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In Napa, deus ex machina?

Nervous about a future without immigrant workers to pick the grapes, vintners flirt with mechanical harvesters.

September 19, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

The same refrain can be heard from other vintners concerned that even if any quality diminution is slight, it would undermine their efforts to make the best possible wines.

Jason Kesner, vineyard manager at Hudson Vineyard in Carneros, picks his 180 acres of mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at night and by hand because that's what Patz & Hall, Kistler and the other winemakers who buy the fruit want, he says.

The only way he thinks he can ensure he has enough workers next year to deliver the fruit his customers want is with full-time crews. Last year, he gave his workers an across-the-board 12% raise to discourage them from leaving to work for another grower. Hudson Vineyard bought an apartment building in Napa to offer subsidized housing for the crew to complement the medical and dental benefits they get. "It's very competitive to keep good workers," Kesner says.

Entry-level seasonal workers in Napa are paid $10 an hour. On average, full-time workers make $13 to $16 an hour over the course of the year, according to a labor survey by the Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn. During harvest, permanent workers are paid up to $25 to $30 an hour, according to vineyard owners.

"The stakes are so high in Napa," says Turner, who manages 850 acres of vineyards through Vista Vineyard Management. Certainly, more of his customers are experimenting with mechanical harvesting. But if they determine it reduces quality, they won't do it, he says.

Napa pays higher wages than any other California agricultural region, so vintners here think they'll have access to whatever workers are available in the state, regardless of the immigration laws. "If vintners have to pay 50% more for labor," Turner says, "it's not going to make any difference to them."


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