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If We Plant It, Will They Come? If We Hire Them, Will They Stay? Seasonal Labor in the Napa and Sonoma County Wine Industry -- Sue Eileen Hayes
Seasonal Labor in the Napa and Sonoma County Wine Industry
Sue Eileen Hayes
Sonoma State University
The Last Ten Years..................................................................................................................................... 4
Implications for Seasonal Workers........................................................................................... 8
Is Wine Country Farm Work an Attractive Career?....................................................... 11
Where Do They Stand?.......................................................................................................................... 16
Why Work in the Wine Industry?................................................................................................... 18
Concern over labor is one of the most persistant topics in California agriculture. As we enter the Twenty-first Century, the questions of the nature of future California agricultural employment, who will be in the labor force at the end of this decade, and the conditions under which future agricultural work will be done all need to be answered. This paper focuses relatively narrowly on the transformation of the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma Counties and the impact of this transformation on the lives of those who will be employed in its vineyards.
The Napa County wine industry has led its agricultural sector for decades, developing and maintaining a national reputation for high status wines. In particular, since the maturation of the "Baby Boom" segment of U.S. consumers in the 1970s, both old and new wineries in the Napa Valley have competed to develop not only high quality varietal wines, but also distinctive identities, in order to attract and retain customer loyalty. Napa vintners and grape growers cooperated with the California wine industry to achieve two important changes in wine labeling. The first was to restrict varietal labeling to wines containing a minimum of seventy five percent varietal juice, rather than the fifty one percent which had been previously permitted. The second and continuing concern is the designation of specific viticultural area appellations and the restriction of wine label descriptions to exclude reference to these appellations by non-district wines.
Wineries have cooperated in the promotion of the Napa Valley as a tourist destination. The area has attracted summer residents almost since the Gold Rush days. Sam Brannan, a visionary with genuine enthusiasm but questionable standards, founded Calistoga with spas, a racetrack and its vineyards in the 1850s; Robert Louis Stevenson bestowed his literary blessing on the Napa Valley in its early years. Tourism is still important to the economy of rural Napa County, supporting outdoor recreation, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, hotels and a variety of retail businesses, including the Calistoga spas first promoted by Brannan.
Because suitable vineyard land is limited in Napa County, wineries have concentrated their production and promotion on the premium segments of the wine market. In turn, grape growers have been attentive to market trends, shifting their existing acreage toward popular varieties, forming relationships with prestigious labels and attempting to establish their grapes as superior in quality to other growers' through distinctive viticultural practices.
Although the Sonoma County wine industry has as long a history as Napa County's, until recent decades it was better known for the quantity, rather than the quality of its wines. Furthermore, although the volume of Sonoma County wine produced was substantial when compared with other California counties, within Sonoma County agriculture the wine industry was an also-ran, among or behind prunes, hops, apples, poultry and dairy products, until 1989, when wine grapes finally became the highest revenue county crop. For many years the Sonoma County wine industry was principally known as a producer of bulk red wine, much originating from vineyards and wineries belonging to Italian immigrants and their descendents.
Once the national wine market was transformed by the Baby Boomers, Sonoma County vineyard acreage expanded rapidly and new wineries were established, some focussed on the premium market, as in Napa, and others competing in the lower priced market segments. Vineyard acreage approximately doubled between 1969 and 1979, and has more than doubled from 1979 to 1999. A significant number of small vineyards and wineries have been established, but vintners such as Gallo and the relatively recent Kendall-Jackson, have planted large acreages. An associated development, as in Napa County, has been the designation of specific viticultural districts to differentiate wines frequently produced by the same wineries. The competitive stakes are becoming higher, as demonstrated by the recent legal battle wage between Gallo and Kendall-Jackson over whether the Gallo "Turning Leaf" label design would mislead consumers who intended to buy Kendall-Jackson wines featuring its grape leaf label.
