By Barbara Barrielle
I first heard the concept of “workplace” or “worker” sustainability when interviewing Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello and Lytton Springs. Draper has long been known as a leader in sustainability, but I was surprised when he told me the most important part of his approach to sustainability was his workforce.
Draper believes the future of his success lies in keeping his employees and their families happy and healthy. They have health care, housing and access to education, which builds loyalty to Ridge. He introduced me to his vineyard foreman, Rafael Dorado, and a vineyard team member, Ricardo Dorado, both of whom have been with Ridge for more than 40 years. Ricardo’s daughter, Cecilia Aquilar, now works in management for the winery. Ridge paid for her college education as the winery has done for many workers’ children.
And, as Draper explains, having the same core workforce, harvest after harvest, means having people who know his land, soil, climate conditions, growing issues and how to maximize the potential of each vineyard — and, therefore, the wines.
Offer Important Extras
In Carlton, Ore., Ken Wright Cellars has a group of employees that have worked at the winery for more than 20 years, likely due to Wright’s insistence that his team focus on more than just the workplace. In the daily lunch they all share, conversation centers on children, hobbies, travel and challenges outside of the winery. It’s not a small operation, and yet Wright’s wife, Karen, prepared the shared meal for the first 15 for years; now local restaurants provide the fare.
Wright also adheres to the principle of self-care. The winery pays for the full health care and deductibles for all of its employees and insists each one take five weeks of vacation yearly, as is the norm in Europe. “It’s important to me, after a rigorous harvest and long days of open houses, that my employees recharge,” says Wright. “After a huge party complete with oysters, foie gras and king crab legs, I close the winery down for two weeks over the holidays. I’m the only one who checks in on things during that time.”
Sarah Pearson, CEO at Dobbes Family Estate and Wine By Joe in Dundee, Ore., leads a growing company of forward thinkers. “We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this year with the mantra ‘People, Purpose and Progress,’” she says. “We’re building a positive work culture that celebrates each individual while we learn and develop together. We focus on guiding our employees through very clear development plans every year, and offer learning opportunities — including competitive tastings, WSET and college courses. We also have social opportunities, like our internal happy hour; it’s themed ‘So You Don’t Have To,’ and seasoned employees share one of their passions, or mistakes, to teach the team.”
At Adelaida Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in Paso Robles, Calif., CEO Jude Radeski has many employees who have easily passed the 20-year mark. “Since we aren’t the largest of wineries, I suspect our wage rates may not be the highest in the area. Consequently, we look for other ways to retain and develop people,” he says.
“The obvious strategies include offering good benefits for employees and their families, such as company-paid higher education. We encourage people to get advanced certifications as well as continue their formal education in subjects such as accounting or farming techniques.” Radeski also leads weekly meetings for departments to discuss their issues, and rotates employees to pour wine at off-site events so everyone represents the winery to the public.
In Sonoma County, Calif., Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse has a dual role leading both the organization and its attached nonprofit foundation, which seeks to have its finger on the pulse of vineyard labor concerns and solutions.
“As part of the region’s sustainability commitment, growers consider [employee] support in areas that range from workforce housing and training to projects as innovative as building a baseball field for their workforce to have a weekend league or co-owning homes and vineyards with their employees,” says Kruse. “I’ve even seen solutions like building onsite laundry facilities at a ranch, once the farmers learned that laundromats were a critical location for how COVID was spreading among the Latinx population.”
Kruse then referred to a new group, called Sonoma WISE, that’s attempting to thwart claims by activists that winery workers are mistreated. “Sonoma County Winegrowers is actually a Commission. Our role is to do marketing and promotion for our local specialty crop farmers [grape growers], so we are not authorized to engage with social activist groups and the false claims they are making,” says Kruse.
“Sonoma WISE, which is a coalition of Sonoma County’s wine community, is taking on that task. It’s supported by winegrape growers, vineyard employees, wineries, the local hospitality industry, the local business community, area nonprofits and the public.” (For more information about Sonoma WISE, contact John Segale, [email protected].)
Ensuring a safe and secure working environment, including workers’ families in the possibilities, and offering advancement opportunities all add to a winery’s appeal as an employer. As the wine industry continues to move toward sustainability in all its forms, treating workers with respect and honoring their humanity will lead to company loyalty and pride in a job well done.