Take a tour of San Luis Obispo County in the fall, and you’ll see miles and miles of green vines heavy with grapes between the parched golden hills. One of the region’s most lucrative crops — second only to strawberries — is ready for harvest.
But grapes don’t become wine all by themselves. That’s where vineyard workers come in.
For a few months every year, hundreds of pickers — some human, some machine — descend on the area’s more than 200 vineyards and strip the vines of their red and white wine grapes.
Wine grapes are a big business on the Central Coast: The 2015 harvest was valued at almost $150 million.
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The harvest is the culmination of a full year of work. Unlike other California crops that are harvested year-round, workers prune and tend wine grapes for months until harvest time.
Harvest is a hectic period because the grapes must be picked at a particular time to ensure the wine they yield has a specific flavor.
The state’s hourly minimum wage increases to $10.50 Jan. 1 and will rise incrementally to $15 in 2021, benefiting farmworkers.
“It really psychologically brings this thing full circle,” said Brian Talley of Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande, which grows produce and wine grapes.
For farmworkers, the 2016 harvest is among the last of its kind — earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law overtime pay requirements that will be phased in starting in 2019. Farmworkers also will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage next year that will continue to climb incrementally until 2021.
Although supporters say paying farmworkers overtime pay is long overdue, others predict it will hurt both owners and workers in California’s huge agricultural industry.
South County: Talley Farms
In Talley’s fields, men and women wearing gloves, hats and long-sleeved shirts move quickly through rows of chardonnay grapes, snipping bunches off the vines with clippers and tossing them into yellow bins nearby. Once full, those bins are emptied into even bigger containers pulled behind small tractors.
The workers have a reason to move fast — they all earn a base rate of $11 per hour, but pickers can earn an extra 3 cents per pound of grapes they harvest. Fast pickers can earn up to $20 per hour with the additional piece rate, Talley said.
Talley hires 18 workers directly and 10 from labor contractors to make up crews that harvest grapes across 190 acres of vineyards. Many live in Santa Maria or Nipomo and work year-round, planting, pruning, tending and eventually harvesting — although some additional contract workers are needed to help pick, Talley said.
“The payoff for them is the harvest,” he said.
Maria Ayala has worked at Talley Farms for about 22 years. Ayala, who’s originally from Michoacán on the southwest coast of Mexico, started out picking strawberries in Santa Maria at $5 per hour. Now she makes $12.50 per hour.
She’s a forewoman for a group of women who work in the vineyards. Ayala’s husband also works at Talley Farms, and the two have built a life in the area with their four kids, one who is now a student at Allan Hancock College.
Ayala said she enjoys picking grapes, even though she laughingly said she’s not quite tall enough to reach the tops of the vines. But now she has nerve damage in her hand and can’t clip the bunches anymore.
This harvest, Ayala is doing tasks that are less strenuous, such as adjusting the netting that protects the grapes from hungry birds.
Harvest time: Risks and rewards
For workers like Ayala, the wine grape harvest can be a lucrative time. The seasonal nature of vineyard work guarantees workers many hours of employment for two to three months, resulting in a big paycheck.
“It’s really the time of year they look forward to the most because they get paid the most,” said Jesús Guzmán, program director for Graton Day Labor Center, a Sonoma County nonprofit group that advocates for day laborers.
Although Guzmán said farmworkers aren’t as migratory as they used to be, some still travel around California in search of the best-paying harvest. Regions known for their wine grapes are also frequently expensive places to live, though, said Sarah Cain, outreach and events coordinator for the California Institute for Rural Studies, a Davis-based nonprofit organization.
That means workers often travel from farther away to find better work, which brings added dangers and stress, Cain said.
“These are some of the the most sought-after areas to build expensive homes,” she said.
North County: J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
At J. Lohr Vineyards near Paso Robles, manager John Walter said contracted workers come from King City, Avenal and Santa Maria, all about an hour away. J. Lohr owns about 2,500 acres of vineyards in Paso Robles, and more in Monterey and Napa counties.
