From Wine-Searcher: Immigration Poses Questions for Napa

March 10, 2017, W. Blake Gray

As resentment over immigration bubbles away, Napa works out how to talk about the elephant in the room.

Despite a chronic shortage of housing, Napa Valley treats its farmworkers better than most of the US. But in a country that suddenly seems at war on immigrants, is that something the region should promote?

Napa Valley Grapegrowers wrestled with the question Wednesday morning at a seminar titled “Ahead of the Curve: The Big Brand Called Napa Valley.” It’s not a question with an easy answer.

Like most US farming areas, Napa Valley relies on immigrant labor. Census data estimates that 23 percent of Napa County residents were born outside the country, and 33.9 percent of county residents are Hispanic or Latino.”Napa Valley has the most cohesive programs to benefit farmworkers in their region,” said Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy officer for Bon Appetít Managment Company. “But it’s not currently being used to market the wines.”

In 2013, the Napa Community Foundation estimated that 10,000 to 11,000 immigrant workers in the county were unauthorized. If still accurate, that would be nearly 8 percent of the population. The foundation also estimated that, for whatever reason, immigrants in Napa Valley were less likely to become naturalized citizens than immigrants elsewhere in the US.

After criticism about farmworker treatment a generation ago, Napa Valley now pays better than most. Seasonal workers, usually the lowest on the totem pole, make more than $14 an hour on average, compared with the national agricultural worker average of $12.50 per hour. Yet more than 60 percent of Napa Valley companies surveyed reported experiencing labor shortages last year, even before this year’s immigrant crackdown.

“Agricultural labor is not a mystery. American young people don’t do it very much,” said Dr Giovanni Peri, professor of economics at UC Davis.

Napa Valley has more than one foundation devoted to improving farmworkers’ lives. That and the general economic prosperity of the region have led to good benefits for fulltime farmworkers, though seasonal workers don’t enjoy nearly as many. Half of Napa’s fulltime farmworkers get dental and vision coverage, according to Peri’s annual poll of companies. Nearly half get vocational education, and 23 percent have some college tuition paid. Almost half get free wine as a job benefit, and with some vineyards quietly operating biodynamically, 23 percent get free fresh fruits and vegetables from the gardens.

Several speakers Wednesday touted social responsibility as an important goal for their wineries. Shannon Staglin, president of Staglin Family Vineyard, said, “I believe the most loyal clients are not buying a bottle of wine. They’re not buying a rating. They’re buying something much more meaningful than that.”

But while Napa Valley is geographically in the heart of Blue State America, its wineries must sell their wares in Red States, where “immigrant” is now a dirty word. Past surveys have shown that US red wine drinkers are split almost 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. Irritating half one’s potential client base by boasting about humane treatment of immigrants comes with some risk.

Ganzler’s company manages food service for liberal arts colleges, museums and the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium. She said it grew its business quickly when college students found out about its support of a farmworkers’ strike in the Pacific Northwest, and demanded that their schools hire the firm. Yet in the new American political climate, Bon Appetít decided it would not take part in Farmworker Awareness Week later this month.

“We did put out that we are not taking a position on immigration,” Ganzler said. “We all know that immigration isn’t keeping Americans from having jobs. In our industry we are always hiring. Immigration is not stopping us from hiring people except in the other direction, where we can’t find enough people now.”

There was no conclusion Wednesday on the marketing-of-fair-treatment question, so don’t look for smiling photos of Mexican immigrants on Napa Valley wine posters in the near future. Looking for more Mexican immigrants is a more pressing concern. Peri suggested that if immigrant labor becomes harder to find, Napa Valley wineries will be pushed to use more mechanical harvesters, currently anathema in the quality-focused region.

“There’s a tension between availability of labor and mechanization,” Peri said.

Even if they are made overseas, harvesting machines cannot be deported.

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