October 1, 2022

The wine garden that feeds migrant wine workers

Nestled in the Eastern Vaca Mountains of Napa Valley is a historic 1,682-acre property where grapes are grown for some of Napa’s most renowned wineries. The estate’s 230 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards are undoubtedly important to the region’s wine industry, particularly to the Somerston Estate and Priest Ranch wines that are produced on site. But Napa would be even more destitute without the skilled migrant workers tending and tending to its vineyards – something that is never forgotten by the team at Somerston Estate.

“In our industry, we rely on so many different people that we tend to forget. Some of the most fundamental people who really let us do what we do,” says Craig Becker, General Manager and Winemaking Director of Somerton Estate. He specifically refers to the estate’s permanent crew of approximately 24 vineyard workers, all of whom are legal immigrants from Mexico who have been in the United States for more than 20 years, and their annual band of H-2A workers. .

In recent years, more attention has been paid to the often overlooked but incredibly important skilled farm workers who make California’s agricultural industry possible. And yet, 20% of agricultural workers have family incomes below the poverty line, according to the most recent national agricultural worker surveyand 44 percent of all migrant workers still live below the federal poverty level.

Somerston Estate is one of many farms and wineries focused on improving the working conditions and quality of life for its skilled workers. It starts with paying them a living wage, which is rare but crucial. In California, the average team of vineyard workers is paid at a certain rate per ton of grapes picked. Depending on the crew and the grapes available to harvest, this can be between $11 and $24 per hour, according to the statistics brought together by Napa Valley Vintners. At Somerston Estate, however, workers are paid a fixed hourly rate, which means they are as much appreciated in years when forest fires or other environmental problems reduce crop yields as when the vineyards produce a bountiful harvest. “The cheapest workers make $24 an hour,” says Becker.

Housing for migrant workers in Napa Valley is particularly expensive and limited, which the estate is also seeking to remedy for its workers by building their own housing complex near the property. “[Migrant workers] end up in a place like Fairfield, California, which, there’s nothing wrong with Fairfield, California, but it’s not a Mexican plantation. It’s not a farm in the Mexican countryside, where these people are from,” says Becker. “They all tend to live in, you know, two- to three-story apartments, because it’s very expensive. And the majority of apartments don’t actually have a community garden.

As a small way to honor its winemakers, Somerston Estate dedicates a plot of land to them to garden on, where they can grow and harvest fruits and vegetables to feed their families. “It’s all about the employees,” says Becker. “Choose it from the tree and it’s yours.”

Beyond being a food source, Becker says the garden also presents an opportunity for migrant workers to connect with the life they left behind in their home countries. “The journey and the sacrifices these people have made in the hope of building a better life on this side of the border is truly remarkable…and the majority, if not all, of our legal migrant workers grew up in a farm,” he said. “Agriculture is in the blood of these people. That’s what they do.”

Farmworkers started the half-acre garden on the Somerston Estate property about 10 years ago, and it has grown and evolved ever since. Today, it is largely run by longtime employee and irrigation manager Jose Carmelo Leon, known to colleagues as Carmelo. “[The workers] come to work in the garden during their lunch hour and after work, and it’s really remarkable,” says Becker. “You can see their joy as they harvest and share their spoils with the rest of the company, including H-2A workers.”

This year, the small but mighty garden is filled with jalapeños, serranos, corn, onions and tomatillos, as well as watermelon, strawberries and mango. There are also rows of squash, tomatoes, eggplants and an abundance of herbs. A small orchard is planted with peach, pear and Asian pear trees.

“We’re not unique… There are a lot of farms and vineyards that have places where workers can do what they’re used to doing,” says Becker. “You have these incredible workers who have given up what they consider to be their foundation, their farm, their way of life, to come here and try to do something better for their families. To be able to provide a little window into their past life, I mean how could you not? »