Wineries hit by worker shortage

rrailey@thetribunenews.comOctober 13, 2011 

Local wineries that employ temporary harvest workers say they are having a tougher time getting the crews they need this season.

When last week’s rains interrupted picking, Lino Bozzano found he couldn’t get the same workers back the next morning.

“Here at Laetitia, it’s all hand-picked,” said Bozzano, vice president of vineyard operations for Laetitia Vineyard and Winery south of Arroyo Grande. “We really had to scramble.”

Laeticia’s estate vineyard has more than 600 acres. It also owns another in Cuyama that’s 750 acres.

When rain began to fall Oct. 5, Bozzano sent workers home and promised to call in the morning with a time to resume.

“They’d been moved to another ranch first thing in the morning,” Bozzano said. “That’s never happened, to lose workers within eight hours. Suddenly, everyone’s pulling from the same pool.

“Because of our size, we were able to rally people,” he added. But they lost time as moisture threatened to damage the chardonnay crop. “Instead of starting at 8 in the morning, they started at 11 or noon.”

Some small vineyards, on the other hand, are “too small to make it worth it” for seasonal pickers, said Jason Mainini, whose family owns Mainini Vineyard on Indian Valley Road in San Miguel.

“There will always be a need for pickers for head-trained vines,” he added. They sit lower to the ground, making them difficult to machine pick.

Fewer workers here

Most grapes harvested in San Luis Obispo County are gathered mechanically.

“Now that we’re machine harvesting, we hire probably 50 through the labor contractor,” said Hank Ashby, vineyard manager at French Camp Vineyards in Shandon.

With 1,250 vineyard acres, it’s one of the largest growers in the county.

“It used to be huge numbers when we hand-picked,” Ashby said. “I’d never be able to get that many now. There’s definitely a labor shortage for agriculture. We choose our customers based on whether they’ll take machine harvest or not.”

With market prices down in recent years, French Camp and others have saved on labor costs by switching to machines.

A hand-picking crew might consist of 40 people, said Americo Estrada, a local labor contractor. Machine-picking requires three.

As more growers move to mechanized harvesting, temporary workers have fewer sources of income and tend to migrate to areas where there’s steady demand for their services.

“A few years ago, we used almost 500 people in the harvest time,” said Estrada, who now represents about 80 to 90 workers. “Now, we don’t pick that much.”

Seeking steady work

Starting at an average wage of about $10 an hour, temporary workers can’t afford to idle long.

“The only way we’re keeping our people is when we have a steady harvest and pick every day,” Estrada said. “They go wherever there is work. They’re not going to work two or three days a week or wait for work.”

So when the grape harvest started about three weeks behind schedule in September, some growers found their usual crews had moved on to vegetables that were ripe.

The larger economic picture also is shifting more immigrant workers back to their native countries.

“The quality of life is improving in Mexico,” Bozzano said. “At Laetitia, we’ve lost people, because they’re retiring. It is hard to find legal replacements. We’ve had to turn people away, because they didn’t have documents.”

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