Unlike Napa County, Sonoma County still has substantial acreage suitable for conversion to vineyards. In Sonoma County, however, there are two unique pressures faced by the wine industry. The first is the rapid expansion of the "telecom" industry, initially occurring in industrial-zoned areas near Petaluma and now spreading northward along the Highway 101 corridor. This is not only making buildable land more expensive for potential agricultural users, but is creating pressure on mid-market and high market housing prices as telecom employees move into the county, which in turn raises prices in lower market tiers, and therefore on lower income workers. At the same time, public reaction to the 1999 rush to begin vineyard land preparation before the effective date of a new ordinance regulating slopes on which vineyards could be planted has generated a November ballot initiative which could potentially restrict future vineyard expansion.
Despite being the highest dollar value producer in Sonoma County agriculture, the wine industry does not dominate the county's economy. Southern Sonoma County contains bedroom suburbs for Marin and San Francisco workers. Hewlett-Packard and OCLI have been major scientific and manufacturing employers for several decades. A broad range of other retail, manufacturing and service establishments employs and supplies most of the county population. Tourism, particularly in vacation areas such as the Russian River and the Sonoma County coast, antedates the wine industry. While some sectors of the hospitality industry, especially in Sonoma and Healdsburg, benefit from wine-related events and activities, and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair attracts national recognition for Sonoma County wines and farm products, most county wineries seem more focussed on attracting potential case buyers to their own tasting rooms and restaurants than in trying to expand general tourism into the area.
The Last Ten Years
from 32,203 acres in 1989 to 51,467 acres in 1999. (Tables A and B)
Table A: Sonoma County Wine Grape Acreage 1989-1999
Table B: Napa County Wine Grape Acreage 1989-1999
The patterns of growth have been different, however. Sonoma County acreage grew between .37% and 5.6% per year from 1989 until 1997, with bearing acres falling in two of those years. During 1997-98 and 1998-99 growth accelerated; total acreage grew by 11.7% in 1997-98 and another 15.2% in 1998-99. Napa County total acreage changed in a different pattern. After two years of significant expansion (1990-91 and 1991-92), the following years alternated declines in total acreage with small increases. Only in 1998 was the total Napa grape acreage above the 1992 acreage.
Second, public tastes are changing again. In the early 1970s grape growers were caught with plantings of premium winegrapes dominated by red varietals at a time when Baby Boomers were graduating from fruit/alcohol "wines", typically based on fermented apple juice or Thompson grape juice, to sweet and eventually drier white wines. During those years and the 1980s growers replanted with white varietals just in time to see the whites wane in popularity as the 1990s became the Age of Merlot. Within the last several years the trends are shifting again and writers in national publications have begun to comment on the prevalence of ho-hum Merlots; sales are shifting toward other red wines.
In response to these market trends, vineyards appear to be moving into different red varietals in their new plantings. In Sonoma County, for example, while Merlot acreage rose 15.4% from 1998 to 1999, Cabernet Sauvignon increased 25% and acreage of Pinot Noir was 37.3% higher. Not all reds are desirable, however. Total acreage declined for Carignane, Napa Gamay and Petite Verdot. White grape plantings increased, but the total acreage increase, 13.7%, was less than the percentage growth in Sonoma County grape plantings.
