlates with the ROI (Return on Investment) the grower can get for grapes. Small scale growers often do not have the margin to hire. As is normal for urban/suburban area workforces—[workers] move to the most profitable jobs, as the economy booms, most change to jobs in construction, landscape, etc. – easier work, better pay and now with restriction on 8/40 work weeks, it tends to be easier to manage two jobs. That said, many of the small growers pay cash daily, which alters the economy of farm labor,” said Christina Smith, owner of The Farm Smith.

For farmers who need extra help with labor, the Department of Homeland Security offers a visa program called the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. The program allows workers from other countries to work in the United States as seasonal agricultural workers. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, there were more than 412-thousand seasonal agricultural workers using the program—the large majority of the workers coming from Mexico. When you break that number down into the initial certifications given by the U.S. Department of Labor, only a small number of H-2A visas were certified for vineyard labor in California in 2018. Of that small group, most came from other wine regions like Central or Northern California.  

“I don’t hear about many H2-A [workers] in grape harvest. In fact, I never heard of any. You hear about it in dairy, citrus, avocado – where the season is a lot longer,” said Stehly. 

What does the labor supply look like this year? 

Lynn LaChapelle at Domaine Artefact Vineyard and Winery typically hires about 8 to 12 seasonal harvest workers to pick grapes on her 15-acre vineyard. This year, that number decreased to just two workers. 

“Our former contract vineyard manager notified us of their labor shortage and indicated that they can’t help us this year.  Sometimes we would get 6-8 workers to come if we were trying to bring in the fruit in a short time frame,” said LaChapelle. 

Al Stehly is the owner of Stehly Grove Management. He supplies the management crew, equipment and training for Rancho Guejito Vineyard and a couple of other wineries in San Diego County. He’s also the co-owner of Stehleon Winery. Stehly has been in agriculture for three decades. When it comes to labor, he tells CampestreMAG he has never seen the supply this bad. 

What are local vineyards doing about it? 

“We have a management company where we manage vineyards, citrus and avocados. And, we were fortunate to have small crops so we were able to find enough crews to harvest it. But, we’re shorthanded and everybody I talk to over the state is shorthanded,” said Al Stehly, owner of Stehly Grove Management and Stehleon Winery

San Diego County vineyard owners appear to be finding labor for harvest season by using labor management groups (who use local labor), hiring year-long workers instead of just seasonally or hiring students in apprenticeship programs.

“Most [vineyards] have workers who maintain vines over the course of the season on a weekly basis. Of the employers I have worked with in the past as vineyard manager, a majority supplement their labor force with a contracted picking crew at harvest. None of those are migrant farm workers, just moonlighting horticultural workers who are local,” said Christina Smith, owner of The Farm Smith. 

For veteran farmer, Al Stehly, training the right people is a key strategy to help with labor troubles—and paying these workers a bit more for their skillset.  

“We are trying to take people that have a good relationship for harvesting citrus or avocados and transition them into picking grapes after the end of the citrus or avocado season – which they like because it extends their season. But, it’s different, we have to be there with our supervisors to make sure they are doing it correctly. The first day, they are really slow. The second day, they pick up speed. By the third day, people pretty much pick up the skillset and improve their speed and technique or they have left,” said Al Stehly. 

What about using machines? Other wine regions use them – is that going to be a trend in San Diego County? 

“In 2017, we purchased a mechanical harvester so we can literally harvest the whole vineyard in 10 days. But some of our customers still want a hand-picked harvest. 100 tons [of grapes] are hand-picked, the other 200 tons are mechanically harvested,” said Rao Anne from Hill Springs Farm LLC. 

Rao Anne purchased a machine to help with labor challenges. He harvests around 300 tons of grapes for his Emerald Creek Winery and sells the rest to other wineries. With such a large production, he knows that most local wineries in San Diego County aren’t in a similar position, acreage-wise or financially. 

“The harvester comes at almost half-a-million dollars, so it’s not economical for them [vineyards] if you don’t have 200 to 300 tons [of grapes]. For small mom-and-pop wineries, that’s most of them, they just harvest whatever they have, many 15-20 tons. I don’t see any mechanical [grape harvests] in San Diego County,” said Rao Anne from Hill Springs Farm LLC. 

The future could also mean looking into more worker programs like the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program or changing how harvest is done not only for grapes but other types of crops on the same properties. 

“If we don’t get some kind of immigration reform or guest worker program, we’re going to have to start prioritizing which crops we want to pick and which ones we leave in the field,” said Stehly. 

How does San Diego County’s labor struggles stack up against other California wine regions?

Well, not much differently. Finding skilled labor appears to be a challenge up and down the State. 

Here’s what the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance told CampestreMAG when it comes to finding labor: “Yes, there is always a challenge in finding labor, especially skilled or experienced labor in working with specific mechanized equipment and tools. Many vineyards and wineries rely on licensed labor contractors in the region to supply them with the crews necessary, oftentimes looking to get the same people they have had in the past. This cuts down the learning curve specific to a vineyard or winery’s needs.” 

Up north, Napa County is looking to use labor contracting groups — similar to what San Diego County vineyards are doing. 

According to the 2016 Stonebridge Research: Economic Impact of Napa County’s Wine and Grapes: “Vineyard employment includes vineyard workers in integrated estate wineries, workers at independent vineyards, vineyard management companies and Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs). A very high proportion of Napa County’s vineyard labor is reported to be locally-based, full-time employees. However, as Napa County’s producers and vineyard management companies face a growing shortage of vineyard labor, it appears that both are increasingly looking to FLCs for support. Most of the FLCs used in Napa Valley vineyards are based in the county, but workers may be sourced from other regions.” 

Despite labor challenges, California is still producing high-quality wines. If you travel to wine regions around the world and mention you’re from California, most people will tell you that your home state is a key player in the wine world. And, it’s obvious why. According to the Wine Institute, the state of California is one of the top wine producers right behind the countries of France, Italy and Spain, and the State’s wine regions bring in more than 57-billion-dollars in annual economic activity.

If these numbers are any indicator, there’s no doubt that San Diego County and the rest of California will find a way (as it always has) to overcome new challenges — and stand strong as one of the top wine regions in the world. 

Workers will continue harvesting at the Rancho Guejito Vineyard for two more months (as of September), picking plot by plot until every vine is naked. Harvest labor supply is tight but grapes are still being picked this year. In the future, the vineyard’s labor management provider, Al Stehly, is trying to be optimistic but knows San Diego County needs a better solution. 

“I’m not positive in the short term. I think in the long term it will get solved. What I’m afraid of is that they have a knee jerk solution like implement mandatory E-verify and lose 50-percent of our workers and all these farms start shutting down. If it gets really radical and we can’t solve this problem, we could lose a generation of farmers because they will go out of business and then everybody will go ‘oh, yeah, now I get what you were talking about and now we got to solve it’ and by the time they solve it, you’re out of business,” said Stehly. 

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