Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | May 17, 2012

The Vineyard Labor Circus Is Here

The circus is in town. Didn’t get a ticket? I’ll give you insight into the Millennial mind in one sentence.

Facebook goes public on Friday, so I canceled my account.

Need more insight? I’m considering black listing several wine companies from buying Thomson Vineyards fruit in the future because I don’t like their business practices.

Nice Plot of Carneros Land for a Circus or Planting

I also contemplated an ambush yesterday on a vineyard management company who wants to buy an old Meyers spray rig from me to use as a fertilizer chamber. I mentioned to an Old Guy in the industry about the tank being repurposed as a fertilizer chamber and he said to make sure I have the check in hand from these particular people before I let the rig off my property.

This is not the first time the “doesn’t pay their bills” connotation has come up about this particular company, in fact it’s a regular topic of conversation in the Valley.

The ambush was going to involve another grower who the potential spray rig buyer still owes money to for a 2009 Cabernet deal. “You can have the spray rig for $500 and be a gentleman and pay up” was basically how I envisioned it going down.

Someone out there is always trying to make claims about what the Millennials do and do not want. One thing many of my peers are is socially conscientious. Some would qualify this as “altruistic” or “idealistic” also “skeptical of The Man” – conforming is just not of interest to us.

As a result, I’m finding that navigating the business side of wine grape growing is a regular three-ring circus. I constantly have the discussion with myself if I want to be aligned with this person or that company. I detest having to call in favors to negociants. I am outspoken in public about who owes me money and what it costs for them to drive their Maserati around their Zinfandel Lane winery.

So while the Vineyard Economics Seminar reiterated for the fourth seminar in a row this year offered by a media outlet, consulting group, or otherwise that grapes prices are up and supply is down one thing that hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention, other than in snippets on the political airwaves, is that there is a fairly significant labor shortage going on at the moment and it’s not even June.

Three vineyard management companies I’ve spoken to in the past week say who cares about the Cabernet shortage, there’s a labor shortage going on right now. Workers are dropping off payroll lists and moving to the highest bidder every other day – like working in the vineyards is going out of style…which it is and that’s just one reason labor has become scarce.

Another reason for the shortage is that a decent portion of day laborers coming into the vineyards in the Valley to perform mass quantities of hand labor are driving daily from Stockton and $1 extra per hour over what they make there is simply not enough to cover the rising gas expense. So, there went that source.

Before you all get up on your Napa soapbox, simmer down, and realize or admit, whatever it takes, that suckering and leafing take a lot of hands and the majority cannot afford the Lamborghinis of mechanical options on the market – transported up and down Highway 29 by the big guys. The experienced and skilled laborers who do live in the Valleys are not as likely to be assigned to a hand labor crew daily. So no matter what some say, I suggest you start asking, “de donde eres, Stockton o Napa” each and every laborer you come across in the vineyard. Report back in the comments. I’d love to know.

Sidebar, it was a well-known fact that one of the big three was actually bussing laborers in to Up Valley Cabernet vineyards from the central valley last year. I’m sure their supplemental labor force hasn’t changed this year.

I received an email from another woman viticulturist last week, who manages a couple hundred acres, looking for a tractor operator. Just lost one of two of hers.

Within the same 72 hours I received that email, a large company not doing so well on the NASDAQ told me it had raised its labor rates in Sonoma County last week 80 cents to keep laborers happy.

2012 Women In Wine Production Technical Tasting at Elizabeth Spencer

Two friends of mine, unemployed and underemployed – another Millennial trait, both robust and strong Caucasian young men turned up their nose at the tractor operator idea. I had myself a good time on the tractor mowing the other day, but am finding myself with little to zero time left on the clock on at the end of each day.

In order to keep our operator happy who was scheduled to dust sulfur last night at the vineyard – I reenacted Christmas eve and left him a 1.1 Liter Stanley Canteen full of Taylor Maid Coffee (the fair trade and organic was most likely lost on him – but note the label, another Millennial preference – underground coffee hint: Blue Bottle and Ritual are too mainstream for us nowadays) of the strongest Goats Rock Roast I could brew and a slice of home made caramel pineapple cake just inside the equipment shed. This morning when I got to the vineyard it was untouched and I panicked thinking, “the labor shortage got me!” only to find out from him that the belt snapped on the duster and it would be another night before he got at it.

Last week the bunch of Millennial boys who played the Farm Bureau golf tournament busted my chops about being so outspoken. “Passionate” was the word they used to describe what they thought they knew about me, even though they’d never met me. It was probably the only polite thing they said to me all day long. They were just mad they didn’t hit the hole in one and win the Rainbow Ag truckster prize. Anyhow, mildly entertained by their antics and directness with me, the whole time I was really thinking in my head THIS is who I’m in “THIS” with for the rest of my grape growing years!?!

It’s probably because in stark contrast to my interaction with them, I had finished hosting the third Women In Wine Production Technical Rose Tasting with 20 lovely young women winemakers and enologists who managed to have a constructive and frank conversation with one another at Elizabeth Spencer winery last week about the current grape market. We basically came to the consensus that grape and wine prices have got to even out, because the extreme highs and lows aren’t doing anyone any favors. It was a comment among several which made me optimistic about the group of Millennial women emerging in the industry as leaders in the production workforce.

Farm Bureau Guys Chasing Hole In One Prizes Since 2003

One final piece of Millennial insight that they aren’t going to come up with at the circus (anything I write in this blog is considered first-use rights) is that if a wine was labeled “fair trade” rather than “organic” “natural” or “sustainable” I might actually consider joining a wine club for it (I currently hold no subscriptions). Because every Millennial knows those meaningless words are printed on high end paper with real ink not soy and zero continuity or regulation of any of the three. Those “practices” are what we 20 and 30 somethings created the term “green washing” for.

I believe those vineyards and wineries who could actually source local labor from vineyard to glass and show a record of it in every facet of their business may have the “organic” guys beat. Yep, us Millennials are pretty competitive. It’s a product of all our Boomer parents over enrolling us in sports and the little gold figurines awarded at the end of each season.

Got insight into the labor and lack of it this season? Leave a comment. Millennials love to talk over this confounded new thing the internet, you just can’t get them to pick up the phone any more. If you’re one of the 100+ voicemails in my inbox – just stop on by the vineyard and see me in person. I’m busy working. My advanced degree is going to real good use as a hand laborer!


  1. I really like the “fair trade” idea. Been working with roughly the same set of guys for over a decade. Most are local; a few of their relatives come up from Michoacan every year. I’ve told my manager we will pay what it takes to get the quality work I want done (hint: it’s, um, a good bit more than $0.80 over the going rate). I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to help some hard working guys support their families.

    I’ll miss you on Facebook – oh, that’s right, I guess I won’t – we were never “friends” there. My hat’s off to Zuck and everyone else who cashed in today. Take the money and run as fast and far as you can! My personal belief is that FB will never be able to generate enough revenue to meet shareholder expectations, so it’s likely to be buh-bai soon enough.

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