Though the 2020 growing season enjoyed near-perfect growing conditions, a mid-August lightning storm during a global pandemic resulted in a dramatic turn for Sonoma County’s winegrapes and a financial blow to the region just as it has with other wine regions across California.
“No one could have predicted how the external events of 2020 would impact the entire community in Sonoma County including growers, vintners, workers, local hotels, restaurants, stores, suppliers and, ultimately, local residents,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. She added, “We estimate between 25% – 30% of the Sonoma County winegrape harvest will go unpicked due to the pandemic and fires. We are also still waiting to learn what wines will be made this year. So far, we have identified approximately a $150,000,000 loss to growers which will have a ripple effect on the County’s local wine and tourism industries which can contribute up to $13.4 billion annually to the local economy in a normal year.”
Given the extensive national media focus on wine country in recent months, Sonoma County Winegrowers sought accurate data to determine the state of the winegrowing community and the effect on the 2020 harvest season. The organization just completed a survey of its growers and released the results today. Among the key findings:
- More than 70% of all winegrape growers in Sonoma County anticipate having at least some grapes that will go unpicked or be rejected by wineries due to the wildfires.
- Grape growers estimate that the total tonnage of unpicked grapes due to marketplace dynamics, COVID’s impact on local wineries and tourism, and the fires will exceed 50,000 tons, this is on a lower than average base of 180,000 tons due to the anticipated lighter crop this season.
- The estimated crop value for winegrapes that were not harvested equates to approximately $151,657,081
In addition to the financial losses from this year’s wildfires, growing winegrapes in Sonoma County in recent years has been physically and mentally hard on growers, vineyard workers and their families.
“One of the bright spots in a dismal year has been the recent efforts of our winegrowers to transform their businesses to prepare for an ever-changing future,” said Kruse. She added, “Following the fires in 2017, the grower community set out to adopt a new approach to doing business which included hiring more full-time employees to secure a stable, talented workforce.”
After a decade of labor shortages and losing additional employees to jobs in construction and an emerging cannabis industry, local winegrape growers began shifting away from relying on seasonal vineyard workers to hiring full-time employees which eliminated the need to constantly attract and secure new seasonal workers each year. Today, more than 80% of local vineyard workers in Sonoma County are full-time which is almost a 20 percent increase since 2017.
Full-time employement provides a level of permanency for workers and their families enabling them to establish roots in the community while securing a skilled, knowlegeable workforce for employers in the future.
According to the grower survey:
- Today, more than 80% of local vineyard workers in Sonoma County are full-time which is nearly a 20 percent increase since 2017.
- Women now account for 20% of the local vineyard workforce.
- The average hourly rate of pay for Sonoma County vineyard workers is $19.87 per hour. The average hourly wage has increased $3.13 per hour since 2017.
- During the same period, the shift to full-time employment has led to a decrease in the seasonal workforce by approximately 50 percent, mechanized harvesting is now done on 30% of the vineyard acres in Sonoma County and participation in the H-2A Guest Worker Program continues to grow.
- In Sonoma County, just 5.6% of the region’s Latinx population are employed as vineyard workers.
This year can certainly be defined as challenging for the region. Fortunately, as a result of the early harvest, more than 15% of the winegrapes had been picked before the LNU complex fires began and 90% had been harvested by the start of the “Glass Fire” which was the year’s third major wildfire in Sonoma County. Once again, many winegrape growers, vineyard workers and their families in Sonoma County were forced to evacuate their homes and ranches. In response, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation reopened its Resiliency Fund in August to raise money to support local farmworkers who may have been impacted through evacuations or loss of work.
Through the Resiliency Fund nearly $100,000 in financial assistance has been provided to more than 200 farmworkers and their families who lost their homes or were forced to evacuate from the fires this year. Another 40 farmworkers and their families who were negatively impacted by COVID-19 also received financial assistance from the fund. Since 2017, the Foundation has supported over 1,500 local farmworkers and provided $1.3 million in direct financial assistance.
Additionally, throughout the year, the Foundation has been leading the charge to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. It distributed more than 14,000 masks to local grape growers for their employees. It also produced videos in Spanish to assist with the communication and understanding of COVID-19 and best practices on how to stay safe. The videos were used for a social media campaigns and advertising directed at the Latinx community.
Looking ahead, top concerns for Sonoma County winegrowers are wanting more research on the impacts of smoke; access to rapid testing to measure smoke exposure; and, a dedicated effort to clean up dead trees and brush in forests and woodlands to prevent or slow the spread of fires. Most of all, Sonoma County winegrowers await the opportunity to share their wine and region with neighbors and visitors in the months ahead.
“We are grateful for the resolve of Sonoma County winegrowers who remain committed to their vineyards and employees. The best way to support our growers, workers, families, and community is to purchase Sonoma County wine whenever possible, and especially cherish wines from the 2020 vintage. They will be hard earned and well loved” said Kruse. She added, “While there will be a 2020 Sonoma County vintage, we are hoping for a long, boring 2021 season.”
For more information about the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, visit: https://www.scggf.org/