After years of toiling in the fields and working their way up, a small and increasing number of former migrant workers are starting vineyards. Learning as they moved up, these men have gone from pickers, to tractor drivers, to foremen, and then to vineyard managers.
Families worked together and pooled resources to buy land and plant grapes. Many are the children of farmworkers who have gained degrees in the wine business, viticulture and oenology at the University of California, Davis.
“It is what we have been doing all our lives,” said one. “We are experienced in picking, pruning, trellising, planting and suckering — removing unwanted shoots from vines. The land is in our DNA.”
The Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association is three years old. It has 14 wineries as members. They celebrated at a recent Vendimia or harvest party.
One member recalled coming from Oaxaca in 1973 as an 18 year old. He cut brush and cleared fields. He spent three years in a labor camp, living in a bunkhouse. Work sometimes began at night under glaring lights. His goal was to save $2,000.
Another owner said his father arrived as a bracero. “We know how it feels to be in the fields in 90 degree heat.”
Most winery owners continue to have day jobs as cellar masters and vineyard managers, or in related businesses. Some are lawyers practicing in the wine industry. There is not a lot of profit – just yet.
The wine industry is changing and there is more demand for skilled labor. A recent survey showed that 95 percent of the skilled workers were from Mexico. Fifty-four percent say that Napa County is now their home.
An expert said, “It is about rising expectations, whether it is going into the wine business or owning a garage instead of being a mechanic.”