Every decision to replant a vineyard has to be carefully evaluated. Interrupting the stream of revenues from an established vineyard, which may produce for 25 years or more is one concern. Paying for vine removal, land preparation, rootstock, trellis system and the labor to establish the new vineyard is a costly proposition, estimated at $5,675 per acre in a 1999 University of California Cooperative Extension cost study , and then the grower faces paying $3,850 in cultural costs during the two years until the vineyard yields substantial tonnage and waiting until the fifth year from planting to harvest a full crop. On the other hand, the loss of revenue for four years and significant expense besides may be acceptable to the grower facing poor per-ton prices for some varieties of grapes. The 1999 average Sonoma County price per ton for trendy Viognier grapes was $2,101.48, while French Columbard, brought an average of $561.93 per ton. Among red grapes differences were not quite so substantial, but the popular Cabernet Sauvignon averaged $2,158, while the declining Napa Gamay was only $966 per ton. A similar shift has occurred in Napa County. Between 1989 and 1999 acreage of white wine grapes declined 21%, while red wine grape grew 51.6%. Overall, prices for Napa and Sonoma County wine grapes seem to provide growers with an adequate incentive to replant. (Table C)
Table C: Average Tonnage per Acre, Price per Ton and Revenue per Acre
Third, the Napa and Sonoma County wine industry faces at least two biological threats. For many years it was believed that California rootstock was no longer susceptible to phylloxera which had devastated European wine districts as well as California vineyards in the Nineteenth Century. Now this invincibility has been disproven. This decade the expected phylloxera impact on production motivated grape growers to replace some producing plantings with more resistant rootstock. In addition, at the present time not only the indigenous sharpshooter but also the glassy-winged sharpshooter, moving through Southern California and Central Valley vineyards into the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, intensify the problem of Pierce's disease infestations. It is not clear precisely what impact either phylloxera or the sharpshooters may have on total grape acreage or on production, but they need to be carefully evaluated.
The 21st Century Vineyard
Whether grapes are planted to replace diseased or elderly rootstock, to substitute a popular variety for a less desirable one or as part of a grape grower's acreage expansion, the number of vines, the row spacings, the trellis system and many vineyard care techniques make this a very different vineyard from those of past decades.
1992 and 1999 University of California Cooperative Extension publications, "Sample Costs to Establish a Vineyard and Produce Wine Grapes in Sonoma County" demonstrate some of the changes in vineyards. The assumption in the 1992 study was that 566 vines would be planted per acre, with a 7' by 11' spacing. The vines would be trained to a bilateral cordon. Harvesting would be done by hand, and would first occur in the third year. In the 1999 study, 908 vines per acre are planted in a 6' by 8' spacing. Vines are trained on a unilateral cordon. Harvesting starts the second year and is done by a contracted hand harvest crew. Beginning the fifth year the vineyard is mechanically harvested.
The cost sheet estimates the expected yield per acre from a 60% increase in vines is only 16.6%, from six tons to seven tons. Given that costs rise in proportion to the number of vines, a simple increase in output does not seem the motivation for the denser planting. Two reasons are given by growers and other wine industry experts for the increased planting density and change in vineyard cultural systems. Both pertain to fruit quality, rather than to quantity. They feel that fruit tends to develop more uniformly, with more reliable sugar and flavor characteristics. Another consideration is that the modern system reduces the incidence of Botrytis bunch rot and powdery mildew. Thus, even though the yield per acre is not dramatically higher, the higher crop quality earns higher per ton prices. In addition, there have been enough episodes of cool, rainy weather in harvest season during the past decade that rot and mildew concern many grape growers. Under these circumstances the shift from headpruning to trellising with leaves removed to expose bunches to the morning sun can also be explained as an attempt to reduce the risks of crop loss.
Implications for Seasonal Workers
Table D: Selected Wine Grape Vineyard Attributes and Hand Labor Estimates
Vines per Acre
Yield per Acre
Pruning time per Acre
Hand Vine Care
Move Wires 3X
Remove Trunk Suckers
Offsetting this increase in non-harvest work, however, is the assumption that vineyards typically will be machine harvested, which obviously reduces the number of jobs for seasonal harvest labor.
How many acres in Napa and Sonoma Counties are under the new planting densities and cultural practices? Total vineyard acreage in Sonoma County 59.8% from 1989 to 1999 (19,264 acres). In addition, it is likely that many of the approximately 10,000 acres planted between 1974 and 1979 have now been or are about to be replaced. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that at least half of the present acreage and possibly three-fifths, is established under the new practices. Although the 1992 UCCE study uses low density planting assumptions, the Sonoma County viticulture farm advisor who is principal author feels that it lagged behind the actual Sonoma County industry practices at the time it was published. In fact, some Sonoma County vineyards have been planted to much greater densities than the 1999 report; Gallo has been planting at 5' by 8' and other growers have bearing acreage planted 6' by 6', which adds hundreds plants per acre to the UCCE number. Napa County acreage is more difficult to estimate. Net increase in total vineyard acreage between 1989 and 1999 was 5,464 acres. During the decade, however, two years of acreage loss totaled 1,097 acres. In addition, bearing acreage fell during four years, indicating that significant replanting was occurring. It is probably safe to assume that at least a third of Napa County vineyard acreage is planted under the new, denser systems.
