Advancing Latinx in Wine

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By Sandra Taylor

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Sustainability rests on three pillars: people, planet and profit. All too often sustainability is simply equated with environmental stewardship. Environmental responsibility has been a growing focal point in the wine industry over the last few years, yet a focus on social responsibility, racial injustice, and racial inequities in the wine industry is not so apparent.  Growers and winemakers see commitments to climate action as a critical strategic priority, but many are slow to recognize social justice as a critical risk factor. My upcoming book will help consumers understand why and how they should consider people –social equity, diversity, community connections and treatment of workers–  in their wine purchases.

Hispanic Heritage Month, an American celebration of culture, food, music, and diverse heritage, from September 15th through October 15th, prompted me to think about how critical Latin American workers are to the wine industry. As of 2023, Hispanics make up almost 20% of the United States, with California as the state with the highest Hispanic population (US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, nd). Yet, leadership and front-of-house staff in California wineries do not reflect this. In wine regions of the Pacific Northwest, the situation is quite similar. 

After Trump-era immigration crackdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic, the workforce of migrant workers from Mexico and Central America in the wine industry is dwindling. The declining labor shortage is putting more pressure on remaining workers– who are already underinsured and at major health risks (from heat stress, to asthma caused by mite exposure [Youakim, 2006], to the impacts of repeated exposure to harmful pesticides). Seasonal workers, or H-2A workers, see only the basic labor protections from exploitation (that often go unenforced)—and workers are less likely to report abuses due to fear of losing work in following seasons (National Farm Worker Ministry, 2020).

So how can we support our farm workers?
Consumers need to buy from vineyards and wineries that are stressing social responsibility! 

ONE: Vineyards must provide stable work environments and benefits for seasonal and full-time employees. This includes ensuring workers have a living wage, trainings in their own language, protective spraying equipment, transportation, housing and community resources (language classes, health providers, documents in their own language, union-organizing). For example, Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle employs over 100 unionized agricultural and cellar workers providing health insurance and paid time off, as well as opportunities for professional growth (Marley, 2023). Vineyards should also create substantial professional development opportunities, and ongoing relationships with workers. Founder Tom, of Stolpman Vineyards decided to employ vineyard workers year-round; this way the team members had steady work, a career, and could raise their families locally, with security. An impressive training program empowering vineyard workers to be the farmer (engaging with the full life cycle of their work) allows each crew member to manage and own a small vineyard block. The profit made from that blended wine is returned to the crew members a few years later, in the form of weekly and annual bonuses.  

TWO: To sustainably and ethically rely on Latinx workers, there needs to be an awareness and effort in making these predominantly white and high-socioeconomic spaces more inclusive and opportunistic. Vineyards and wineries should implement cultural competency/DEI training for all staff and incentivize employee development for Latinx workers. This is especially important, as much of the back-breaking labor is being replaced by machinery. Training agricultural workers in operating machinery and technology –used in agriculture, winemaking, bottling, supply chain, logistics, even hospitality software– not only increases productivity but creates more opportunities for the industry’s growth, especially in a labor shortage. I applaud those wineries that hire Latinx workers year round, creating opportunities to learn other aspects of the business, when vines are dormant and vineyard work less demanding.

On that note, we should be seeking out wineries that employ Latino workers in front-of-house, consumer-facing and managerial/ownership positions. If most people of color employed at wineries/vineyards are back-of-house, it is not an inclusive environment! That is not to say that all Latinos in wine work in back-of-house; Jesse Rodriguez was Head Sommelier at The French Laundry when the team won their first Three Michelin Star rating. In 2005, Edgar Torres became the first Mexican American vintner in Paso Robles. Training workers in food and wine sales, bartending, and customer service opens doors for not only more roles, but more vertical movement and management opportunities. Some Mexican families have gone from farm labor to vineyard and winery ownership, and are part of the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA). This includes the Ceja Family and Robledo Family Winery– the latter of which created a brand called Los Braceros as an homage to farmworkers under migrant labor laws (Ornelas-Higdon, 2021). Other Mexican-Americans have become managers or winemakers for notable vineyards, but these examples are outside the norm.

Initiatives in the Industry

Organizations such as AHIVOY in Oregon provide trainings, educational material, and resources for Latinx vineyard workers in the Willamette Valley. Cristina Gonzales, a board member of AHIVOY, and founder and CEO of Gonzales Wine Company, committed her career and wine making to improving the welfare and empowering of vineyard workers. The Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation promotes education and professional development for vineyard workers through safety, leadership & management, and mentorship programming. Additionally, the Foundation provides immigrant resources, English and financial literacy programming, and cultural events.

Social organizations, such as Hispanics in Wine, implement initiatives aimed at advancing Latinx wine professionals and increasing equity and inclusion in all components of the wine industry. One such focus is on increasing outreach and access for Spanish speaking wine markets. A past blog post addressed the potential of purchasing power of African Americans– a missed opportunity for the wine industry. Well, Latinx buying power was estimated to top $1.9 trillion this past 2021 (DeSimone and Jenssen).

THREE: From planting the vines, to the back-of-house staff, to driving the trucks transporting the wine, workers of Latin American heritage often face racial discrimination. Using lessons from past blog posts on this site, we need to examine our own subconscious prejudices, and create spaces and opportunities for growth. Implicit biases do not emerge in a vacuum but reflect our daily exposure to an environment of racism. If we desire a more equitable society, we need to not only address the biases we hold inside, but also the system under which these biases were formed. Ask yourself: What is my perception of migrant workers? What about Hispanic workers in other spaces in the wine industry? These employees are here for a reason; their trauma and stories are not your business, and not to be pitied.

This month, we are honoring the Hispanic workers who do much of the invisible, back-breaking labor inherent in each glass of wine. It is essential that we focus on social responsibility, racial injustice, and racial inequities in the wine industry. What better time to explore this topic, than Hispanic Heritage month? Stay tuned for my upcoming book to learn more about how you can explore social sustainability in your wine purchases.

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