Machines do most of the work in Paso Robles, where Walter manages about 1,100 acres. Workers drive the harvesters, which wrap around rows of vines and shake off the grapes. A “gondola,” or storage trough used to transport the fruit, follows closely behind.
During the harvest, J. Lohr hires about 35 employees directly and 40 from labor contractors.
Emilio Garcia, a vineyard supervisor who’s worked 18 years for J. Lohr, drove a harvester during one recent day of work. Mario Hernandez drove the gondola behind the bigger machine.
During the harvest, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines hires about 35 employees directly and 40 from labor contractors.
Garcia was born in Atascadero but grew up in Mexico. When he was about 16, his family came back to the United States in search of better job opportunities. He’s a salaried worker who studied crop science at Cal Poly and lives in Paso Robles with his wife and three children.
Hernandez hails from Querétaro, in central Mexico, and was hired by a labor contractor to work at J. Lohr.
Those who drive machines or do other kinds of work during the harvest make between $12 and $18 per hour, depending on their jobs, said Steve Carter, another manager. Some grapes — typically those used to make better quality wine — are picked by hand. Those workers earn a piece rate on top of their base hourly wage, so they can earn between $22 and $35 per hour, Carter said.
Garcia and Hernandez said they enjoy working together and with other friends and family members at the vineyard. Garcia said he likes the harvest because he gets to see the vineyard’s end product after a year of work.
“It’s exciting for everyone to get to see the quality,” he said.
Farmworker overtime: Pros and cons
Large vineyards like J. Lohr, where the cabernet sauvignon grapes being harvested were planted on flat ground, are set up for machine harvests. Small, hilly vineyards — like the ones at Talley Farms — aren’t as conducive to machine work.
But Walter and contract vineyard managers said they expect to see more machines being used in the near future, as 2016 goes down in the books as a banner year for farmworker rights in California. The state’s hourly minimum wage increases to $10.50 Jan. 1 and will rise incrementally to $15 in 2021 because of a law passed in March. And new overtime regulations will soon put farmworkers in the same category as other hourly employees.
“They all deserve a higher wage,” Walter said. “I just don’t know if the consumer can absorb that higher cost.”
Dana Merrill, founder of Mesa Vineyard Management, said wine grapes, unlike other crops, can be more easily harvested with machines because their appearance isn’t a market factor. While strawberries and other fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores must look enticing to consumers, wine grapes are meant to be crushed into liquid form.
They all deserve a higher wage. I just don’t know if the consumer can absorb that higher cost.
John Walter, vineyard manager at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
John Crossland, owner of Vineyard Professional Services, which manages 30 vineyards around the Paso Robles area, said he thinks the recently passed laws will hurt vineyard owners and workers. He predicts agricultural operations will move to other states, increase their level of mechanization or get out of the farming business altogether.
“It’s economic survival,” he said.
But Guzmán, the Sonoma County day laborer advocate, said he doesn’t buy outsourcing threats. California’s domestic workers — who, together with farmworkers, were left out of fair labor laws passed decades ago — won new overtime standards in 2013. Although it’s tough to fully predict the outcome of the laws, Guzmán said he expects the agriculture industry will adapt to new regulations in the same way employers of domestic workers have.
Plus, crops like wine grapes are dependent on specific climates, making it tough to move operations to different states or countries, Guzmán said.
“This is very place-sensitive,” he said.
Garcia, the J. Lohr supervisor, said he thinks many vineyard owners will switch to eight-hour shifts to avoid paying their workers overtime. That would mean earning less money, which will hit seasonal contract workers the hardest because they don’t have guaranteed year-round jobs.
But Garcia said he remembered how tired his father, a farmworker, was when he’d come back from a long day in the fields.
“They’re going to get to go home and spend more time with their kids,” he said.