A significant difference between the 1992 and 1999 UCCE cost studies was the harvest method, which assumed hand harvest in the 1992 study and machine harvest, beginning in the fifth year, in the 1999 study. At this point in the 2000 harvest, machine harvest is still not the dominant method being used in either Napa or Sonoma County. In Napa County the guesstimate is that currently around twenty or twenty-five percent of the crop is machine harvested, with some increase each year. Hand harvest continues for a variety of reasons. Some grape growers, attempting to establish their grapes in the premium market, schedule several hand pickings in each vineyard in order to select berries of a more uniform, higher quality. Some growers worry about yield loss from machine harvest. Some older plantings cannot be successfully harvested by machine.
No firm data exist on the extent of Sonoma County machine harvest, either. Estimates range from a quarter to over a third of the acreage, with some increase each year. As an agricultural commissioner's field specialist noted, "They're buying new machines and more of them. Farms where last year I saw one machine, now they have two." The machine harvest estimate is somewhat higher, about fifty percent, for Sonoma County grape acreage cared for by vineyard management companies, particularly those with machine harvest experience in the San Joaquin Valley. Against this industry trend, Gina Gallo recently stated that all Gallo Sonoma County grapes, approximately 3,000 acres, are hand harvested. This is not unexpected, however, since Gallo, trying to upgrade its corporate image, has focussed its Sonoma County operations on producing premium wines.
What do these changes mean for seasonal farmworkers in Napa and Sonoma Counties? First, the closer planting density and increasing number of acres mean that there will be a substantial increase in hours of pruning work available compared to the older vineyard. To date, the common vineyard management response has been to schedule pruning crews over a longer period, rather than to expand crew size and complete pruning in the time period used when planting was less dense. Since the dormant period and the weather are both beyond human control, there are obviously limitations to extending the pruning season as acreages grow, but in general steadier and longer winter month employment appears likely.
Other hand work begins in April with cordon shoot removal and runs through June and July with suckering, wire moving and leaf removal. In some Napa "boutique" wineries which are also selectively hand harvesting their grapes, owners bridge the gap in vineyard jobs by assigning field labor to landscaping and maintenance jobs around tasting rooms and other public areas, effectively creating year-round employment from a series of seasonal tasks. In Sonoma County it appears that similar patterns are gaining favor, since growers prefer a year round, stable workforce. "Year round" in many Sonoma vineyards is applied to workers who have ten to eleven months of work per year, though growers report providing benefits, including some medical coverage and housing, which may compensate for the lower earnings. Even if all growers and vineyard management companies attempted to even out work through the year as much as possible, the time constraints imposed by the vine's growing cycle create peaks and sags in the labor hours required. The hand harvest peak labor demand cannot be met by year-round workers, no matter how long their hours or diligent their effort, so the need for seasonal workers will persist into the future.
Is Wine Country Farm Work an Attractive Career?
