In 1968, Mexican immigrant Salvador Renteria was named viticulturist of Sterling Vineyards, a prestigious winery in Napa Valley. It was a tremendous achievement, given that Renteria had arrived in Napa Valley as a grape picker only six years earlier. He worked his way up to tractor operator, then foreman, manager, and supervisor.Finally, the company asked him to develop three new vineyards. “He had his own baby to develop, to clear, to prep, to put in the drips and trailers, and to plant,” his son Oscar recalls. “It was very significant in the 1960s for a Mexican migrant farm worker to have that kind of responsibility.”
In 1987, Oscar’s father founded Renteria Vineyard Management, and today the business is one of the largest wineries in Napa. When the elder Renteria retired in 1995, Oscar took over, growing the company tenfold in less than a decade. Today, Renteria Vineyard Management manages 1,900 acres and employs 400 people. It also owns and operates 290 acres of its own vineyards.
We don’t know what policies are going to be made that will have a direct impact on our existing labor force.
Yet the inflexibility of immigration policy — wherein current agricultural workers often have no way to become documented workers — makes it hard for the company to work as effectively as it could. “It’s a difficult situation because many of our farm workers have what I call a complicated immigration status,” Oscar Renteria says. The California wine industry, which produces 85 percent of America’s wine, depends on foreign-born workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants who live in fear of deportation. As such, they don’t make for a consistent workforce, a situation that impairs a vineyard’s ability to effectively plan its operations. “Immigration policy matters because, more than anything, of the amount of uncertainty in our arena,” says Renteria. “We don’t know what policies are going to be made that will have a direct impact on our existing labor force, and on the future labor force that we are going to need.”
Like farm owners, vineyard operators emphasize that the work these field hands do is highly skilled. Canopy management, a critical factor in grape production, must be done by hand, and requires knowledge of optimal pruning, shoot thinning, shoot positioning, and leaf removal techniques. Picking grapes, meanwhile, is back-breaking work, and growers say few U.S.-born workers ever apply for the job. A recent survey found that although Napa Valley growers and wineries pay well for agricultural work — the average starting wage is $14.10 per hour and Renteria’s starting wage is $16.50 per hour — 60 percent experienced labor shortages last year and 70 percent skipped activities due to those shortages.
“There are fewer and fewer people as the generations go that want to, that aspire to, work in the vineyard,” Renteria says, adding that if he loses labor there are certain crops that he simply won’t be able to harvest.
Missed business opportunities like these can have wide-ranging effects, including to U.S.-born workers who depend on the vintners’ success. The Napa wine industry creates 46,000 jobs in Napa County and 303,000 jobs nationwide, and it contributes more than $50 billion to the U.S. economy, the industry reports. Napa’s wine growers are prepared to “go to battle” in support of farm workers with complicated immigration status, says Renteria. Organizations like the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa Valley Vineyard Association, and the Napa Valley Community Foundation support policies that would offer workers a way to legalize their status.
In California’s Fifth Congressional District, which includes Napa Valley and much of the state’s wine country, 65 percent of agricultural workers are immigrants. Although only 20.8 percent of the population is comprised of immigrants, the foreign-born in the district are more likely to be of working age — 73 percent are between the ages of 25 and 64 compared with 49 percent of the U.S.-born — and are far more likely to have less than a high school education — 34 percent compared with 6.7 percent of the native-born. As a result, it is immigrants who often step in to take the jobs that U.S.-born workers don’t want.
“We all grew up working in the fields,” says Renteria, who began at age 11. “My father’s reputation lives on in this valley for high-quality craftsmanship of work, and he is highly regarded for the way he treats people. Those are big shoes to fill.”