According to 1998 California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) statistics, general vineyard laborer hourly wages ranged from $5.75 to $12.00, with an average wage of $6.95 for General Laborer I and $6.31 for General Laborer II.(Table E) A 1999 survey by Wine Business Monthly reported that California part-time and seasonal vineyard workers averaged $8.55 per hour, with a range from under six dollars per hour to over ten. The article describing this study also noted that "Full-time vineyard workers made the most in California, an average of $20,268 ($10.56 per hour). " with reported annual incomes ranging from eleven to thirty-four thousand dollars. The CAWS survey also reports percentages of full time and seasonal vineyard workers receiving a variety of employer benefits; significantly smaller percentages of the seasonal workers received benefits.(Table F)
Table E: 1998 Wage and Benefit Survey for Vineyards: Wages
General Labor I
General Labor II
Table F: 1998 Wage and Benefit Survey for Vineyards: Benefits
Written Employee Policies
Medical: Employee Only Paid
Housing Cost Shared by Employer
Medical: EE and Dependent
Sick Pay Benefits
Pension or Profit Sharing
Farm Products Given to Employee
How do farm workers' incomes compare to other incomes for similar work? Since the best earnings data for other Napa and Sonoma occupations are from 1998, let us take the 1998 CAWG hourly wage rate for the General Laborer I, $6.95. Assuming a forty hour week and a fifty-two week work year, a seasonal vineyard worker would gross $:14,456. In the real world this number is debatable. Much seasonal vineyard work in Napa and Sonoma Counties is done in six or seven day schedules and many work days, especially during peak periods, exceed eight hours. All these increase a worker's potential annual earnings. On the other hand, few seasonal workers receive holiday pay, still less receive vacation pay and almost none receive sick pay. Bad weather is likely to keep workers out of the fields for days, if not weeks during the worst winter storms and the vagaries of temperature and sunlight also affect vegetation growth rates and berry sugar formation, which can cause acceleration or postponement of some paying work.
How does this hypothetical gross income from seasonal vineyard work compare to alternative employment? Not very well in Napa and Solano Counties, where among workers in occupations frequently held by people of similar demographic characteristics to those described for California seasonal farm workers, only fast food cooks and cafeteria helpers had a lower mean wage and annual income on the 1998 OES survey (Table G)
Table G: Napa and Solano Counties
Comparison to the 1998 occupational wage data from the Sonoma County OES Survey yields a similar outcome. Once again animal caretakers, janitors and vehicle washers, among others, all earn more than the farm worker.(Table H)
Table H: Sonoma County
To this point, all calculations of farm worker annual incomes have been made with the mean (arithmetic average) income. Median income data are frequently more useful in calculating some statistics, such as incomes, since they report the midpoint of the wage or income range and therefore avoid the distortion which can occur when unusually low or high compensation is averaged with the other data. In both the Napa-Solano and the Sonoma OES surveys, the median farmworker wage is below the mean. In Napa-Solano the median is $6.37, compared to the $7.34 mean wage. The Sonoma County difference is smaller, $6.09 median wage compared to a mean wage of $6.47. Recalculating annual Napa-Solano farmworker incomes using the median wage (based on a 40 hour week and 52 week year as are the EDD calculations) yields an annual income of $13,249.60. Similarly, a recalculation of the Sonoma annual farmworker income using the median wage, $6.09, yields $12,667.20 per year. Since half the wages in a category fall on or below the median, this means that a number of farmworkers could not potentially earn even these low incomes.
Where Do They Stand?
The problem now faced by many workers in both farm and nonfarm employment is not finding and holding a job, but affording to remain in California, and Napa and Sonoma Counties in particular. A recent study by Mary C. Daly and Heather N. Royer demonstrates that in California gains in family income have diverged from U.S. patterns during the last decade. In California "a larger number of Californians were in poverty and a smaller number were in the middle class than in 1989". While part of the growing discrepancy between the highest income percentiles in the U.S. and California and the middle and lower classes (the "rich getting rich" of the old song) can be attributed to the dot.com phenomenon, the poor fared differently depending on their state of residence. The incomes of the tenth percentile of the U.S. population rose 8.7 percent during the decade to 1998, but fell 19.9 percent in California. In California, the poor are, indeed, getting poorer. After adjusting for demographic differences between California and the U.S. and allowing for the lag in the recovery of the California economy from the most recent recession, the authors conclude that perhaps a third of the fall in California poor peoples' incomes is due to demographic factors and the rest was caused by California's late economic recovery. The authors seem comfortable with their findings, since they can now explained what happened, but the workers and their families, to whom the setback occurred, do not have the luxury of viewing their lot so philosophically. They have felt the consequences of the economic slowdown, and now, with the regional economy robust, they are experiencing the economic pressures created by that recovery.
The rise in health care costs has been a media, as well as household, issue in the United States for almost a decade. Now it is being supplanted in Northern California by public concern over rising housing costs. The regional print and broadcast media frequently feature stories about the plight of working and low income people in Silicon Valley and San Francisco who cannot find housing they can afford or are being evicted from housing they previously occupied as rental conversions and rising real estate prices drive housing costs ever upward.
The same phenomenon is affecting the working poor of Napa and Sonoma Counties. While some year round workers have housing on the ranches where they work and there are some seasonal farm worker units available, many year round and seasonal farm workers in Napa and Sonoma counties have not lived on the farms where they worked. Rather, they have rented housing in the lower income neighborhoods of Napa, Fulton, Graton, Boyes Hot Springs, Santa Rosa, Windsor or Agua Caliente, car pooling to their work sites, whether the same location year round or at shifting sites. Graton and Windsor have now "gentrified", eliminating rental opportunities, and housing prices have risen dramatically during to the past two years to the extent that landlords can impose fifty percent rent increases in formerly low rent neighborhoods and many tenants have no housing alternatives. This is a particular concern for families with very young children. High child care costs discourage the caretaker parent from working, but the resulting low household income then forces the family to crowd in additional relatives or non-family adults in order to pay the rent. With real estate prices so high and vacancy rates very low, rental discrimination and NIMBYism flourish. In Sonoma County a recent attempt to create affordable housing on surplus county land was derailed through intervention of county politicians. Sonoma vineyard employers report that some experienced legal farm workers are indicating they will not stay without housing relief. Although on-ranch camps and seasonal worker housing have been rightly criticized on occasion for health code violations and structural inadequacy, there are only limited, and expensive, off-farm housing alternatives for farm workers in either Napa or Sonoma County.
Why Work in the Wine Industry?
The bimodal distribution of their length of time in farm work foretells the future behavior of the surveyed farm workers better than their answers about whether they intend to leave the crop labor force. So long as the economy remains strong, most of the "new boys" will be in other occupations, in the U.S. or Mexico, legally or illegally, within a relatively short time. The "old timers" will remain in the farm labor force. The combination of the economic pressures experienced by farm workers in Napa and Sonoma Counties with the robustness and lack of concern about worker documentation in the local job market will motivate workers to enter the non farm occupations where they have a better chance to realize economic improvement.
The same forces are being felt by local youth entering the labor market. With relatively open job opportunities, the children of farm workers see no need to follow their parents into the fields. In all likelihood, seasonal farm jobs and less desirable year-round jobs in the vineyards will be filled by new undocumented immigrants, either from lower wage areas in the U.S. or directly from their home countries.
1. California Employment Development Department. 1998 Occupational Wage Data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey.
2. Daly, Mary C. and Heather N. Royer. "Cyclical and Demographic Influences on the Distribution of Income in California", FRBSF Economic Review, 2000.
3. Franson, Paul. "Gallo Speaks", Wine Business Monthly, August 2000.
4. Napa County Agricultural Commissioner. Napa County Agricultural Crop Report, 1989 through 1999.
5. Rosenberg, Howard R., Anne Steirman, Susan M. Gabbard and Richard Mines."Who Works on California Farms?"University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication 21583, 1998.
6. Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner. Sonoma County Agricultural Crop Report, 1989 through 1999.
7. Staff. "Grapes Aren't the Only Thing Growing in the Vineyard", Wine Business Monthly, October 1999.
8. U.S. Department of Labor. "Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 1997-98". Research Report #8, March 2000.
9. University of California Cooperative Extension. "Sample Costs to Establish a Vineyard and Produce Grapes in Sonoma County", 1992.
10. University of California Cooperative Extension. "Sample Costs to Establish a Vineyard and Produce Grapes in Sonoma County", 1999.
Other information was collected through interviews conducted with viticulture advisors from UC Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Commissioners' personnel in both Napa and Sonoma Counties, vineyard managers, grape growers, and community workers in public and private agencies.